Never Forget a Black Trans Woman Lit the Fire for LGBTQ+ Rights

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Photo: The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center / Leonard Fink / W+G Creative
Pride was never intended to be a parade. The celebrations today honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprisings, which began when a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar on Christopher Street in New York City's Greenwich Village, sparked six days of revolt. The first pride was a riot. Police raids were a constant at gay bars as laws existed to penalize bars that served alcohol to LGBTQ patrons and those who publicly displayed affection with members of the same sex. The raid on June 28, 1969, was the last straw—the neighborhood began to fight back. Marsha P. Johnson played a key role in the uprising that is now lauded as a pivotal point in the fight for LGBTQ equality. And while Johnson was a brilliant and influential activist, the fact that she was a Black trans woman means that her role in this movement is often diminished or altogether dismissed, explains Elle Hearns, founder of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute.

"Marsha P. Johnson has been a name synonymous with the LGBTQ movement since 1968," says Hearns. "However, on a large scale, she really was never talked about as a Black trans person, or as a Black trans woman. She was just talked about as Marsha, the mother of the LGBTQ movement. And while she is very much so just that, we don't really know too much about what it was like for her to be a part of the liberation movement, and how her own race played a factor in what she was able to achieve and what she wasn't."

Marsha P. Johnson was a self-identified drag queen, survivor, and activist. The "P" stands for "Pay It No Mind," which the Hearns explains is how she responded when people asked her about her gender. Tamara Lee, PhD, JD, a professor at Rutgers University whose work focuses on the intersection of labor and racial justice, says that Johnson would not have identified as transgender only because the word didn't yet exist.

"She's important because of all of the identities that she represents in terms of the lack of justice in American society." —Tamara Lee, PhD, JD

"She's important because of all of the identities that she represents in terms of the lack of justice in American society," says Dr. Lee. " I would say that then and I would say it now. And I think that there's definitely some overlap in what we see in terms of the sort of political unrest about the injustice that's going on right now. She was Black and queer and non-conforming. And that at that period in time to be in those groups was to be less than human."

Johnson was always a huge supporter of her community. She worked closely with her friend Sylvia Rivera, a Latina trans woman who was also a pioneer in the LGBTQ liberation movement. The two co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which helped to bring forward the voices of trans and gender non-conforming people of color in New York City and for a short time housed, clothed, and fed them. Johnson was also a vocal AIDS activist.

"Marsha P. Johnson was very concerned about the ways in which the LGBTQ struggles tend to be too focused on gay men, or cis-gendered gay men, or the exclusion of transgender people and other non-gender conforming communities," says Marlon Bailey, PhD, associate professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University. "If it wasn't for people like Marsha P. Johnson, some of the advances that we've made—in terms of recognition, about valuing the contributions of and also [having] an appreciation for the struggles that transgender people of color have had to deal with—if it wasn't for the work that she did back in the day, that those advancements would not have been realized."


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The intersectional oppression experienced by Black LGBTQ people

"In our public discourse, we tend to separate race and gender and sexuality as though people live one of these categories of social life one at a time and not simultaneously," says Dr. Bailey. "And a consequence of that is that we get we tend not to talk about Black people when we talk about LGBTQ. We tend to not talk about the history of Black LGBTQ involvement." When we talk about the Civil Rights Movement, we don't hear Johnson's name. "She has historically occupied this nebulous position and it has been scholars like myself and others who have sought to bring her experiences and her work into focus."

"We tend to separate race and gender and sexuality as though people live one of these categories of social life one at a time and not simultaneously." —Marlon Bailey, PhD

This compartmentalization of intersecting identities that Johnson experienced very much persists today. Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC, a licensed therapist and co-founder of Viva Wellness, say Black LGBTQ individuals can have a difficult time navigating their identities.

"People who are exposed to ongoing racism and discrimination that can lead to an exacerbation of mental health issues," says Caraballo. "It can create mental health conditions, like major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other things. And [it can contribute to] physical medical health issues as well, like hypertension, heart issues, all of these sorts of things have been connected in research to racism and discrimination and prejudice. It's really important that we understand this to be able to talk about how this isn't about black boxes on Instagram. This is actually about people dying—people's health suffering on a daily basis whether there's a trending news story or not."

Black spaces can also be unwelcoming to Black LGBTQ people.

"It's often the case that Black queer people also face discrimination at the hands of Black peers," says Caraballo. "Spaces that have been about black liberation haven't always felt safe for black queer people because of the misogyny, the transphobia, the homophobia, biphobia that can be present in some of those circles."

Transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people are disproportionately subjected to violence and exclusion.

"They're disproportionately poor, disproportionately locked out of the workforce, and disproportionately suffering from health disparities," says Bailey. "Transgender people, particularly transgender women, are disproportionately impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Part of that is due to transphobia in our health system, transphobia in our society, transphobia in the workforce, and transphobia among the police culture. These are three of many consequences of not being recognized and these are three of the kind of conditions that Marsha P. Johnson constantly fought against throughout her life."


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Society still has a long way to go

Johnson's body was pulled from the Hudson River on July 6, 1992. Her death was ruled a suicide, something that many friends and acquaintances questioned. Later that year, the case was reclassified to "drowning from undetermined causes." Authorities agreed to examine her case in 2012, and it remains open.

Twenty-seven transgender and gender non-conforming people were killed in 2019. Nineteen were Black transgender women and one was a Black gender non-conforming person. This year has already seen 16 transgender and gender non-conforming people get killed. Four were Black transgender women and one was a Black transgender man. Their names are Monika Diamond, Nina Pop, Tony McDade, Dominique “Rem'mie” Fells, and Riah Milton.

Hearns founded the Marsha P. Johnson Institute in 2015 after departing the Black Lives Matter Global Network. "It was at a time where we were learning through the internet about the murders of Black trans women," says Hearns. "But those murders were consistently being reported by misgendering the victim and utilizing any type of tactic to blame the women for their murders." The institute works against anti-blackness, provides fellowships and training opportunities to support the leadership development of Black transgender people, and promote policy changes.

By lifting up Johnson and her legacy, Hearns is able to support and celebrate Black trans women.

"No matter how many great things we offer, and no matter how much of ourselves we offer, there will always be an attempt to erase us." —Elle Hearns, founder of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute.

"Even to this day, with all of the work that I did with Black Lives Matter, you don't hear my name in the same ways that you hear a DeRay McKesson or Alicia Garza," says Hearns. "The unfortunate thing about Blacks trans women is that no matter how much we contribute to the world, no matter how many great things we offer, and no matter how much of ourselves we offer, there will always be an attempt to erase us."

Hearns won't allow Johnson to be erased.

"People really think of Marsha as a character and not as someone who was a brilliant thinker. Her outlook on liberation for all people, her organizing strategy, and her understanding of cooptation—all of those things really contribute to the fullness of her brilliance," says Hearns. "It is really important is to celebrate her as a brilliant mind, not just as one who was in eclectic in her dress or in her presentation, but as someone who was brilliant and very clear about what was happening in the world. What's happening now is so much more clear because we had her thinking for us 50 years ago."

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