A deeper look into Stonewall: the story of Marsha P Johnson
Stonewall. A word that can mean either a wilful delay or obstruction or the name of a well known LGBT+ rights charity.
Fewer people know that it’s also the name of the New York City bar where it could be argued the fight for modern LGBT+ rights in the US began. Even fewer people know that the famous Stonewall riots that began a series of civil rights movements for LGBT+ people in the US may have been started by a black trans woman.
This is the story of Marsha P Johnson.
Marsha began life as a young Malcolm Michaels born in New Jersey into a Roman Catholic family.
Like many LGBT+ Americans at that time, she moved to New York City, then as now, a far more cosmopolitan place that was more accepting of those that didn’t identify as heterosexual or cisgender.
As many LGBT+ New Yorkers did, she began to frequent the Stonewall Inn, and it’s from here that she began to explore her own gender identity, creating what she termed at the time her ‘Drag Queen identity’ of Marsha P Johnson – the P standing for “pay it no mind” Johnson’s stock retort when people asked her about her gender.
1950s – 1960s
The 1950s and 60s were a hard time for both black people and LGBT+ people, and the civil rights movement was in full swing. Despite this, the legal system still favoured straight, cisgendered and white people and businesses, with many LGBT+ venues facing raids by the police.
The Stonewall Inn had, for some time, been somewhat immune to these types of raids and experienced them far less often than other venues owing, many argue, largely due to the fact that the Mafia owned the bar.
The Night of June 28th 1969
What the police anticipated to be a run-of-the-mill raid rapidly turned into arguably the most important event in the LGBT+ movement in North America.
The raid turned into a riot when police arresting patrons became more aggressive and used batons to subdue those they were arresting.
When the growing crowd outside the bar saw these acts they became angry. Many eyewitnesses claim, Marsha P Johnson was one of the first people to throw things at police, with some eyewitnesses claiming she threw a shot glass and shouted:
“I got my civil rights” – Marsha P Johnson
The raid quickly turned into a riot, which was followed by the following days with larger protests eventually culminating in the formation of Gay Rights activism organisations and bringing the previously largely unheard of quest for Civil Rights for LGBT+ people into wider publicity.
50 years of Black History Month
As such it’s particularly important that we remember Marsha during Black History Month in the year that the UK celebrates 50 years since the partial-legalisation of homosexuality in the UK.
While Marsha was instrumental in the formation of a larger LGBT+ rights movement in the US her contribution to civil rights generally is of incredible importance and on behalf of LGBT+ people everywhere I thank her for her bravery and her commitment to Civil Rights for all.
Find out more:
Netflix is currently showing a very interesting documentary about Marsha P Johnson. The documentary is called ‘The Life and Death of Marsha P Johnson’. It explores the mystery of how Marsha died. The police ruled it a suicide whereas her friends state she was murdered. Directed and written by David France with assistant writer Mark Blane. Stars, Victoria Cruz, Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Michael Baden & Frances Baugh.
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