St. Marsha P. Johnson was a panhandler, a hustler, a drag queen, an activist, and a saint. Born Malcolm Michaels in Elizabeth, New Jersey on August 24, 1945, she was told by her mother on coming out that she was “lower than a dog.” As soon as she graduated high school, she, like other queer youth in 1963, moved to Greenwich Village. She started out waiting tables, but then sought the spotlight of drag performance and soon found herself homeless. On June 28, 1969, she found herself at the center of a pivotal event in gay history: the Stonewall Riots.
Like all hagiographies, the story of Marsha P. is somewhat legendary; it’s unclear what exactly was her role in the riots. Like many of the queer youth with whom she shared the streets, the Stonewall Inn had become a home of sorts. It was the first place many queer kids could openly express their sexuality. In the back room, listening to soul and R&B, they could not only imagine themselves as the characters in the songs seeking intimacy and romance, but they could act on it. They could ask someone to dance, steal a kiss, hold hands. They could be themselves and even find out what that might mean, so people’s identities were forever tied up in the Stonewall. When Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine led the raid on the Stonewall Inn, it threatened to take all that away.
Pine knew pretty quickly that things were not going according to plan.The irony was that he wasn’t initially interested in the queers. The purpose of the raid was to apprehend the mafiosi who ran the place. In fact, the Stonewall, like most other gay bars in Greenwich Village, was the backbone of a criminal extortion ring that targeted wealth gay men who worked on Wall Street. Usually, when a gay bar was raided, everyone cooperated, just trying to go home without further trouble. But on that hot Friday night under a full moon, there was resistance. Specifically, Pine cites some sassy transvestites as troublemakers. That sounds a lot like Marsha P.
Marsha corroborates this account. She says that she threw a shot glass into a mirror behind the bar. It came to be known as “the shot glass heard round the world.” This must have happened before the police tried to exit, which means that it could have been the first real act of resistance. To be fair, it may have happened after or even simultaneously with the resistance of a big, butch lesbian that forced the police to make three tries to get her into a patrol car, even though she was in handcuffs. When the drag queens were paraded out – acting like they were walking the red carpet, by the way – and put in a patrol wagon, the police went back inside, facilitating their escape along with the principal subject, the leader of the extortion ring, Edward “The Skull” Murphy. Murphy snuck off since he was facing much more serious charges, but the queens stuck around.
As tensions rose, it was the most marginalized, the effeminate, homeless street queens, that led the resistance and fought the hardest, such as Marsha and her friends, Jackie Hormona, Zazu Nova, and Sylvia Rivera. They started by throwing coins, then escalated to cobblestones and bricks. Jackie kicked a cop. The police knew they were outnumbered and retreated into the Stonewall, using for their protection the stout door and boarded, blacked out windows installed by the mafia to keep the police out. Some leather boys turned a parking meter into a battering ram while the queens threw Molotov cocktails at the windows. One participant called the smashing of the windows the “lancing of the festering wound of anger at this kind of unfair harassment and prejudice.” The night was filled with both rage and joy.
This is one of Marsha’s miracles. Prior to Stonewall, most queer people tried to stay under the radar. They accepted that they must keep that part of their life and their humanity hidden. But Marsha always was who she was. She was proud of it. Her presence inspired others to be proud of who they were, too. This was the catalyst for the Stonewall Riots: people who refused to continue to deny who they were.
Marsha’s contribution to world would have been significant just from Stonewall. However, once she got a taste of successful resistance, she could not quit. She started by forming Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), originally a caucus of the Gay Liberation Front. It’s purpose to to advocate for and support LGBTQ homeless youth. It’s founders had a unique funding model: Marsha and co-founder Sylvia Rivera hustled so that homeless teens wouldn’t have to. When they had enough funds, they opened STAR House, a shelter for homeless teens and drag queens. When the AIDS crisis struck the gay community, Marsha went to work with ACT UP!
Marsha P. Johnson died July 6, 1992. Her body was found in the Hudson River near the Christopher Street docks, where Marsha spent much of her time. Her death was ruled a suicide, but friends and family members said that she had recently experienced some harassment. It would be unusual for her to drown; she had fallen in before and gotten out on her own. Under pressure, the investigation has been reopened. Perhaps she was a martyr for the cause of being herself.
Her friends remember her as excessively kind and generous, to the point of starving herself to make sure others had something to eat. The also remember has holy; one friend called her a Bodhisattva. Because the canonization of a saint is a recognition of something is already true, it should not surprise us that others saw it, too. The mystics say that to know ourselves is to know God and to know God is to know ourselves. Perhaps the greatest sign of Marsha’s sainthood is her confidence in who she was. She didn’t apologize to her critics or argue with them – she wasn’t known as Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson for nothing! She simply lived her life as best she could, for herself and others, and greeted every day with a smile. May she intercede for us, that we might do the same.