When I was just a young man coming of age in Greenwich Village, Marsha P. Johnson taught me what it meant to be gay.
Marsha was an unapologetic activist who, along with Sylvia Rivera, led the ’69 Stonewall Rebellion in New York City that gave birth to the modern LGBT movement. She and Sylvia also founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a group providing a much-needed political voice as well as housing and support services for low-income lesbians, gay men, and trans people of color.
In addition to her many sociopolitical roles, Marsha was also simply my friend. When I came out as a gay man in 1983 at 20 years old, Marsha provided a place for me to stay and a nurturing friendship which lasted for the rest of her life.
Every year, she and I marched together in NYC’s Gay Pride March with the Lesbian and Gay Caucus, a group I led at the time. But by the 1980s, the gay movement had abandoned the “drag queens,” “bull-dykes” and “transvestites” that led the Stonewall Rebellion for a strategy to blend in with the heterosexual, cisgender, white society that continued to oppress us. This truth became especially evident one year when Marsha showed up to march in a gold lame dress with a gold matching hat to march ― and was told by the cisgender parade organizers to go to the back.
Instead of fighting with the organizers, to the back we went ― because Marsha had a plan. As we marched along 5th Avenue, she invited everyone watching the parade to join in behind us. By the time we got to Christopher Street, tens of thousands of people were marching behind us, cheering in defiance of the parade organizers. It was this welcoming yet radical spirit that made her the leader we still recognize today.
Off the streets, Marsha was the kindest person I’ve ever known, always taking time to give food to a homeless person or shelter to runaway youth. Her warmth and empathy taken in tandem with her activism is a testament to the reality that trans women of color have always led the LGBT movement ― in both community building and political work. At the time, she was rejected by a gay establishment who saw her and the people she represented as a hindrance to acceptance. But she wanted liberation ― not acceptance ― so she never backed down. That is why we loved her.
And then, Marsha was killed. Her body was found in Greenwich Village in 1992. Her murder remains unsolved.
Today, as we celebrate Marsha’s life, we must never forget that it was the “transvestites,” “bull-dykes” and “drag queens” who fueled the LGBT movement. Our progress didn’t happen in corporate board rooms or political backrooms. It happened on the street. And while we’ve gained a tremendous amount in the struggle for LGBT rights in America, it is on the backs of pioneers like Marsha that we stand tall today.
Even as LGBT folks advance in society and have increasing access to capital and power, we must fight against the urge to be those parade organizers, forcing the most marginalized among us to the back. As the leader of a large public health center network, I have far more influence than I could have imagined as that shy 20 year old, still unsure of my own identity. I’ve certainly made mistakes by overlooking that privilege. But as members of the LGBT community, we must all stay true to our history’s roots by taking the interests and concerns of our brothers and sisters into account when mainstream society fails to do so ― just as Marsha did all those years ago.
It was in honor of Marsha’s memory that I created a trans-specific health program that has grown to serve over 2,000 individuals in South Los Angeles. The Transgender Health Program (THP) at St. John’s Well Child and Family Center is led and staffed by trans people of color and serves primarily uninsured or underinsured trans people of color. We provide services like primary care, hormone therapy, and health care to everyone who walks through our doors regardless of their ability to pay, and continue to grow every year.
Last week, the THP celebrated the lives and contributions of trans folks at the St. John’s TransNation festival. The week’s events included a film festival and “Eleganza,” a gala hosted by Candice Cayne and Laith Ashley that honored trailblazers in the transgender community ― namely Jazzmun Nichcala Crayton and the THP staff. In addition to special guest presenter Laverne Cox, the evening featured performances from Gia Bank, Miss Peppermint, Shea Diamond and DJ JD Sampson. Proceeds from the festival will help fund the THP’s work to continue providing primary medical, dental and behavioral health care, as well as socioeconomic, legal and advocacy support services to one of the largest populations of transgender patients in the country.
Taken as a whole, TransNation was a beautiful example of trans people coming together in community, both to celebrate their identities and to show their allies and mainstream society what it really means to be liberated.
Thank you, Marsha, for giving me the support I needed to live as a proud gay man today. As we move forward, we must never forget where the LGBT movement is rooted ― because for the progress we’ve made today, we all have Marsha P. Johnson to thank.