Marsha P. Johnson
TW: transphobia, discussion of AIDS, reference to suicide/suicidal ideation and death.
Artist: Kendrick Daye. Source: https://marshap.org/about-mpji/
Born on August 24th, 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, USA, Marsha was an African American transgender woman from a working-class family who moved to New York at the age of 17 to escape the discrimination she endured as a queer person in her home community. The term transgender only came into common use after her death and she self-described as transvestite, drag queen, and gay. She chose the name Marsha P. Johnson after arriving in New York, stating that the ‘P.’ stood for ‘Pay it no mind’, a quip she would use when people asked her about her gender.
Marsha was instrumental in the Stonewall Riots, along with Sylvia Rivera (below), which took place at the Stonewall Inn on June 28th 1969 against a police raid. The riots arose because police often targeted queer spaces. The Stonewall Riots hold significance because they galvanised the gay rights movement in America, with the first Pride Parade taking place the following year in 1970 and several gay rights groups emerging throughout the 1970s. It must be acknowledged that many of these excluded trans and LGBTQ+ people of colour, who were the very people who had paved the way for these groups to exist.
Marsha founded, alongside Rivera, STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), a shelter for young trans people who had been ostracised from their families. Starting out in a van, the pair eventually secured a building that became STAR House, a permanent place for LGBTQ+ youth to stay, although the original site only lasted eight months as it kept being shut down.
Her community care also extended to street activism with the AIDS activist group ACT UP, as well as sitting with those ill and dying from AIDS. Marsha herself was HIV-positive. She died in 1992, her body found floating in the Hudson River. This was initially ruled as suicide, but her friends suspected foul play, as though Marsha’s mental state had been fragile for some time before her death, they said that there had been no sign of suicidal ideation.
Marsha is remembered as a visible and prominent member of the gay rights movement, who wanted “to see gay people liberated and free and to have equal rights that other people have in America”. Both her and Rivera are the subject of a monument in Christopher Park, New York City – the first in the city to honour transgender women – which is situated close to the Stonewall Inn. This is currently installed without official permission, placed there by guerrilla artists tired of waiting on city officials to install a monument promised four years ago. Her legacy and influence lives on through organisations such as the Marsha P. Johnson Institute created by Elle Moxley, designed to “protect[s] and defend[s] the human rights of Black transgender people”.
“You never completely have your rights, one person, until you all have your rights.”
Sylvia Rivera was born in 1951 in New York, USA. She was a transgender, Latina-American woman who was a close friend of Marsha P. Johnson’s, who she met in 1963 at the age of 11 after running away from home.
Like Johnson, Sylvia was involved in the Stonewall uprising, where she rebuffed and led a series of protests against the police raid. She was also excluded from the gay rights movement and discouraged from participating in the pride parades. When in 1973, she was allowed to participate but not speak, she protested by grabbing a mic and saying “If it wasn’t for the drag queen, there would be no gay liberation movement”. She was eventually given a place of honour in the 25th Anniversary Stonewall Inn March in 1994.
Alongside Johnson, Sylvia established the STAR project, as well as fighting against the exclusion of trans people from the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act in New York: a bill that would not be passed until 2002, the year Rivera died of liver cancer, aged 50.
Rivera is included in the guerrilla artist installation in Christopher Park, New York, alongside Johnson, and there is also an intersection in New York named the ‘Sylvia Rivera Way’ in her honour. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project continues her legacy, an organisation which seeks to improve access to affirming health, legal, and social services for the transgender community.
“We have to be visible. We are not ashamed of who we are.”
Anne Lister, born in Market Weighton, Yorkshire, UK on 3rd April 1791, was many things in her relatively short life: a landowner, businesswoman, traveller, and diarist. She is most known, however, for her diaries that provided concrete proof of historical homosexuality, leading her to be dubbed ‘the first modern lesbian’. Whilst this claim centres a Western perspective on non-heteronormativity, it can certainly be said that her diaries are unique in the vast wealth of information they hold about lesbian sexuality and relationships during this time period.
Anne wrote some 4 to 5 million words across 26 volumes between the ages of 15 and 49, of which a sixth was written in, what she believed was impenetrable, code, where she documented in detail her relationships and sexual encounters with women. Anne’s first relationship was at boarding school at the age of 15, and she would go on to take many women lovers throughout her life.
Her life was also one of bucking expected gender norms for women at that time, as she chose to dress in what was considered a masculine fashion and always wore black, as well as travelling alone, educating herself in politics and science, managing her own estate, being an astute and confident businesswoman, and holding staunch political views, even if she wasn’t allowed to vote. Her attire, behaviour and closeness with women caused a stir during her life and she would become known by the nickname ‘Gentleman Jack’ after her death, a phrase that was a slur against lesbians.
Despite the vitriol and suspicion of others, Anne remained authentic to herself her entire life. She desired only women and wished for a wife with whom she might live in a domestic partnership. As same-sex marriage was out of the question, Anne saw that taking communion together and exchanging rings in church could be her way of marrying. She was eventually able to do this with Ann Walker, a local wealthy woman with whom she formed a close attachment in her early forties who eventually moved in with her on her estate, Shibden Hall.
Their union lasted only six years, as Anne Lister died at the age of 49 of a fever whilst travelling with Ann. Her legacy would have been all but forgotten had Ann Walker not ensured her diaries were safely returned to Shibden. There they remained until discovered in the 1890s by a relative of Anne Lister’s, John Lister. John Lister was able to decode the diaries, and upon discovering the content, he hid them. They were eventually rediscovered by Helena Whitbread, who decoded the diaries and published several books about Anne so that her story would be remembered.
Anne’s legacy as a revolutionary of her time – bold, fearless, independent, desperately intelligent, and unapologetically lesbian – and the unwavering courage of both her and Ann Walker is remembered in several novels written about her life, as well as in the TV drama ‘Gentleman Jack’ written by Sally Wainwright.
“I love, and only love, the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.”
Marsha P. Johnson:
Cohen, R., (2021), Guerrilla memorial is NYC’s first statue of a trans person. Washington Square News. URL: https://nyunews.com/news/2021/09/20/marsha-p-johnson-nyc-first-statue-of-a-trans-person/. [Accessed 14/02/2023].
Devaney, S., (2020), Marsha P Johnson’s Activism Matters Now More than Ever, Vogue UK. URL: https://www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/article/who-was-marsha-p-johnson. [Accessed 15/02/2023].
The Marsha P. Johnson Institute (2019), About Marsha P. Johnson, The Marsha P. Johnson Institute. URL: https://marshap.org/about-mpji/. [Accessed 15/02/2023].
Rothberg, E., (2022), Marsha P. Johnson. National Women’s History Museum. URL: www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/marsha-p-johnson. [Accessed 14/02/2023].
Devaney, S., (2020), Who Was Sylvia Rivera? Marsha P. Johnson’s Best Friend Was A Fellow Pioneer. Vouge, UK. URL: https://www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/article/who-was-sylvia-rivera. [Accessed 15/02/2023].
Rothberg, E., (2021), Sylvia Rivera. National Women’s History Museum. URL: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/sylvia-rivera. [Accessed 14/02/2023].
Sylvia Rivera Law Project, (2023), About SRLP. Sylvia Rivera Law Project. URL: https://srlp.org/about/. [Accessed 15/02/2023].
Annelister.co.uk, (2023), Anne’s story. Available at: URL https://www.annelister.co.uk/. [Accessed 16/02/2023].
Annelister.co.uk, (2023), Anne’s lovers. Available at: URL https://www.annelister.co.uk/annes-lovers/. [Accessed 18/02/2023].
Annelister.co.uk, (2023), Helena’s story. Available at: URL https://www.annelister.co.uk/about-helena-whitbread/. [Accessed 18/02/2023].
Calderdale Museums, (2023), Anne Lister. Available at: URL https://museums.calderdale.gov.uk/famous-figures/anne-lister. [Accessed 17/02/2023].
Choma, A., (2019), Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister. BBC Books.
Historic England, (2023), Anne Lister and Shibden Hall. Available at: URL https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/lgbtq-heritage-project/love-and-intimacy/anne-lister-and-shibden-hall/. [Accessed 17/02/2023].