Pride is freedom and liberation

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Statue of Marsha P. Johnson in Christopher Park in New York City
Statue of Marsha P. Johnson in Christopher Park in New York City

When I asked Poet, an LGBTQ person from the tri-state area, what New Jersey-born Marsha P. Johnson means to them, they said “freedom.” Poet didn’t elaborate on “freedom,” so I decided to elaborate on the word as freedom and liberation applies to Johnson’s legacy.

Even so, what do both “freedom” and “liberation” in LGBTQ Pride look like?

To start, the legacy of Marsha P. Johnson in Pride is interesting. The LGBTQ activist’s role in the Stonewall riots have been inaccurately defined for decades. People still believe she “threw the first brick,” but this isn’t true to history. In fact, Johnson is known to not have shown up until after the riot began. However, she was there, as was her well-known partner in organizing Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), Sylvia Rivera.

Johnson and Rivera are said to have arrived at Stonewall around 2 a.m., and Johnson explains in a later interview with writer Eric Marcus, “the place was already on fire, and there was a raid already. The riots had already started.” Cops harassing LGBTQ patrons of Stonewall is what started the riot.

While Johnson and Rivera had a long history together, they also revolutionized LGBTQ rights for generations to come. They’re known not for their polite activism, but for fearless activism.

Johnson was born in Elizabeth, on Aug. 24, 1945. She often says that she grew into drag, which is what possibly led to her realization as a woman. Although Johnson didn’t identify as transgender — which was an uncommon term for her time — she did use she/her pronouns, identified as gay, and eventually identified herself as a “transvestite.”

“I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville until I became a drag queen. That’s what made me in New York, that’s what made me in New Jersey, that’s what made me in the world,” said Johnson in a 1992 interview.

STAR was an organization founded by Johnson and Rivera in 1970 that housed and fed homeless LGBTQ youth. In the same year, the first Gay Pride Parade took place and a series of gay rights groups emerged around this time too. Some of these groups included the Gay Liberation Front, a more radical organization, and the Gay Activist Alliance, a more moderate group. Johnson was involved with both early on, but grew frustrated by the exclusion of transgender and LGBTQ people of color from the movement, according to the National Women’s History Museum. Rivera, a first-generation Puerto Rican transgender woman born in New York in 1951, was right there along with her.

“You tell me to go and hide my tail between my legs. I will not put up with this shit. I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation, and you all treat me this way? What the fuck’s wrong with you all? Think about that!

“I do not believe in a revolution, but you all do? I believe in the gay power. I believe in us getting our rights, or else I would not be out there fighting for our rights. That’s all I wanted to say to you people. If you all want to know about the people in jail and do not forget Bambi L’amour, and Dora Mark, Kenny Metzner, and other gay people in jail, come and see the people at STAR House on Twelfth Street, on 640 East Twelfth Street between B and C apartment 14,” Rivera protested in 1973 at white lesbian and gay people booing her on stage.

This frustration, and the anti-trans and racist boos, continue to burden black and brown transgender women and all LGBTQ people today.
For this reason, I often wonder how elite LGBTQ organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and GLSEN would treat the saints of the radical LGBTQ movement if they were alive today.

Johnson was murdered in 1992, although — like Nex Benedict — her death was wrongfully concluded by the NYPD as a suicide. However, Rivera died 10 years later from stomach cancer, and she was still homeless.

Rivera and other houseless people built encampments at Pier 57, much like a house or an apartment complex, in the Meatpacking District. Being homeless or houseless has tremendous barriers in New York and New Jersey, with campsites being largely frowned upon in both states. But Rivera’s and other’s encampments were permanent structures, unlike encampments students in Ivy League college campuses are building today in solidarity with Palestine. I bring this up to acknowledge that police militarization around homeless sites has always been brutal. But many students at elite universities are experiencing this brutality for the first time. Students are building tent encampments in protest of their universities’ investment in Israel and protesting for divestment in the colonial settler nation because of their incursion in Gaza.

The reason this is important is because we must look at the “politics of location” as digested by Adrienne Rich in “Notes toward a Politics of Location,” in Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose. “Wherever people are struggling against subjection, the specific subjection of women, through our location in the female body from now on has to be addressed,” writes Rich.

Although Rich was speaking about women in this instance, we can apply her logic to most living under global subjection from Palestine to New York City to Mexico to Sudan to Congo to Tibet and the Uyghurs.

For instance, Pier 57 was well known to people in the Meatpacking District as a place for refuge, community, and work. For everywhere else those three human necessities were outlawed for transgender women, never mind being a Columbia University student.

Once New York’s mayors Rudy Giuliani’s and Michael Bloomberg’s terms came and went in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, so did oppressive “law and order” policies, which targeted sex workers. When Bloomberg succeeded Giuliani in 2002 he implemented “Operation Searchlight,” a “three strikes” rule. This meant that offenders after a third arrest could be sent to New York prisons with harsher sentences. Bloomberg sacrificed people already systemically abandoned by society’s status quo for gentrification projects that included an elite takeover of Pier 57, The Meatpacking District, and The Village.

Downtown has never been the same.

This societal abandonment, eventually leading to gentrification, is what led (and leads) so many to sex work. Many transgender people cannot get jobs because of anti-trans legislation and public perception. People also couldn’t change their identification papers to reflect their gender. Communities often had to pick between cosplaying straight, cisgender heteronormative lives, or commit themselves to who they really were. Oftentimes, society wasn’t so kind to self-actualization.

Today, eight states and two U.S. territories have laws regulating changes to a person’s gender marker through proof of surgery, while two states completely outlaw changes to gender markers. Four states have unknown policies for gender marker changes, according to the Movement Advancement Project.

Nevertheless, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson chose to be who they were. The once societally abandoned place, reclaimed as Rivera’s home, was a refuge that suddenly became colonized with an elitist rebrand. This government-sanctioned takeover is brilliantly portrayed in the documentary The Stroll by Kristen Lovell.

Today, I believe Johnson and Rivera would show their pride not in celebration. I don’t believe they would march with cops down to Christopher Street back to Stonewall in the Pride Parade. I think they would call out and boycott mainstream, elite LGBTQ organizations for failing to lead the end of LGBTQ homelessness, poverty, racism, and transgender violence. They would be going to every single school board meeting affecting LGBTQ youth today in Fort Lee, Colts Neck, Freehold, Howell, Old Bridge, North Hunterdon-Voorhees, and New York City’s Community Education Council District 2. They would be denouncing the harm school boards are causing youth, and they would denounce genocide in Congo, Palestine, Tibet, northern China, and Sudan.

“No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us,” Johnson was once quoted saying.

Regardless of a state’s progressive or conservative makeup, transgender equality is still very much under attack by Christian nationalism. Imara Jones, founder of TransLash Media, does extensive investigative journalism on the way Christian nationalism, or dominionism, is leading the world of LGBTQ people back into the closets of fascism.

That’s why, if Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were alive today, they would join Qween Jean in feeding the neighborhood at the Black Trans Liberation Kitchen, they would travel to school board meetings with Say Gay NJ and Flemington QTs. They would be at the forefront of the Queer March that parallels NYC Pride in protest and in condemnation of what NYC Pride has become.

The legacy of Johnson and Rivera was always to fight for the people.

“I’ll always be known [for] reaching out to young people who have no one to help them out, so I help them out with a place to stay or some food to eat or some change for their pocket. And they never forget it. A lot of times I’ve reached my hand out to people in the gay community that just didn’t have nobody to help them when they were down and out,” Johnson said about her legacy.

Lana Leonard
Lana Leonard (they/them) is a graduate from The College of New Jersey with a degree in journalism and professional writing. They work at the GLAAD Media institute and freelance for publications like LGBTQ Nation while working on their journalistic theory of change project: Late Nights with Lana, a talk show based out of 10PRL film studios in Long Branch, NJ. Lana's mission, in all their work, is to focus on people, their collective truths and how those truths form a community of knowledge towards change.