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Stop Erasing Marsha P. Johnson from the Stonewall Uprising

While the Stonewall uprising of 1969 was pivotal in the recent protests for LGBTQ inclusion, justice and equality, there remains an essential aspect of the revolution that must be brought to the center. The unjust raid marked a historic turning point in justice efforts. But our recollection of the world-changing night has fallen victim to the same racist, transphobia it is credited to have rebelled against.

Recently there have been many articles and documentaries on the late Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992), a transgender activist and philanthropist whose risks and contributions sparked a new age of expression. However, the depth and importance of Johnson’s contributions remain in the shadows, as media outlets neglect to contextualize Johnson’s role in the gay liberation movement regarding the nation’s sexist and racist attitudes of the time (which have wavered very little since).

The night of June 28, 1969, should have gone as any other at the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in New York known for its frequent and lavish celebrations. However, the predatory relationship between the club owners and the NYPD’s sixth precinct resulted in staged raids of Stonewall to target LGBTQI persons. With financial incentives, the precinct would tip off management ahead of time to “produce minimal commotion and allow for a quick re-opening.” Those who did not have identification or weren’t dressed according to their assumed gender were arrested during the staged raids.

Part of the agreement between the managers at Stonewall and the precinct was that police would allow illegal activities at the business as long as they could unfairly punish members of the LGBTQI community. This highlights the risks Johnson took every day she decided to walk outside, let alone protest. Although the raid sparked resistance and protest throughout the queer community, the face of the rebellion was whitewashed, excluding persons of color who were fluid in their gender expression and advocated for liberation. Those like and including Johnson.

What is often erased from the narrative LGBTQI+ communities present about the legends of the movement is that in 1970, the debut of the beloved Gay Pride parade, Johnson, along with her longtime friend Sylvia Rivera, started the Street Transv***ite Action Revolutionaries (STAR, 1970-73) to provide shelter and support for homeless trans youth. This was the same year Johnson was rudely jeered off stage as she attempted to preach acceptance to a predominantly white, male crowd during the Pride celebration.

From 1987 until her death, Johnson worked alongside New York’s Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) to aid and support those affected by the AIDS pandemic. HIV positive herself and battling mental illness, Johnson’s experiences drove her passion for activism. She was constantly threatened for defying society’s eurocentric and heteronormative culture. Still, she remained a powerful, unwavering force.

Marsha P. Johnson (left) and Sylvia Rivera

Despite her groundbreaking contributions to the queer liberation movement, media outlets like Them, downplay Johnson’s acts of heroism by calling her story “a digestible narrative” — as if her story wasn’t told posthumously — in order to make room for more “acceptable” figures that compliment their sanitized narratives. This resistance to accepting a Black trans woman as one of the key figures in an ongoing revolution is simply a technique used to erase those like Johnson from history because her story does not conform to the stereotypical “white gay liberation” narrative.

Today, transgender men and women continue to face discrimination in opportunity, by law enforcement authorities, as well as in representation in politics and media. Take the case of Linda Dominguez, a transgender woman who, in 2019, suffered harassment at the hands of the New York Police Department. She was arrested for “false personation,” a charge usually given to those who deceive an officer by misrepresenting information such as their name and date of birth – Dominguez had provided the officers with both her previous and current legal name. The NYPD officers used law in their thinly-veiled attempt to discriminate against a woman who was only expressing her true identity. To add insult to injury, as she was being arrested, the officers mocked her by placing her in pink feather handcuffs — a move that revealed society still has a long way to go to secure trans acceptance and understanding. Johnson knew this all too well.

The circumstances of Johnson’s untimely death have been heavily debated, as it was quickly ruled a suicide by local law enforcement. However, any reports after the incident argued that the NYPD did not investigate Johnson’s death carefully enough, a pattern long criticized by trans rights activists.

Honoring Johnson’s legacy is important, not only because of her role in the Stonewall riots, but because of her ability to actively oppose a society that refused to see her and those like her as human beings. Recently, public discourse about trans rights and experiences has made headlines. However, simply talking about these issues is not enough.

In order to ensure that trans persons are not harmed and abandoned, we must challenge the systems that promote transphobic, racist rhetoric and policies. Black trans persons who risk their lives to stand against injustice deserve to be remembered not just as participants in the movement, but as heroes. Johnson’s life is a perfect example of a Black trans hero who’s story has been whitewashed at best and erased at worst. We cannot allow that to continue.

For without the efforts of Johnson, who knows how many of our friends and family members would be suffering in silence — or worse — right now.

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