Trans activists’ role in BAME history

As Black History Month draws to a close and Transgender Awareness Week approaches, Mark Hoskisson, Union Convenor, looks at the role BAME people have played in LGBT rights.

During Black History Month, the role Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people have played in the long haul campaign for LGBT rights across the world is well worth celebrating.

And the life and times of Marsha P Johnson – a legendary trans activist campaigner in the USA – is a case in point.

Marsha was born in 1945, christened Malcolm Michaels Junior. But though Malcolm started wearing dresses at the age of five, it was not until she left school and her home town of Elizabeth, New Jersey, and headed for New York that she was able to openly present as a woman.

In New York, Marsha set to work as a drag queen, entertaining in New York’s gay bars. She started out as Black Marsha but changed her stage name to Marsha P Johnson, the name adopted for the rest of her life. RuPaul, the world famous drag artist, described Marsha as the ‘Drag Mother’.

Even in the late 1960s, gay bars in New York’s Greenwich Village were primarily for men only. One bar, however, opened its doors to lesbians and the transgender community – The Stonewall Inn, a mafia owned venue that was one of the few places to allow dancing on the premises. Marsha always made a point of telling people she was one of the very first trans woman to frequent the bar as a customer not as an act.

At around 1.20am on 28 June 1969, Marsha wasn’t yet in the bar. Other trans women were and when the police decided to carry out one of their routine and brutal raids on gay venues something that will never ever be forgotten happened – lesbians, gay men and trans women in the bar fought back.

By 2am Marsha had arrived at the bar and though there are tall tales about her leading the resistance (and throwing the first brick) Marsha only ever claimed credit for being part of a collective fight back, playing down her personal role. The definitive history of the riot, Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution by David Carter, explains that Marsha was ‘known to have been in the vanguard’.

As the police tried to separate the trans women so they could arrest them, the women fought back with everything they had to hand. Marsha spurred on the ever-growing crowd and showed no fear in the face of the equally growing number of police at the scene.

Marsha, a self-described African-American street queen, played a pivotal role in setting up the Gay Liberation Front in the aftermath of the two-night uprising at Stonewall. She became a leading advocate for lesbian, gay and trans rights. She also embraced the practical work of helping the persecuted (and often homeless) transgender community in New York, establishing in 1970 the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), together with her friend Sylvia Rivera.

They also secured premises, Star House, explicitly to support the street trans community. Marsha and Sylvia – themselves often homeless – used the money they earned as sex workers to fund a project that had a social, educational and campaigning role. They both played a major part in laying the basis for the successes that have been enjoyed by the LGBT community in its campaigns for equality over the years, with Marsha becoming a leading AIDS activist in the 1980s.

As trans women of colour (Sylvia was of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan origin) who also supported the campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s against racial inequality Marsha and Sylvia are the all too often unsung heroines of both Black and LGBT history.

In 1992 Marsha was found dead in the Hudson River. At the time it was designated as suicide but there were strong doubts and the cause of death was reclassified as drowning from undetermined causes. Then in 2012 a new enquiry into Marsha’s death was opened.

Fittingly, in March 2018, the New York Times carried a belated obituary for Marsha as part of a series called Overlooked. It hailed her life as a mix of ‘flamboyant joy and determined activism’ – a legacy worthy of celebration in Black History Month.