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Marsha P. Johnson: Free to be SHE

Growing up, Marsha knew who she was and it wasn’t who she looked like on the outside. Some bullied her for being different but she stood up for herself and others in the LGBTQ+ community creating safe spaces for all to be loved as they are.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Olivia Riçhard with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Olivia Riçhard and Alexis Stratton. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan with sensitivity read by Schuyler Swenson. Narration by Anjali Kunapaneni. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

There once was a girl named Marsha who wore crowns of flowers in her hair and long, flowy dresses. With the soft fabric swishing against her legs and the scent of roses swirling around her, Marsha felt like the most beautiful girl in the world.

There was one problem, though: Everyone thought of Marsha as a boy.

Her parents. Her teachers. Even the people she called her friends. 

All of them judged her and labeled her by how she looked on the outside. When Marsha was born, Marsha was assigned male by the doctors at birth, but that didn’t feel like who she truly was all the time. See, when she was born, her parents had given a name that never felt quite right. She felt in her heart that her body didn’t match what she felt like on the inside and wearing boys clothes made her feel out of place. When Marsha stood in front of a mirror and looked deep into her own eyes, she saw a fabulous, radiant girl.

Marsha grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She was the fifth of seven children, in a very busy household. Though Marsha loved her family, she often felt like they didn’t really understand her. It was even harder to explain her feelings to other people. A lot of kids in her neighborhood made fun of her for being different and wearing dresses. Sometimes, they even hurt her.

A few times when she was walking home, a group of local boys from her neighborhood bullied her. They laughed and called her names. Marsha tried to ignore them and just move on, but they blocked her way and even hit her.

Marsha was furious. And incredibly sad.

Why can’t they accept me for who I am? she wondered.

She stopped wearing the dresses that she loved so much. She started hiding after school or walking straight home with her head down. But even if nobody hit her she still felt broken inside. With every day that passed, she felt more and more trapped, more and more misunderstood, and more and more alone.  

As she got older, Marsha heard about places where people like her could be themselves and explore gender in the open. In fact, one place where people were loud and proud about their gender identities was close to her hometown. 

So, after she graduated high school, Marsha stuffed a few pieces of clothing into a bag, tucked $15 into her pocket and boarded a bus bound for New York City which was just sixteen miles away but it felt like an entirely different world, one where she might finally be accepted and loved.

She had no idea what lay ahead for her. She felt butterflies fill her chest as the bus rumbled along the open highway. It was terrifying, and energizing all at once. As the bright lights of the big city and the glittering skyscrapers rose in front of her, she felt a warm current of excitement rush across her skin. 

In New York, she hoped to start over, to be her true self, to be….free!

When Marsha stepped off the bus, she was immediately overwhelmed by all the hustle and bustle of the city. There was so much to see and so many areas to explore and each crack in every sidewalk seemed to have its own personality.  

Marcia felt drawn to one neighborhood in particular: Greenwich Village. In Greenwich Village , stout brick buildings lined the streets. Painters, musicians, performers filled the coffee shops, gathering to discuss theater scripts and read poetry; Motown music blasted from car windows and people sang, letting their voices sail out from tiny apartment windows, filling the city with a wild creative pulse. 

Marsha was breathless, wandering the streets and seeing all the different types of people who lived here in harmony. There were people with broad shoulders and long mustaches wearing bedazzled gowns. People with incredible fashion and bold make-up strutting the streets in stilettos. Women loving women, and men loving men. 

Marsha was grinning from ear to ear. These were clearly people who were told they were a boy or a girl— but knew and felt they were something different. And they accepted and loved each other fully!

Among these free spirits, Marsha finally felt at home! She started wearing makeup and women’s clothing every day. And she celebrated her new identity by officially renaming herself. She didn’t want people to call her by her given name any longer. So now, living in New York, dressing how she wanted to dress and owning her fabulous self, she chose a new name: Marsha P. Johnson.

When people asked her what the “P” stood for, Marsha snapped her fingers in the air and said, 

It stands for Pay it no mind!

New York was expensive though, and Marsha soon realized that her fifteen dollars wouldn’t get her very far.

She needed to earn some money and she needed a job. She tried to look for work, but she kept getting turned away. 

Marsha felt like she was part of a great movement for change, but she really struggled day to day. Most of the time, she lived on the streets sleeping outside in the rain or cold. Sometimes, she paid 99 cents to see a movie just so she could sleep in the movie theater, where it was warm and dry. 

Life wasn’t easy and often Marsha found it hard to keep smiling. She was facing so many obstacles and opinions — after all this was the 1960’s and Marsha was not only gender fluid, but she was Black. 

Black people and other communities of color across the United States were still facing segregation and racism. 

In New York, “masquerade laws” made it illegal to dress in clothing of a different gender.

Being gay was considered “disorderly conduct.”

It was even illegal for men to dance with other men or women to dance with other women.

If people broke these unfair laws, the police would attack them and send them to jail—simply for being who they were.

This type of discrimination continued for a long time but then something began to change. As winter turned to spring, and spring temperatures were heating up to welcome a scorching summer the blood of LGBTQIA New Yorkers began to simmer.

They were tired— tired of being harassed, being hurt, and being mistreated. 

And Marsha was, too.

So, one day in 1969, they decided enough was enough.

It was a humid Saturday night in June, and people were gathered at a place called the Stonewall Inn—a very popular bar in the Village. 

The Stonewall Inn was a place where LGBTQIA people could escape the judgment and mean words of people who thought they were just too different. 

On this particular night, the lively chatter and dancing came to an abrupt halt when there was loud pounding on the front door.

“Police!” an officer shouted through the door. “We’re taking the place!”

The Stonewall Inn had already been raided by the authorities earlier that week! And people there had been arrested simply for being LGBTQIA. But this time, something in the air felt different.

A crowd gathered outside as patrons were pushed and pulled toward the waiting police vans.

Marsha was standing among the crowd. It was pretty scary. Everyone was pressed shoulder to shoulder, sweat dripping down their skin. 

These were people who marched to the beat of their own drums—but they had been stomped on again and again for it.

In that moment it was as though everyone all seemed to decide the same thing at the exact same time: We are SO over it.

First, people started throwing things. Little things like pennies, nickels, quarters. They tinkled as they hit the ground. But then, it got more and more chaotic. Stones and bottles were flying through the air. 

And then there was yelling:

We want freedom!

Gay power!

The authorities weren’t used to people like this fighting back, and they barricaded themselves inside the bar.

When more police arrived, they tried to chase the protesters down. But the protestors ran, dodging into back alleys, escaping. By the end of the night only a few people were arrested, several were hurt.

But just because the night was over didn’t mean the protests were. 

This was one of the first times the LGBTQIA community had come together to stand up against the injustices they faced.

And now that they had, there was no turning back!

After the protests, Marsha helped start multiple groups that fought for LGBTQIA rights in New York and beyond.

One year later, in June 1970, the community organized a pride march in New York City, and across the country to honor the brave people who’d stood up at the Stonewall Inn. She wasn’t sure if people would show up though. It was still scary to be open about being LGBTQIA. People could lose their jobs, their families, and their friends.

But in New York, hundreds of people joined in the protest—growing stronger and louder as they went. By the end, onlookers were stepping off the sidewalks to join them, inspired by their courage.

Marsha P. Johnson marched proudly with them and together they chanted:

“Out of the closet and into the street!”

And…

“We’re gay and proud!”

In the end, thousands of people marched that day in New York City, holding their heads up high—proud to be exactly who they were.

Marsha P. Johnson continued to pave the way towards gay and transgender equality.

As time went on she brainstormed with her friend Sylvia Rivera about what they could do to protect their community.

Sylvia was a Puerto Rican trans woman who had long been involved in social justice movements.

One day Sylvia came to Marsha with an idea. What if they made a house for homeless transgender youth?

Together, they formed a group—and created the first shelter in New York City for LGBTQIA youth. 

Marsha also led rallies, organized protests, and kept working to advocate for all those deemed different—she celebrated herself and everyone twirling in their radiance.

For a long time, most people weren’t aware of  the important impact Marsha had made on the world. But now, people around the world know her name and the out-and-proud way she lived her life. Today, people continue to fight for equality and freedom for all, carrying on Marsha’s work and like Marsha, refusing to ever give up.

As Marsha once said, “You never completely have your rights, one person, until you all have your rights.”