Four Lessons from Marsha P. Johnson

By: Trishula Oswald

Trishula is a genderfluid philosopher and digital hospitality professional. They know a lot about beer and wine and treating others with kindness.Trishula eats ice cream with their partner in the East Bay.

Happy Trans Day of Remembrance, Friends!

Today, we remember our trans siblings who we have lost to suicide and gender-based violence. It is important that we continue to fight for our fallen sisters and brothers. We call out their names despite parents, news anchors and cops.

Trans Day of Remembrance is an important day. The loss of trans life is monumentally unnecessary. Visibility is the first step to addressing oppression.

It is equally important to celebrate our trans lives. Repeating a tragic narrative of trans life can have dangerous and oppressive implications. The high murder rate  of the trans community is informally posed as a cautionary tale. This tale warns that if we come out, if we are visible, if we deviate, we invite violence. It’s a promise of violence in dark corners of a city where no one will protect us. Often the story of a trans person’s death is proof that we cannot survive in this world, there’s no safety for us. Many young trans people, take this lesson to heart and take their own lives.

In the face of those tales, we must remember that Trans is Beautiful.

Today is also a day to celebrate your gender non-conforming loved ones who deserve to be remembered and celebrated. Send a rose (even if it’s an emoji) to let us know you love us and you’re happy we are still fucking here despite those who would try to erase us.

To celebrate, I’d like to share four lessons I’ve learned from NYC based Trans Rights Activist, Marsha P. Johnson.

  1. You May as Well Be Visible

Marsha “Pay it no Mind” Johnson came up in New Jersey in the 50’s. THE 1950’s. Pre-Civil Rights, Pre-Gay Rights Movement, Pre-Women’s Lib. Being black, gay, femme and gender non-conforming was pretty much illegal. Cop’s no. 1 job was harassing and assaulting folks like Ms. Johnson.

That didn’t stop her. Marsha took the bus to NYC, put on her dress and walked out that station to become the mayor of Christopher St.

Jobs, housing and money weren’t always easy to come by. Marsha chose to live as herself all the time, and make the rest of it work. She found the means to live in a flower crown and lipstick for most of her adult life.

She showed all the way up.

Because it made her happy.

  1. Femme is Powerful

I remember being told that if I wanted to be taken seriously in the world, I would have to be less “girly.” Femme, to me, means two things: dolled up  and compassionate. I was told throughout my life that being at all concerned with how you look was vanity. Being emotionally connected to others was weakness.

Marsha’s style made her larger than life. Her perfectly coordinated outfits drew attention to the causes she fought for. They gave visibility to Mid Century trans life and the demand for trans rights. Ms. Johnson taught us all how to dress up for a fight.

Plus her style has the power to make people  smile.

Marsha discovered that androgynous sex workers were in high demand. Fur coats, glitter, makeup, jewelry, stockings, blouses, wigs, hats, crowns and clutches helped her pay rent and give money to others.

Marsha was generous. She looked out for the wellbeing of trans and gay kids who came to New York, the only place that had space for them. Marsha gave kindness, money, food and shelter to those who had been rejected by their families and society. She helped fellow trans activist, Sylvia Rivera establish STAR House, a safe space for homeless trans kids and sex workers.

Femininity on Marsha was not vanity or weakness.

Femme is joy and heart.

  1. White dudes will always tell you to wait your turn

The early days of the Gay Rights Movement were as transphobic as any present-day Texas Republican Rally. Gay, white men who had college degrees, houses and jobs were happy with the gender binary being what it was. These dudes took over the story and the direction of gay rights in the 70’s to benefit themselves (and maybe some white lesbians). Gay, white men wanted to be 1950’s “normal,” plus some sodomy. And they weren’t going to let trans rights stall their dreams.

People who are proximal to power love to say that the world isn’t ready for big change, yet.

Meanwhile, everyone else has been waiting for legal rights and representation for generations.

Cisgender gay and lesbian people won national protections against discrimination in the workplace in 1996. Transgender people were omitted from the legislation for fear that it wouldn’t pass. We still face legal discrimination in 32 states.

We navigate the same hazards of systemic discrimination that the trans community has faced the since the middle ages.

  1. The First Pride was a Riot

You know the story of Stonewall, right? Gay club, owned by mafia, patronized by the GNC of 1960’s New York, targeted by the local police for “raids.” One night in June 1969, cops stop by cuz they're bored and wanna harass and assault some vulnerable populations. Cops are out of hand. Marsha is over it. She yells, “I got my Civil Rights!” and throws a glass. Or a brick. It depends on who you ask, but Ms. Johnson was there. She started the riot. She fought for her rights.

We are powerful.

Collectively and alone.

Governments and individuals can try to take away our rights.

We will not let them.

We have our voices.

We can find bricks.