Safe spaces save lives. Gay bars, for example, do more than merely shelter us from the cold world outside; they welcome like-minded community members to share the warm embrace of acceptance. If you have ever benefitted from the inclusion of a safe space, then you have Marsha P. Johnson to thank.
Her legacy is synonymous with carving out homo havens. Johnson symbolizes the uprising at the Stonewall Inn, a queer enclave that has attracted unapologetic, gender-shattering warriors for decades. In 1969, when authorities threatened the sanctity of Stonewall with fascistic raids and roundups, Johnson defended the bar with a brick and a smile.
“History isn’t something you look back at and say it was inevitable, it happens because people make decisions that are sometimes very impulsive and of the moment, but those moments are cumulative realities.”
Now, about that supposed brick: historians dispute exactly how and when Johnson joined the Stonewall riots; the fires had already erupted when she arrived on the first night of the melee. But Johnson had a signature way of countering chaos with compassion. She founded an organization called STAR – Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries – to help homeless youth who were abandoned by straight society. Johnson was also a tireless advocate for HIV/AIDS resources until her tragic death in 1992.
Finally, New York is honoring Johnson properly. She is lending her esteemed name to a safe space of her very own: Marsha P. Johnson State Park in Brooklyn. It is the first government-sponsored gathering place to bear the moniker of an LGBTQ person of color; a fitting accolade for an individual who raged against every conventionality she encountered.
“I may be crazy, but that don’t make me wrong.”
In a time when homosexuality was regarded as a psychological disease that could be “cured” through shock therapy, Marsha simply lit her cigarette and turned up the wattage. She endured a revolving door of mental institutions, she engaged in sex work to stay off the streets, and she was even kicked out of the very gay bars that owed her their livelihoods.
But the P. in her name stood for “Pay it no mind.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo dedicated Marsha P. Johnson State Park on the 75th birthday of this fallen she-ro. The circumstances of her death have been shrouded in mystery since she was discovered floating in the Hudson River, but the case was reopened in 2012. Though Marsha has waited far too long for justice to intervene, she now has her own river view in Brooklyn.
Visitors to Marsha P. Johnson Park will be immersed in a quintessential story of protest and liberation. It seems only fitting to give her the final word:
“We want to see all gay people have a chance at equal rights, [same] as straight people in America. We believe in picking up a gun, and starting a revolution if necessary.”
(Cover image courtesy Netflix)
Last modified: August 31, 2020