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Today we’re learning about Marsha P. Johnson and the Stonewall rebellion. Serving as a pivotal moment in the modern Gay Rights Movement, Stonewall began on June 28th, 1969, and lasted six days in New York City’s Greenwich Village. And even though the rebellion lasted less than a week, the reverberations lasted for generations. Out of Stonewall emerged the establishment of one of the first gay pride parades, increased activism and organizing on behalf of gay people, and greater attention paid to the rights and needs of LGBTQ+ communities.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed is available now! https://bookshop.org/books/how-the-word-is-passed-a-reckoning-with-the-history-of-slavery-across-america/9780316492935

Sources and References

David Carter, Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution (New York: St. Martin’s, 2004).
Martin Duberman, Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising that Changed America (New York City: Plume, 2019).

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Hi, I’m Clint Smith and this is Crash Course Black American History and today we’re learning about Marsha P. Johnson and the Stonewall Rebellion. Serving as a pivotal moment in the modern Gay Rights Movement, Stonewall began on June 28, 1969, and lasted six days in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

And even though the rebellion itself lasted less than a week, the reverberations lasted for generations. Out of Stonewall emerged the establishment of one of the first gay pride parades, increased activism and organizing on behalf of gay people, and greater attention paid to the rights and needs of LGBTQ communities. At the heart of this organizing were Black and Women of Color activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. They were important catalysts who held organizational prowess and passion for change, inspiring countless queer people around the world to stand up against bigotry and discrimination from broader society. Let’s start the show.

(Intro music)

Let’s begin with the events of the Stonewall Rebellion.

Leading up to the night of June 28th, 1969, the popular gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, and the queer community more generally, were under surveillance by the New York City police. The Stonewall Inn and other bars that primarily served LGBTQ communities were under constant attack by law enforcement. But this was also the era when queer desire and actions—even just holding hands, kissing, or dancing with someone of the same sex—were criminalized.

This was due to a massive effort by the US government and law enforcement agencies like the FBI, which resulted in arrest, harassment, and sometimes the threat of public exposure for people who were not public about their sexual orientation, especially at a time when it was incredibly dangerous to be. As a result, places like Stonewall became the center of gay nightlife and served as a refuge from ongoing persecution. It was an important site of safety away from the scrutiny and public harassment of police and from the rest of society.

Police arrived at Stonewall that night for a raid to crack down on gay bars that were operating without a New York State Liquor Authority License. This was routinely used as an excuse to harass gay bars during this time. However, this was also because the state refused to give liquor licenses to bars that served the gay community. Soon, Mafia affiliates and other opportunists began to run the establishments (and allegedly made deals with the police to cover everything up and stay in business).

During the raid, patrons and employees of Stonewall were frisked, assaulted, and dragged into the street. But those patrons, employees, and other neighborhood residents also fought back, refusing to accept treatment like this at the hands of people who should have been protecting them rather than harassing them.

The resulting protests lasted for six days on both Christopher Street and adjacent blocks. Authorities hosed people in the streets, threw tear gas at them, and arrested them. But the Stonewall activists continued to resist, forming Rockette-style kick lines in front of the police, smashing windows, uprooting parking meters, and throwing bottles at the authorities. They chanted slogans like “Liberate the bar!” and “We Shall Overcome.”

And at the heart of this rebellion were two transgender women of color, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Accounts of the night of the Stonewall raid and subsequent rebellion vary widely, but Johnson and Rivera were among those who fought back and resisted arrest.

Some recall Marsha being in full drag; some remember it differently. Some stories of the night recall Johnson being the first person to throw a brick at the police, while other records exclude her entirely. The exact order of who did what first remains unclear, in part because there was limited documentation of the events that night.

But in a 1987 interview with historian Eric Marcus, Johnson stated that she hadn’t arrived that night to Stonewall until the uprising was well underway. She also said that the police had forced her and others onto the bar’s wall to line up and be frisked the night before the rebellion began and then the police returned the next day to set Stonewall on fire.

On the one-year anniversary of the rebellion, on June 28, 1970, thousands marched in the streets of Manhattan from Stonewall Inn to Central Park. They called their march “Christopher Street Liberation Day” and it was one of America’s first gay pride parades.

Let’s return to Marsha P. Johnson in the Thought Bubble.

Marsha P. Johnson was a Black trans woman who was an iconic figure in New York City’s LGBTQ community. She became known for her signature confidence and for resisting the harassment and ridicule that she experienced as a result of her identity as a trans woman in a homophobic and trans-phobic society. Marsha started to dress in girl’s clothing around the age of 5, which drew the ire of her parents, as well as from a society that didn’t approve of such a thing.

Despite their disagreements, she remained close to her family and kept in touch with them through the years. After she graduated high school in 1963, Johnson moved to New York’s Greenwich Village with $15 and a bag of clothes. Because she was homeless, she turned to sex work to support herself and survive.

Soon, she found a community among the boisterous nightlife of Christopher Street. She utilized multiple names while perfecting her persona among Christopher Street’s notable figures, going alternately by Malcolm and Black Marsha before settling on Marsha P. Johnson.

She purportedly chose "Johnson" after the popular restaurant and hotel chain, Howard Johnson’s, and the "P" for “Pay it No Mind,” a saying she coined and used to dismiss her adversaries. She met the young 11-year-old Sylvia Rivera when she was 17 and they were both working as sex workers in New York City.

Thanks Thought Bubble.

Johnson's work largely centered on helping transgender and queer communities in New York City and throughout the world. Following Stonewall, Johnson and Rivera founded an organization called S.T.A.R., the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. The organization clothed, fed, housed, and advocated for transgender youth in New York, Chicago, California, and even in England.

Johnson also became a member of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). This group focused on political action and greater protections for citizens based on their sexual identity, and also fought against unethical and unequal laws. As a popular face of the resistance, Johnson toured around the world with the popular drag theater company, Hot Peaches.

As her popularity and notoriety rose, she also interacted with famous artists and celebrities, such as Andy Warhol, who in 1975, featured Johnson on a screen print of drag queens and transgender nightclub patrons at the Gilded Grape in New York City. But Johnson’s life was far from easy, and even though she spent time with celebrities, it did not translate into her own sustained economic stability.

What’s more, Marsha had a complex history of illness. She experienced periods of mental illness, arrests by harassing police officers, and time spent in psychiatric hospitals. In an interview later in life, she also shared that she had been raped by a boy as a child.

Through it all, she continued to promote gay civil rights. Struggling on and off throughout her lifetime with her mental illness, Marsha was remembered by some as extremely sweet, generous, and kind, and by others as confrontational, erratic, and at times violent. Marsha and her fellow trans women and activists faced constant harassment from the police, and other hazards from living in a violently trans-phobic society.

And as has been the case, with Marsha, and with other important figures we’ve discussed throughout this series, the goal isn’t to run away from the things that made them complicated, and to try to paint them as singularly heroes without any faults. That would be dishonest. The truth is that, all of us, even people who do extraordinary, remarkable, world-changing things, are well…people. And to be a person means that you are not a two-dimensional caricature of just good or evil, but that you’re likely a person who has done stuff you’re proud of, and stuff you aren’t. And when we talk about important historical figures, like Johnson, it’s important that we acknowledge that part as well.

An early AIDS activist and member of the revolutionary AIDS activist group, ACT UP (or AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), Johnson announced in a June 26, 1992 interview that she had been HIV positive since 1990. Unfortunately, the end of her life would be marked by tragedy. On July 6, 1992, Johnson was found to have drowned in the Hudson River off the West Village Piers. Although police initially declared her death a suicide, several witnesses have suggested she was murdered by homophobic assailants.

Today, Johnson’s life and legacy can be remembered through films such as Pay it No Mind: Marsha P. Johnson (2012), The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017), and Happy Birthday, Marsha! (2017).

The legacies of Stonewall extend far beyond the six days that the rebellion raged on in New York. This event marked some of the most famous early activism of the Gay Rights Movement. Its momentum continues to inspire subsequent generations of LGBTQ activists and serves as a lasting legacy of the work of people like Johnson and others. Although many raids occurred on New York City gar bars before and after Stonewall, none of them resulted in the same kind of lasting and sustained political organizing and activism.

Stonewall was a moment when the defiance and political organizing of the 1960s came in direct contact with the repression of the state. Therefore, Stonewall stands as an important moment in the history of LGBTQ activism. And those like Johnson, who lived at the intersections of multiple modes of oppression for being gay, Black, and transgender, paved the way for greater access to dignity and legal protections for all gay people.

Although her role in the revolution is often debated and contested, it seems undeniable that Marsha P. Johnson had an indelible and lasting impact on the formation of more equitable politics for queer people worldwide with her activism, with her bravery, and with her signature “Pay it No Mind” attitude. She was vital in making the connection between Gay Rights and Human Rights.

Today, we remember Stonewall and its legacies for the role it played in expanding knowledge of gay culture and bringing the expansive beauty of this community to the larger public. What started as a rebellion became the beginning of a revolution.

Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next time.

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