“Sister, you drag
us behind you.”
– Excerpt from “For Marsha P. (Pay It No Mind!) Johnson,” Qwo-Li Driskill
New York City’s history as an epicenter of queer activism has been linked in the popular consciousness to the Stonewall Riots of 1969, several days of open rebellion sparked by a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar that, like some of its peers, was owned by the Mafia. It’s impossible to tell Martha P. Johnson’s story without mentioning those wild nights of flying bottles, can-can-style kick lines, and other “Sunday fag follies,” because Johnson and her peers played an integral role in both the uprising and its aftermath.
Christopher Street, part of the gay neighborhood of Greenwich Village, played host to some of the most marginalized sections of the 1960s queer community, including homeless street youth and the transvestite community. Johnson, a poor black trans woman, joined in the riots, memorably climbing a lamppost and dropping a weighted bag through a police car’s windshield. When the streets finally cleared and stayed clear, she channeled her rebel spirit into joining the Gay Liberation Front (one of the early queer groups to welcome transvestites and drag queens) and co-founding STAR – Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries – with Sylvia Rivera, another trans woman of color. STAR got its start after Johnson and Rivera joined in occupying Weinstein Hall at NYU after the administration cancelled dances under suspicion that they were being sponsored by gay groups, and grew into a trailer that housed homeless queer youth. When a trucker hitched up the trailer and drove away with it, STAR moved to a permanent home, where the kids were fed and schooled. Johnson and Rivera forbid their charges from hustling, taking on all the bills themselves.
Johnson went on to two more illustrious decades of gay, trans, HIV, and anti-racist activism – including a spot in a photo shoot by Andy Warhol – until her body was found floating in the Hudson River shortly after New York’s 1992 Pride March. Though the police initially ruled her death a suicide, supporters suspicious of the timing rallied around her, and in 2012 the case was reopened as a possible homicide.
A documentary entitled “Pay It No Mind – The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson” is available for free viewing on YouTube. Its title is taken from an encounter Johnson had in court after an arrest; when the judge asked what the ‘P’ in her name stood for, she gave her usual witty response: “Pay it No Mind.”