What do we lose by claiming everybody is the same?
Marsha ‘Pay it no Mind’ Johnson was a black gay activist and self identified drag queen. She wears the crown as one of the founding mothers of the LGBTQ justice movement we know most commonly as Pride. She modeled for Andy Warhol, was a founding member of the Gay Liberation front, and was often referred to as the Mayor of Christopher Street. Christopher Street is where the Stonewall Inn is located. As the birth place of LGBTQ civil rights it is internationally recognized symbol of gay pride.
History books glorify Marsha as one of the instrumental activists who sparked The Stonewall Uprising. She went on to spearhead several LGBTQ support organizations. However, when it came to the 1973 pride parade put on by the Gay and Lesbian committee, Marsha and co-activist Sylvia Rivera (another self proclaimed drag queen) were banned from participating. The Gay and Lesbian committee worried that drag queens were giving their cause a bad reputation because they didn’t fit into the lesbian and gay rhetoric of “we are just like you”.
Marsha didn’t let that stop her and continued to show up to LGBTQ rallies, speak to press, and slay the social justice world. Johnson and Rivera started the S.T.A.R. House, the first shelter for gay and trans street kids. As their “drag mother” Marsha got the kids food, and clothing giving housing to the street kids living on the Christopher Street docks. In short, Marsha continued to be herself boldly and without apology even though she wasn’t what society or even her own community considered acceptable.
As modern day LGBTQ folks we are still faced with the same challenges. Do we conform to societal norms as a way to seem less threatening and able to assimilate more easily into heteronormative culture? Do we do so even at the expense of leaving some of our more marginalized family members ostracized? Data shows that the LGBTQ community has a higher risk than heterosexuals of homelessness, drug addiction, alcoholism, mental health disparities and more. In fact according to the Cultural Competency Coordination, in states without protective policies to ensure the safety of their LGBTQ residents people were five times more likely to have two or more mental health disorders. In addition to that LGBT people who had experienced “prejudice-related major life events” were three times more likely to have suffered a serious physical health problem. We are not all at equal risk; we are not all the same. LGBTQ folks have specific needs and specific identities that should be honored regardless of how much they challenge the mold of society. Otherwise we will continue to lose lives to suicidality, health disparities, brutality, and addictions. Marsha understood this. She lived her life with the people on the margins, not asking them to conform but protecting them for who they were.
This work was not always glorious. Marsha was arrested numerous times, she was shot, and she was treated with chlorpromazine as an antipsychotic for months at a time. A life of challenges led her to be increasingly sick both mentally and physically. By the time of her death in 1992 she was in a fragile state.
This Pride month the LGBTQ community celebrates 49 years since the beginning of our civil rights movement. We have come a long way thanks to the strength within our communities and the help of others. Throughout our celebrations we can’t forget the lessons that we’ve learned along the way. It is okay if you are different from the people around you, that is a good thing. The differences within us help us make the world a better place. Marsha’s legacy helps to remind us that even in the face of adversity we should insist on being authentic to ourselves.
The Cortland LGBTQ Center
A Division of Family Counseling Services