Marsha P. Johnson was an African American transwoman activist and one of those credited with starting the Stonewall Rebellion that launched the modern LGBTQ liberation movement.
She is an especially suitable saint to consider in light of the protests against racism and police brutality that were sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The LGBTQ people who resisted police at the Stonewall Rebellion (also known as the Stonewall Riots) are not saints in the traditional sense. But they are honored here as “saints of Stonewall” because they dared to battle an unjust system. Some were active in church, but they do not necessarily represent religious faith — they stand for the human spirit and faith in ourselves as LGBTQ people. They performed the miracle of transforming shame into pride.
Witnesses disagree about which individual triggered the uprising, when queer people fought back against harassment at New York City’s Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969. The historical truth is complex. The most commonly named possibilities are all queer people of color: two self-professed “drag queens” Marsha P. Johnson and Latina Sylvia Rivera, and butch lesbian Stormé DeLarverie. All three have denied throwing the first punch or brick at the rebellion.
David Carter, author of the definitive book “Stonewall,” concludes that none of these three actually started the uprising in his well-researched 2019 article “Exploding the Myths of Stonewall” in the Gay City News.
And yet each of them has been called the Rosa Parks of the LGBTQ community. They have come to symbolize the moment when the LGBTQ community stopped accepting abuse and claimed the right to exist.
Marsha P. Johnson was bullied growing up
Marsha P. Johnson (Aug. 24, 1945 – July 6, 1992) was born into a working-class African American family in New Jersey. While growing up, Johnson was bullied by neighbors and harassed by family for gender-inappropriate dress and behavior. Raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, she was a devout lifelong Christian who was drawn to Catholicism and other faiths. She worked as a drag performer and was arrested more than 100 times for prostitution. Famous pop artist Andy Warhol personally photographed her for his “Ladies and Gentlemen” series of screenprints.
When asked what her middle initial “P” stood for, Johnson famously answered, “Pay it no mind” — the same jaunty reply that she used when people asked intrusive questions about her gender or sexuality. The police raided the Stonewall Inn when Johnson was reportedly celebrating her 25th birthday. Conflicting accounts say that Johnson started the rebellion by throwing a brick or shot glass.
Johnson herself discusses the Stonewall Uprising — and how the bar was already on fire when she arrived — in a podcast with long-time gay activist Randy Wicker on an episode of “Making Gay History.”
During her lifetime, she was called the Saint of Christopher Street for her activism and advocacy for queer homeless youth and AIDS patients. She died at age 46 and her body was found floating in the Hudson River. Her death at age 46 was initially ruled a suicide, but later New York City police reclassified her case as a drowning and possible murder.
Johnson followed in the footsteps of William Dorsey Swann, an African American drag queen who fought back against police who raided a drag ball in 1888 in Washington DC. — making Swann the first American to lead a queer resistance group and the first to self-identify as a “queen of drag.”
Johnson’s life is the subject of several documentaries, including the 2018 film “Happy Birthday, Marsha!”
Marsha and Sylvia co-founded an activist group
Johnson and Rivera were close friends who were both actively Christian. They sometimes appear together in images by various contemporary artists. In 1970 they co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), an activist and social service organization for homeless queer youth. Both of them were also founding members of the Gay Liberation Front, which sprang up quickly in 1969 as a result of the Stonewall Rebellion. They are even the subject of a forthcoming picture book for children ages 4 to 8: “Sylvia and Marsha Start a Revolution!: The Story of the Trans Women of Color Who Made LGBTQ+ History.”
In 2019 New York City announced plans to commission a statue of Johnson and Rivera, describing it as the “first permanent, public artwork recognizing transgender women in the world.” The monument is scheduled to be finished in 2021 and located in a park one block from the Stonewall Inn. Johnson will also be honored with a statue in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey. East River State Park in New York was renamed Marsha P. Johnson State Park in 2020, becoming the first New York state park named after an openly LGBTQ person. A campaign is underway urging the U.S. Postal Service to issue stamps honoring three drag icons: Johnson, Rivera and José Julio Sarria, legendary San Francisco drag queen who founded the Imperial Court in 1965.
Icons of Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson has particularly caught the attention of icon painters. The portrait of her at the top of this post was painted in classic icon style by Kelly Latimore of St. Louis, Missouri in 2019. It shows her with a halo behind her gorgeous flowered hat while Mary blesses her from the upper right corner.
Latimore is known for painting innovative icons of unlikely contemporary saints, such as a migrant family in his best-known work “Refugees: La Sagrada Familia.” It appears on the cover of “A Stranger and You Welcomed Me” by Pope Francis. He began painting icons in 2011 while he was a member of the Common Friars, an Episcopal monastic community in Athens, Ohio.
He wrote the following narrative with background info on his Marsha P. Johnson icon for the Q Spirit blog:
“As of late I was very struck by Marsha for many reasons.
I have always been drawn to people living on the margins and as hard as life can be, they are trying to be their whole selves, living their truth, protecting the most vulnerable and doing it with joy and sometimes humor and folly. St. Francis and the various “Holy Fools” comes to mind. Marsha was no fool, but she did struggle with mental illness. (My mother has struggled with severe mental illness going on 20 years.)
But despite that Marsha radiated a joy. Being a queen of joy! Putting flowers in her hair and if she couldn’t make things good it seems she at least tried to make them beautiful! She was a motherly figure to Sylvia Rivera and others on the streets.
All of that juxtaposed with the stories of her faith and stories about lying prostrate in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary after dear friends died of AIDS/ or other hate acts. I can’t remember what street it was on. But she very much connected to God as a woman and I think Mary was a light to her from what I’ve read and understand.
And so having Mary in the icon was very important to me but I wanted it not to be any Mary but a very specific one. And so the Mary depicted is inspired by another icon by Brother Robert Lentz ofm, called “Mother of the Streets.”
And so you have Mary the mother of the streets and then Marsha, mother of the streets.
When I made that connection she had to be in the icon.
So the lettering by Mary is the Greek symbols for Mary.”
Johnson appears with a large heart and fabulous hat in a colorful contemporary icon by Angela Yarber, founder and creative director of the Tehom Center (formerly Holy Women Icons Project). The background is a patchwork with the LGBTQ rainbow flag, the transgender flag, the brick wall of the Stonewall Inn, and a “Power to the People” sign. Yarber is a painter, minister, author, scholar, dancer and LGBTQ-rights activist based in Hawaii and North Carolina. Nearly 50 color images of her folk feminist icons included in her book “Holy Women Icons.”
Marsha P. Johnson prayers
Q Spirit’s Litany of Queer Saints includes this line:
Saint Marsha P. Johnson, Stonewall instigator, revolutionary black trans activist, Andy Warhol model, drag queen, pray for us and come to greet us when our mortal life is over.
Links related to Stonewall
Book: “The Stonewall Reader,” edited by New York Public Library, 2019
Book: “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution” by David Carter
2015 book for teens: “Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights” by Ann Bausum
Top image credit:
Marsha P. Johnson icon by Kelly Latimore.
This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBT and queer martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.
This article was originally published on Q Spirit in June 2020 and was updated for accuracy and expanded with new material on June 3, 2021.
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