As we fast approach the 48th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and the beginning of Pride, I thought it would be a good idea to write my inaugural blog post on one of my heroes, Marsha P. Johnson.
Now, I know there are a lot of legends about what exactly happened that hot summer night in 1969. Some people say it was a lesbian that started the riot. Some people say it was the street hustlers, everyone seems to have a different story. It was such a chaotic, unpredictable mess (a riot chaotic and unpredictable, Go figure.) and no one was there taking minutes, that the “facts” have been shrouded in legend. Well here is my favorite Stonewall legend, and it’s the one I choose to believe.
In 1969 homosexuality and trans were illegal (back then they were much more closely linked than they are today). This made it easy for the mafia to control gay bars. The Stonewall Inn was one of the more popular gay bars in New York, as it was just about the only one that allowed same-sex dancing (also illegal at the time).
It was common for the police to raid gay bars and arrest people who were not “dressed according to their gender” or dancing with the someone of the same sex. The mafia regularly paid the police so they could be forewarned of raids and so that the police would raid the bar early in the evening and allow the business to continue running for the bar’s busy time.
Marsha P. Johnson was a drag queen (back then trans women were called drag queens) that lived in New York and she was a regular at the Stonewall Inn. Many people in the LGBT community called her “Saint Marsha”. She was a creature of pure light and joy and love. She often lived on the street or with friends when she could. People like Bob Kohler and Randolph Wicker would often have her live with them. She was generous to a fault. Whenever she would get a little money or food she would always share it with the street kids, sometimes to the point where she wouldn’t eat at all.
In the early morning hours of June 28th, Marsha was enjoying a night at the Stonewall Inn when the police raided. This raid was unusual since the mafia had not had previous warning and it was late at night when the bar was at its peak hours. It is reported that the police were more aggressive with the bar patrons than usual. It was clear that they had come to kick some ass.
The police were checking people’s ID and anyone who didn’t have ID was arrested and thrown into the waiting paddy wagon. Anyone who was not “dressed according to their gender” was taken in the bathroom for a closer body inspection and any “man in women’s clothes” was arrested and thrown into the paddy wagon as well.
Well the police soon came to Marsha. Now Marsha had been distraught over the death of Judy Garland the previous day and she was in no mood for these shenanigans. As the police tried to arrest her, she started screaming “I have my rights! I have my rights!” in that crackling squeaky voice she was known for. She picked up a shot glass and threw it across the bar breaking a mirror. That's when everybody started fighting back and it turned into a riot. People had gathered outside and were throwing pennies and bottles. They went to a nearby construction site and got some bricks to throw. They freed the people in the paddy wagon. The police had to barricade themselves in the bar to protect themselves from the growing crowd that had gathered outside. At one point a parking meter was used as a battering ram. This was the beginning of the Gay rights movement. It eventually became the LGBT rights movement that continues to this day.
All from the “Shot glass heard round the world.”
If you want to learn more about this wonderful woman's heroic life and tragic death, I highly recommend the documentary “Pay It No Mind - The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson”
It is available on youtube: