“Political Camp, Dominated by Drag”: Marsha P. Johnson

Rupaul’s Drag Race came into my life later in high school via a friend and their personal obsession. Half of this friend’s witticisms stemming from the show, rendering us all into constant fits of laughter, paired with them constantly showing me photos of men done up as women looking way prettier than I ever felt… I found myself shook, completely intrigued, and tumbling down after my friend in their rabbit hole of a Drag Race obsession.

When I tell you that I live for the queens’ epic one-liners, the sass for days, the looks being served, the rawness of personality and vulnerability unabashedly being displayed, and the LOVE literally EVERYWHERE… girl, I truly live for it. Drag is an art form. I’ve always loved musicals, live music, performances in general, anything where people just get up on stage and express themselves, no qualms about it. And upon my first taste of Drag Race, I immediately felt that drag is just another facet of the performing arts – it’s the same magical world of comedy, confidence, pure talent, and so much more.

Honestly if you don’t vibe with drag, fine but…

Circa 2012, I was deep within the Drag Race labyrinth, my friend at the helm, us both with no desire to escape. I vividly remember being shocked when we found out that not only was Drag Race not new, but Rupaul wasn’t some underground secret queen locked away for high level fiends. No, no – Rupaul was someone our parents had heard of, jammed out to her music in the 90’s, in other words, a freakin’ star.

Why were we ignorant of this whole world until we were nearly 18? One could speculate that it’s one of the many side effects of growing up between the cornfields of Indiana, but that’s a whole other gift to unbox later down the road.

To this day, when I think I’m a bit more well rounded with the drag world, that I know what’s up, I still get surprised by incredibly important figures whom I had no clue existed. The more recent person that crossed my line of discovery is who Rupaul considers the very mother of drag, Marsha P. Johnson.

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Marsha ‘Pay it no mind‘ Johnson

Marsha’s story begins in Elizabeth, NJ where she was born on August 24, 1945 (making her a charismatic Virgo) and she was one of seven children. She was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and remained a devout, practicing Christian for her entire life. Her parents were not particularly accepting of homosexuality; and after graduating high school, Marsha booked it over to New York City with $15 and a bag of clothing. By 1966, she was waiting tables, engaging in sex work, knee deep in drag, and living on the streets of Greenwich Village.

“I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville until I became a drag queen. That’s what made me in New York, that’s what made me in New Jersey, that’s what made me in the world.” 

Marsha P. Johnson

. . .

Marsha had always been an activist for LGBTQ+, but she garnered her fame with the rumor that she sparked the Stonewall Riots having allegedly shouted, “I got my civil rights!” and subsequently throwing a shot glass at a mirror. Some said this — the “shot glass heard round the world” — was the moment that kicked off the riots.

While this is admittedly a largely disputed story, even by Marsha herself… how freakin’ epic does it sound, though?

To further build on Marsha’s bad-assery, in 1970, she and her friend Sylvia Rivera founded STAR (Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries) — an organization that provided community support for gay, trans, and gender nonconforming youth. STAR was the first LGBTQ+ youth shelter in North America, the first trans woman of color led organization in the USA, and it was the first trans sex worker labor organization. STAR later expanded to other cities, before unfortunately collapsing in the mid-1970s.

Marsha was also involved with the Gay Liberation Front and participated in the Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally that commemorated the first anniversary of Stonewall. During a rally, Marsha was asked by a member of the press what they were protesting for, to which she shouted famously into the reporter’s microphone, “Darling, I want my gay rights now!”

Throughout Marsha’s activism, she was still living it up performing in drag utilizing her earnings to fund STAR – aka pay rent for those under STAR’s care. Periodically she performed with the international drag troupe, Hot Peaches, which caught my eye for obvious reasons! Hot Peaches was a drag theatre company, founded by Jimmy Camicia in 1972, that would put on a play a week up until the 1990’s.

The work of these Hot Peaches has been described as “political camp, dominated by drag” and was instrumental in the development of the WOW Café as the Hot Peaches performed there frequently and set the tone, culture, and aesthetic of the space.

During her Hot Peaches time, Marsha was also performing with various other drag troupes, a muse for Andy Warhol, and was an AIDS activist working with ACT UP as an organizer and marshal.

She was a revolutionary.

Tragedy struck on July 6, 1992 when Marsha was found dead in the Hudson River. The police and coroner ended up rapidly ruling her death a suicide, despite pressure from the community and the blatant wound in the back of her head.

Almost as if the karmatic activism that Marsha put in the world was now circling back to carry on her legacy, in 2012, Mariah Lopez convinced the police to reopen Marsha’s case as a homicide, in 2017, Victoria Cruz conducted her very own investigation of the murder, and in 2018, Marsha P. Johnson finally got her obituary in the New York Times.

Her legacy even further lives on through the Marsha P. Johnson Institute (MPJI).

MPJI MISSION STATEMENT: “Protect and defend the human rights of BLACK transgender people. We do this by organizing, advocating, creating an intentional community to heal, developing transformative leadership, and promoting our collective power.”

“No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.”

Marsha P. Johnson

. . .

According to research from the 2015 US Trans Survey – Report on the Experiences of Black Respondents: Black trans and gender non-conforming people report experiencing the highest levels of discrimination of all transgender people based on the combination of anti-transgender bias with structural and individual racism.

Marsha pioneered the fight at great length, she made a difference, but it’s our responsibility as a society to push for what is an evolutionary change. It is such a systemic discrimination taking place that it isn’t a change that can take place over night, but it is a change that can happen through meticulous desire and collective grind.

It’s important to get familiar with how to make a difference. Admittedly, this is perhaps the hardest part. As a straight white woman who grew up in a predominantly white corn-shuckin’ town in the Midwest, I struggle with this. How can I make a difference? As you could clearly tell from the beginning of this article, I’ve watched every season (nearly) of Drag Race and thought I knew all there was to know about drag and ‘the story of.’ Laughable.

I want to make a difference but to do that, I still have a lot of unlearning and learning to do.

As someone, somewhere, roughly once said, “You have to understand the system in order to break the system,” so here are some starting points if you want to travel down a compassionate road with me:

“How many years does it take for people to see that we’re all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race? I mean how many years does it take for people to see that we’re all in this rat race together?”

-Marsha P. Johnson

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Everything in this article barely scratches the surface of Marsha P. Johnson and the discrimination of black trans and gender non-conforming people. Please peruse my sources and do your own research to learn more.

SOURCES:

World Queerstory, MPJI, Stonewall Foundation, NYC’s Hot Peaches, The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), New York Times, BTAC, Vanity Fair, NY Daily News, WOW Cafe Theater, History on the Stonewall Riots, Biography on Sylvia Rivera

What BLM Means to Me

To aggregate my experience as a black girl in America facing the Black Lives Matter epidemic would take me several pages, but for now I will try my best to articulate how I feel in one page.

I am not a natural born American citizen; I was born in Kisii, Kenya and moved to Jersey City with my family in August of 2001, 2 weeks prior to the 9/11 attacks. Coming to this country at the time of 9/11, as an African immigrant, was a turning point in my life that introduced me to the ugliness of racism. I was only in primary school, but everywhere I went I felt heavy glares from my white counterparts, and in effect, was excluded from their circles because I didn’t look or sound like them. Fast forward to present day, 2020: the world is in an uproar from Paris, France to Hong Kong, China about the injustices that black women, men and children have been encountering via police brutality. The world seems to stand with us during this monumental moment in history, but our non-POC supporters will never feel or experience the hardship of walking around in black skin.

The Black Lives Matter movement is past due. For years, black people have cried over the loss of a father, mother, sibling, etc. from the hands of our police department, yet the world stood quiet. It took a pandemic to stop the world from self-serving and finally redirect its focus on the suffering of people who have been brought pain since the existence of the slave trade, more than 400 years ago. It’s a shame that it took COVID-19 to bring our story into the spotlight, but I’m happy that people are finally flipping the pages and willing to stand up.

Being an active part in the protests for BLM made me love my blackness even more. I felt a sense of relieve that people who didn’t look like me wanted to understand, listen and support my people. To be black in this country is to constantly walk around with a target on your back; if you are not black there is not a space for you to tell a black person how to feel. Finally, people of all nationalities are seeming to understand that, or at least try to. My first BLM protest was in Prospect Park, Brooklyn and I want to say it was nothing like what the media portrayed: I felt loved, listened to, accepted and an overall sense of great joy. However, these positive feelings do not take away the pain of the killings, beatings and harassment of all those affected during the protests.

To watch the uniformed men and women who swore to uphold the law, to protect and serve their country’s citizens, beat us to a bloody pulp fueled my anger, boiled my blood and made me hate cops. It is disgusting to witness almost daily videos of senseless killings of people who look like me for unjustifiable reasons: walking, playing, sleeping in your car, being in the back of a cop car, and countless other simple activities, those of which would never be questioned if done by someone who is not black.

However, when someone’s retort is, “blue lives matter” or “all lives matter,” I can’t say that their lives don’t matter. Here’s the thing– cops don’t wake up everyday and put on their uniform to go outside and be harassed; they made the choice to be a cop. It’s a job, not an inherent identity. Being black is something I have no control over; I cant just take this skin off and be someone else. Blue lives matter is simply a counter-movement for BLM due to years of systematic racism and brainwashing from this country. How can you wake up and tell me All Lives Matter before Black Lives when it’s people who look like me that are shot for simply existing? How many times can you recall a white person getting shot for walking down the street and holding a pack of Skittles? Black Lives Matter does not mean that no one else’s lives matter, it just means to say, “look, we are here, we want to be heard and we want to stop being killed simply for being black.

I will forever support BLM until the wheels fall off. We aren’t asking for a hand out or reparations, just equality. Black people have been oppressed and still are oppressed yet through it all, we will triumph. I will continue to support my black people. I’ll also continue to support any non-POC who stands with us during this crucial time.

A Call with Nana: Know Justice, Know Peace

Being a white female from a middle class demographic that grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, it’s always been easy to turn a blind eye to modern day systemic racism – if I’m being honest, it wasn’t so much as turning a blind eye, but more so being ignorant to how deeply rooted racism is in everyday American life.

It’s also been easier to awkwardly laugh off more obvious racist slights.

Because it didn’t affect me.

But on May 25, 2020 George Floyd’s tragic murder shook the world to its core.

It shook me to the core.

I started listening, and truly hearing what the black people of America have been screaming their entire lives, for generations upon generations. The Civil Rights Act signed in 1954 may have taken down segregation, but it didn’t eliminate white privilege and the American system that caters to white people. Black people in America are still very much ‘separate but equal‘.

The first week of June, I made it my mission to get educated and understand – because to take down the system it’s necessary to understand the system. The podcast by NPR’s Code Switch: Can We Talk About Whiteness and Netflix Documentary: 13th kicked off my flight to understanding. Like many others, I began getting aggressive on social media, sharing resources after resource, partially to ensure funny memes wouldn’t continue to take back the newsfeed, but also so my friends, family, and followers can get educated and understand. I needed these people, my people, to understand.

What I didn’t expect from all of the posting, was an angry phone call from a family member that lacked any kind of understanding. Not one blip of it – just unbridled, condescending ignorance screamed into my ear for 45 minutes.

And that, quite frankly, broke my heart.

In addition to shattering any hope I had for their understanding, the call inspired me to talk to my nana. I knew speaking with her would lift my defeatist mentality after that emotionally taxing argument. While talking with her, I began to take note of our conversation – what she was saying was important and moving – I felt other people who may not feel inclined to listen to me, may listen to her.

My 71 year old, very white and very woke nana needs to be heard by more people. So, readers, meet my nana – Rosalinda ‘Rosie’ Piatkiewicz.

Growing up, she would often pick my sister and I up from school, watching us until our mom got off work. And like most sisters, we’d be able to tolerate each other for a total of….3 seconds before incessant bickering would ensue. I’m not sure how your family handles fighting siblings, but my nana’s go to was “There are children around the world who have to worry about not having food to eat or a bomb getting dropped on their house! There are children in war zones – WAR ZONES!” and she would continue to rant at us endlessly about the tragedies of the world.

Effectively shutting us up and ending the argument over who got the last Cheet-o.

And now, ladies and gentleman, below – a conversation between a granddaughter and her grandmother.

A Call with Nana

E: What do you think of what’s going on right now? The protests, the looting, the riots. There’s a lot of people across the board who lump these three together, but more often than not, they’re not the same groups of people doing everything. There’s footage of protesters stopping looters. 

N: To quote a friend, “Hmm sort of reminds me of Jesus turning over the tables in the temple.” In situations like these, there’s always going to be looters, people who take advantage of a situation.

What’s most troubling with this whole situation is Trumps declaration, “Bring in the troops!” THE TROOPS?! The cities need more men that can contain, sure, but you’re talking military – which is there to protect our country against foreign enemies, not against our own citizens doing what is constitutionally allowed: raise your voice, protest in the things we see as wrong. It’s our country, not Trump’s country – we’re doing exactly what we’re supposed to be doing and what we have the right to do! Not to mention, how would you feel as military getting called into “tame” your own city, being put in a position to oppose your own family and friends. The military is meant to protect from foreign enemies – not to be used against your own people. That is called a Civil War.

E: What are your thoughts on the police force? There is a call for defunding, reform, change. All of which I honestly am still trying to wrap my head around on what should be done, what must be done.

N: Cops are trained militarily – how to shoot, how to restrain. They are not trained enough on how to deescalate, negotiate, step back, and keep hold of a temper. Police training has been cut down over the years, there used to be an extensive academy consisting of 16 week long training, and currently its lowered to only 6-10 weeks of training to become a policeman.

There is also no official licensing to become a cop, it’s training and certification exam, which leads to situations where if a cop gets fired for unnecessary force or other instances, he can go to another part of the country and get hired on elsewhere, remaining a cop. He has the training, he doesn’t disclose the bad info, cities in need of a cop tend to not dig as deep into an individual, and since there’s no license to be stripped to declare the individual unqualified – he’s still able to be a cop. This isn’t monitored.

Look at nurses for example – All nurses, from RNs to CNAs, have to be licensed so that they can be tracked because there are good people and bad people in every occupation. 

E: It’s clear that the term white privilege is misunderstood by many, I can’t even seem to accurately explain to the confused, because if they are reading the same documents that explicitly lay it all out and still don’t get it – I don’t know what else I can even say. Often it seems “white privilege” and “being privileged” are synonymous, when they aren’t at all.

N: White privilege isn’t “life would be better if I came from a better background because life would’ve been easier” it’s not economic. It’s the fact that the day you’re born and you’re that white baby in the nursery, you’re going to be treated better than the black baby. Your life is going to be easier than theirs.

When I think white privilege, I always reflect on a night where I was working with another nurse who happened to be black. Her son was sick with a fever so she combined her breaks to run home and check on him. She only lived a few blocks from the hospital, so no one had any issues at all with her running home. This nurse took over an hour, and everyone began getting worried about the kid thinking something went wrong. She finally makes it back and lets us know that it took so long because she got stopped by a police officer, she didn’t run a stop sign, wasn’t speeding. The police officer pulled her over and said, What were you doing in the neighborhood driving around. She informed him about her sick son, and he let her go after a while. But we knew what happened, she got stopped for driving black.  

There’s another striking thought that comes to mind, I’ve never gone to work and been told that a patient doesn’t want me taking care of them because of the color of my skin. When this situation comes up, and believe me it does, the more empathetic way I’ve seen it handled is by saying to the nurse, “He’s not going to be your patient tonight because he’s a racist and I don’t want to put you through that.”

E: Why do you think so many people are bothered by the BLM movement? When Black Lives Matter is mentioned, it’s not uncommon for people to shout in response “All Lives Matter!” But what’s weird is that no one said all lives didn’t matter. There is still a massive civil rights injustice happening in the country, there is still racial inequalities happening.

N: I can only think they feel against the movement because they know in their hearts that it’s true, that they don’t look at black people as people – they look at them as black.

Growing up in Kane, Pennsylvania, I never saw more than one black family. It wasn’t until I married and we moved to Virginia that I began to see. Virginia is where I saw “whites only” signs everywhere.  There was one night when your papa and I went for a walk down by the river, and there was a KKK meeting featuring a cross burning and I was shocked, upset. It was earth shattering.

A clear reason for the split on Black Lives Matter, is that Trump is making it a point to try to divide the country – he’s not even trying to hide this (aka setting the military against the very people they’re meant to protect and serve.)

I am patriotic, I love my country – and it is because of this that I want America to be the best it can be, and to be that it needs to change.

Look at our young country and what we’ve done in just a few hundred years: annihilated Native Americans and took their land – we could’ve instead respected their culture, made friends, coexisted with them, but no – we wanted their land and resources. We just completely shit on them. Then we went to another part of the world and captured people only to breed them like animals and make them do our work.

We have a lot to atone for, but knowing that this is your country’s history – how could you not want to atone for this?

E: How do you handle it when friends and family deny white privilege and racism? How do you handle the continued support of Trump?

N: There are times where I purposely watch Fox news to get a different perspective, see what makes them think this way. But when I think about it too much I just want to cry because it hurts me so badly that they feel the way they do.

At the end of the day, I can’t emphasize enough that my point of view is not a Republican vs. Democrat thing. Trump is dividing our country. There are good Republicans speaking out against him that I respect – because while my philosophy is different than a Republican’s, I see it’s possible that we can still get together and change things. The problem is the man. He is not for us, he is for himself.

A leader unites. 

Because of the division created in the country, it’s hard to have conducive dialogues with certain people because they echo the Trump Mentality of “its my way or the highway.” Just look, the most powerful man is surrounded by other powerful and highly educated people that are trying to educate him on how to be presidential and make good decisions – yet he remains firm in his egocentric stances.

A way to maintain relationships is to ask, “You may not agree on this, but what DO we agree on?”

*end call*

While the world is pushing for uncomfortable conversations, no one is saying to stop having comfortable ones.

Have both.

Keep balance.

And by keep balance, I don’t mean if you have 3 comfy convos, to then have 3 aggressive ones. No, keep YOUR balance – keep your mental and emotional health in check.

Unplug from social media if you need to, ignore phone calls if you need to, hit that “Do Not Disturb” like it’s nobody’s business.

Take. Your. Pauses.

On Netflix watch 13th, When They See Us, and Teach Us All – but also watch The Big Flower Fight, Sweet Magnolias, Community, and The Wrong Missy.

Keep. Your. Balance.

Don’t let the haters get you down, continue getting educated and fighting for what’s right.

Know justice. Know peace.