Honoring a Queen—The Marsha Johnson Story

Marsha Johnson
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"Marsha Johnson, aka Malcolm, was a self-proclaimed gay man, drag queen, transvestite, until his death in 1992... So how did Johnson’s story come to be so drastically revised?"

​Marsha Johnson, aka Malcolm, was a self-proclaimed gay man, drag queen, transvestite, until his death, on June 26, 1992. At the time, ‘transvestite’ was synonymous with ‘drag queen,’ and Marsha Johnson was the Ru Paul of his day. So how did Johnson’s story come to be so drastically revised? How did a gay man, a drag queen—who proudly proclaimed himself as such, in documentary footage, filmed just four days before his death—come to be expunged from manhood, postmortem?

Honoring such an incredible legacy with honesty and integrity, shouldn’t even be a question. Yet the pages of Johnson’s life have been rewritten. The people who were cut into Johnson’s footage (long after his death), attempt to ​recategorize​ ​Johnson as a woman—to cast him out of the very category of manhood and homosexuality, which he so clearly claimed with pride.

This isn’t the first revision of history that’s been promoted by the male-dominated “LGBT” (and its media), or as many lesbians call it, “The Gay Boys Club” ( #notallgaymen ). In fact, it happens so often, it’s hard to stay on top of it. Especially as lesbian voices are censored, now more than ever. Just the other night, my wife and I tried to watch a movie, Collette. The gay men who wrote the script, rewrote actual lesbian history… our history… making yet another historical figure, Missy de Morney, a butch lesbian, into a “man,” postmortem.

In 2017, with the October release of a Netflix documentary, a new argument arose: Who has the right to tell Johnson’s story? Lesbians weren’t even considered in that equation, but perhaps we should’ve been. Because here I am, a lesbian, with the most obvious answer to that question: The only person who should be telling Johnson’s story, is Johnson. Good thing he left us a transcript. So below, I’ve compiled some of the last words Johnson ever spoke, in the footage filmed just four days before the end of a beautiful, complex, and often heartbreaking life…

“My mother said being homosexual, she said ​I ​was lower than a dog. She said, ‘you’re gay,  you’re lower than a dog…’ ”

But first a little background:

In childhood, Johnson survived sexual assault and severe homophobia. In adulthood, Johnson survived mental illness, abuse and exploitation. And from that darkness, Johnson still managed to create light​,​ to make the world a bit brighter for the next generation. Not only through consistent activism and co-founding STAR—a shelter for homeless gay kids and transvestites—but through everyday acts of kindness. Johnson was known to “give you the brooch” off his lapel.

Marsha Johnson
screenshot, Johnson, Pay It No Mind footage, June 1992

Johnson was also known to flip out sometimes when called Marsha, rather than Malcolm. Though back then, it was common to use “he/she” interchangeably with drag queens and ‘feminine’ gay men. He was also known to go down to ​the ​river, naked, believing his father was in the water,​​ offering up ‘men’s clothes’ and flowers to King Neptune. Authorities would take Johnson in for months and put Thorazine in his spine. According to Johnson, his first major mental breakdown happened in 1970.

In the documentary, Johnson’s acquaintance, Rick Shupper says, “I remember seeing Marsha walk down the street in a mini skirt that he had made, and it was clearly see-through.” Another acquaintance, James Gallagher, recalls how Johnson had to sleep in movie theaters when he was homeless. They were 99 cents before noon. “It was amazing. It really was amazing, how he was able to survive,”​ said Gallagher. And Johnson did just that. He survived and persevered. ​

It’s still common to use a stage name, both on and off stage​,​ if you’re a performer… Yet acquaintances, who were once fellow performers (filmed and cut into the documentary, many years after Johnson’s death)​,​ appear to have let go of their own stage names and personas. Even still, the narrative they paint (more often than not), ​attempts to ​recategorize​ ​Johnson as a woman, and seeks to expunge Johnson from the very manhood he himself so clearly claims.

Why not allow Johnson ​to ​speak for himself, without all the clatter and background noise? Something beautiful happens when I pull all of their voices out of the transcript: Johnson’s own story and voice emerges.

Why not allow Johnson ​to ​speak for himself, without all the clatter and background noise? Something beautiful happens when I pull all of their voices out of the transcript: Johnson’s own story and voice emerges.

So without further ado, and in no particular order, some quotes from Johnson’s footage, without all the additives and clutter:

“My mother said being homosexual, she said ​I ​was lower than a dog. She said, ‘you’re gay,  you’re lower than a dog…’ ”

“I found out that my body was worth some money in those days. I found out if you’re a pretty boy, or a pretty little transvestite​,​ you can make a couple little dollars. Then I found out, the prettier you look as a little boy​,​ or the prettier you look as a little boy, made up as girl, that’s the most money you’re gonna make.​ ​The ones that used to make the most money, was the boys that look like girls.”

“People used to come and bring guns, and pull guns out on me, because they didn’t think I was… you know. I would tell them I was a boy and I was in drag…”  (after disclosure, Johnson says he’d ask if they “wanna go up”​ to a room​).

“Then when they get up in the hotel and I take off all my clothes, ‘I can’t believe it, you​’​re a boy!’ I don’t know how this man could believe I was a real woman, honey. I was just a transvestite. Maybe it’s because of my voice. I don’t know.”

“Then when they get up in the hotel and I take off all my clothes, ‘I can’t believe it, you’re a boy!’ I don’t know how this man could believe I was a real woman, honey. I was just a transvestite. Maybe it’s because of my voice. I don’t know.”

“Once in a while, I would run into this lunatic who would actually have it in his mind that I was a woman.​.. a​nd, I mean​,​ I’d tell him I was a boy.”

“Another day, another illusion” (said with a laugh).

“Being a hooker is no easy business for no one.  It’s one of the most dangerous businesses that you can be in, but if that’s the only thing you know how to do…”

“I was no one, nobody, from nowheresville, until I became a drag queen.”

Marsha Johnson
screenshot, Johnson, Pay It No Mind footage, June 1992, getting in drag

“I was no one, nobody, from nowheresville, until I became a drag queen.”

“I didn’t get into it right away, I was like the butch makeup queen, working Gayville. And then I started doing little different drag, and I started wearing little high-heeled shoes, you know, and I started to put on stockings… and I started becoming a drag queen.”

“I’ve never ever done drag seriously, I always just do drag. I never do it seriously, because I don’t have the money to do serious drag.”

“I wanted to do what my mother said. ​M​y mother said, ‘you’re gonna meet you a billionaire homosexual when you grow up, and he’s gonna take care of you for the rest of your life.’ ”

“My mother never knew much about homosexuality… All she knew, is seeing men dress in women’s hats and dresses, and come to the bar. She never investigated. She never came to a Gay Pride march, or anything. She didn’t know that much about homosexuality​,​ and in her whole life, she never wanted to know much about homosexuality.”

“1969, that’s when the​ Stonewall Riot started. That’s when I started my little riot… I been in ​Gay ​Liberation ever since it first started, in 1969.”

​I​n a 1987 interview,​ Johnson ​​said ​that in 1969, ​he arrived at Stonewall at around “2:00 [that morning],” and that “the riots had already started.” And when he arrived, the Stonewall building “was on fire.”​​ The riots reportedly began at around 1:20 a.m., after Stormé DeLarverie, a Black butch lesbian, punched the police officer that was trying to arrest her, and then gave the call to arms—“Why don’t you do something?!”

One year later, on the anniversary of the Stonewall Revolution, Johnson marched at the first organized Gay march. It wasn’t anything like the Pride marches today. It was ​described by Fred Sargeant as ​“masses of people… carrying signs and banners, chanting and waving to surprised onlookers.” In 1973, they tried to ban drag queens from marching, so Johnson marched ahead of the parade.

I often write about the ways in which the male-dominated “LGBT” and its media, have​ consistently sanctioned and contributed to the dehumanization, humiliation and shaming of​ ‘butch​’​ lesbians. In much the same way butch lesbians have been ‘othered,’ Johnson was ejected. Not only back then… Now. The current attempts to expel Johnson from the very category ​of ​manhood he himself claimed​ until death​, speaks volumes about the intense perseverance of fragile masculinity.

There​’​s no honor in burying Johnson’s truth. There’s no integrity in bolstering the current political narrative, by dubbing over Johnson’s ​own ​voice.

There​’​s no honor in burying Johnson’s truth. There’s no integrity in bolstering the current political narrative, by dubbing over Johnson’s ​own ​voice.

Using money he made, through his own exploitation, Johnson helped pay the rent on a shelter that kept young people off the street. From his darkest moments, Johnson created light. Out of childhood trauma​ and​ homophobia​,​​ and later in life, more homophobia​, abuse, exploitation and rejection, Johnson fought, in so many ways, to make things better for the next generation. It’s a beautiful legacy. Who gets to tell Johnson’s story? Four days before his death, Johnson told his own story. All we ever needed to do was listen.  



جوليا ديانا — Julia Diana Robertson, is an award-winning author, and a contributor for Huffington Post and AfterEllen—A first generation Arab-American, who grew up between worlds, and currently resides somewhere in the middle with a bird’s eye view. 

Julia and Claudia. The Robertsons
Julia and her wife Claudia… making men uncomfortable since birth.

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