Last June, as you may recall, I did a whole series on the Heroes of Stonewall. Obviously, it was a massive riot, I couldn’t cover everyone who was there in just a month. I left out someone incredibly important (several someones), and I can’t think of a better time to cover the story of another transgender person of color who heroically led us at the Stonewall Riots, and afterwards, than right now — when the Trump administration is attacking the healthcare rights of transgender people.
MissMajor Griffin-Gracy was born in Chicago on October 25, 1940 in the south side of Chicago at St. Luke’s Hospital. She was assigned to the male gender at birth. It didn’t last too long — while she was still fairly young, she discovered the drag ball scene and began participating regularly. She later explained that, without the terminology we have today existing, she did not realize that she and her peers were questioning their gender identities. But they were, and Miss Major was fairly open about it. Her parents attempted to curb this, but eventually just kicked her out.
Afterwards, she was homelessness — getting by as best she could through sex work and the occasional theft. She transitioned, using hormones she purchased on the black market — something that became a booming business following the very public transition of Christine Jorgensen. She briefly had a job as a secretary for the Mattachine Society, but even that didn’t last too long.
After a run in with the law, and a six month bout in a mental institution, Miss Major moved to New York City. She became a performer at the famous Jewel Box Revue, as well as the Cherries and the Powder Puff Revue. (As an aside, I’m definitely a 90’s kid because I definitely first thought that was “Powerpuff” but it isn’t.) During these years she experimented with a handful of names, but settled on the one her parents had given her: Major. She simply added the word “Miss” in front of it.
Although many of the gay bars would not let her in, Miss Major became a frequent customer at the Stonewall Inn — probably at least in part because of her and Stormé DeLarverie‘s shared association with the Jewel Box Revue. She was there on the night of June 27, 1969 and stayed late enough to be present when the police raided the bar. She participated in the rioting on that first night, until she spit in the face off one of the police officers — he responded by knocking her out. She awoke the next day in a prison cell. While she was in police custody, her jaw was broken.
After the riot, Miss Major was deeply changed by the murder of a Puerto Rican transgender friend of hers known as Puppy. Despite plenty of evidence, the police ruled the murder was a suicide. She realized that transgender women of New York could not depend on anyone but each other — she began to build a network so that they could help protect each other. This was especially true of sex workers, who started trying to get their “johns” to exit the cars so that all of the girls could see them — just in case a girl never came back from a job.
She was arrested in 1970 for burglary after a safe-breaking job went wrong, and spent four years at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. He had a great deal of respect for Miss Major, and her gender identity, and he talked to her about how she could help her community. She spent a good amount of time in solitary confinement — she was imprisoned with men, and every time a fight broke out between her and any other inmate, she was the one who was punished. She was paroled twice — but both times the parole was revoked when her parole officer reported her for deviant behavior (once was for adopting a more feminine appearance by shaving her face, and the second time was for “entering a deviant bar.”) While incarcerated, she communicated regularly with Frank “Big Black” Smith — who had been in charge of security at the Attica Correctional Facility Riots of 1971. When she was finally released in 1974, she took those lessons to heart.
In 1978, Miss Major’s long-time girlfriend gave birth to their son Christopher. Miss Major decided the life she’d built in New York was not one well-suited for raising a child, she secured sole custody of Christopher and moved to San Diego. She would eventually adopted three other boys — runaways she met at a park. This was the start of a growing chosen family that still rallies around Miss Major to this day. She started working at a food bank and attempted to help transgender people who were in prison or recovering from addiction, but as the AIDS epidemic began to ravage the queer community of California, Miss Major turned her attention to helping provide healthcare and performing funerals. The silver lining for the epidemic, Miss Major later recalled, was that many transgender people — especially women — were able to find legitimate, legal jobs for the first time, even if that job was the heartbreaking task of providing healthcare to doomed queer people no one else wanted to touch.
In the mid 90’s, Miss Major moved to San Francisco. She continued her HIV/AIDS activism, including serving with the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center (TARC). As part of that organization, she ensured they had a refrigerator available so that homeless people could store food and medications at the center. She fought for them to acquire a washing machine and a dryer so homeless people in the community could do their laundry.
In 2003, Miss Major — who’s activism was returning more to its original focus on incarcerated transgender people — joined the newly founded Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project (TGI Justice Project), and became the Executive Director. In this position, she is one of an estimated five people in the United States that is working full time towards equal transgender rights in prison. She has testified about human rights violations towards transgender people in prisons before both the California State Assembly and the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva. One particular focus of her activism is on the healthcare that transgender inmates receive — they are sometimes denied everything from hormones to routine medical examinations. But, as she notes, transgender inmates face abuse in almost every aspect of prison life, and are overrepresented in prison populations (where they are typically housed with the incorrect gender).
She has decried the gay rights movement for ignoring the plight of transgender people as they fought for equality — a sentiment that was shared deeply by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. (And frankly, shared by me too. It’s hard to argue with.) But Miss Major herself has continued to fight tirelessly for those the rest of society wanted to ignore. She’s known to have said: “Just because there’s this umbrella, LGBT, we’re all grouped together. But guess what? Someone poked a hole in the umbrella and the girls are still getting wet.”
And recently, although those sentiments still largely hold true, Miss Major herself has finally been getting attention for her decades of work. In 2014, Miss Major was made the Grand Marshall of the San Francisco Pride Parade. In 2015, the documentary MAJOR! was released, following Miss Major’s life as an activist.
More recently, in 2018 Miss Major has relocated from California to Little Rock, Arkansas. There, she has founded the Griffin-Gracy Historical Retreat and Educational Center — also known the House of GG. On July 4, 2019 Miss Major suffered a stroke — but survived and is recovering well enough that she has been engaged in Black Lives Matters protests within the past month according to her Instagram. If you want to help with her continued recovery or with her continued activisim for transgender and gender non-conforming people, a website has been set up for donations.
While articles about Miss Major’s life and activism are plentiful, they all have anecdotes of Miss Major saving lives by simply being there, lending an ear, or offering advice and a good book. It’s little wonder so many have rallied around her, now often calling her “Mama Major” or “Grandma Major.” Janet Mock, a writer, director, and producer — one of the creators of the TV show Pose, once said, “Without Miss Major’s contributions and work, I would not exist.” There are countless transgender people in this country who say the same. That’s a tremendous legacy, but when asked what she hoped her legacy would be in a 2018 interview she said: “If ain’t right, fucking fix it, whatever it takes.”
And if that’s not a mantra for the whole world to adopt, I don’t know what is.
(PS, Miss Major also has a Facebook page you should totally follow.)
Before we begin, I do want to take a moment to apologize for my lengthy hiatus — life just got really busy around the holidays and — I’m sure you’ve all noticed — a lot has been going on since then just in the world. Anyways, craziness aside, it’s Pride month now and festivals or no, I was not about to let this month go by without writing out some queer history for you! So, we’re back! I was writing a post about Harvey Milk, but then something happened that called for me to change courses: we lost a legend. Not to spoil the end of this post or anything, but Larry Kramer passed away last week. And as he was someone who had a profound impact on our community…I couldn’t just not write about him.
Laurence “Larry” David Kramer was born in Bridgeport, CT on June 25, 1935 in the midst of the Great Depression. He was the second child of a struggling Jewish family, who had really not wanted another mouth to feed as they struggled to find work. His father George Kramer was a government attorney, his mother Rea worked variously as a shoe store employee, a teacher, and a social worker with the Red Cross.
Eventually — after the Depression — the family moved to Maryland — I’m guessing because of his dad’s job — but they were in a much lower income bracket than the family’s of Larry’s fellow students at his school. Larry had his first sexual relationship with another boy during junior high school. It was, from what I can gather, purely sexual and not romantic at all.
As he grew up, he had mounting pressure from his family. His father wanted him to marry a wealthy Jewish woman, and go to Yale, and become a member of the Pi Tau Pi fraternity. Although Larry enrolled at Yale….the rest of that is not exactly how things were going to go down. When Larry got to Yale, he found himself very isolated, feeling like the only gay guy on campus. This is 1953, so there’s not like a Gay/Straight Alliance he can just join up with — he’s pretty much stuck on his own with no way of connecting with other queer students. So, he tried to kill himself by overdosing on aspirin.
Fortunately, the attempt failed. I don’t know the details, but I’m hoping he just like…got a cramp for ten minutes and then was fine. Probably not, because he was very much changed after that. He became loud, proud, determined to fight for gay people and determined to explore his own sexuality. And determined not to marry a rich Jewish woman. The following semester, he began a romantic relationship with his German professor. He joined the Varsity Glee Club, and was an active member there until he graduated in 1957 with a degree in English. As far as I know, he never joined Pi Tau Pi.
At the age of 23, Larry became involved in movie productions, taking a job at Columbia Pictures as a Teletype operator — a job where the office happened to be across the hall from the president’s office. This led pretty directly to his first writing credit, a dialogue writer for Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. He followed this by adapting the novel Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence into a screenplay. The movie was nominated for an Oscar in 1969. Larry’s third major project was a musical adaption of Frank Capra’s movie Lost Horizon, which debuted in 1973. Though Larry later was embarrassed by the project, it made him a substantial amount of money that, due to some wise investments made by Larry’s older brother Arthur, gave him enough money to not worry about money for the better part of the 80s and 90s. Doesn’t sound all that embarrassing when you look at it like that, huh?
Having established himself, Larry began taking some risks. He started writing plays and — much riskier — he started adding homosexual elements to his work. The first of these plays was 1973’s Sissies’ Scrapbook (which would later become the play Four Friends — I gather the play is better but the title’s pretty forgettable now.) Larry found he loved writing for the stage — until the producer canceled the show despite a favorable review in The New York Times. At that point, Larry promised never to write for the stage again.
In 1978, following a break up with his boyfriend David Webster, he wrote and published the novel Faggots. The book was based around a character who was looking for love, but was caught up in drugs and partying in bars and clubs on Fire Island and in Manhattan. To say that the book was not well received is an understatement. Heterosexual readers found it appalling, and could not believe that it reflected an accurate representation of a gay man’s life. The queer community had an even harsher reaction to the book — the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, the only gay bookstore in New York at the time, refused to sell the book at all. Larry was banned from the local grocery store where he lived on Fire Island. The book was universally trashed by mainstream and queer media alike.
Despite that, Faggots is one of the best-selling gay novels of all time and has not been out of publication at all since its debut. The book is often taught in LGBTQ+ studies. It’s been noted that the themes of Faggots are still relevant to the gay community to this day — the negative reaction to the book, as pointed out by many who’ve studied the book since it was first published, such as Reynolds Price and Andrew Sullivan, is largely because it touched a nerve and was more honest than people were comfortable with.
Despite the reaction to the novel, Larry still managed to have a lot of friends on Fire Island, so when a number of them began to fall ill in 1980, he was concerned. The next year, after reading an article in the New York Times about “gay cancer”, he decided something had to be done. He invited about 80 affluent gay men to his home in New York City, where they listened to a doctor explain what little they knew about the related illnesses afflicting gay men. By the next year, this group had officially formed into the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) which quickly became the primary organization raising funds and helping to provide services for those afflicted with AIDS in and around New York. GMHC is still providing support for people who are impacted by HIV and AIDS and has been expanding every year.
Kramer led the GMHC in a fight to get funding from the city to help them provide much-needed services to those fighting the disease. He made NYC mayor Ed Koch a principle target for this fight. When doctors began to suggest that, to curb the spread of the disease, gay men stop having sex, Larry brought this to the GMHC and suggested they spread the word. His colleagues refused.
Larry was not deterred. He wrote a fiery piece called “1,112 and Counting” which was published in the gay newspaper the New York Native. The essay attacked basically everyone. Healthcare workers, the CDC, politicians — and it also went after the apathy of the gay community. The piece did something important than no one else had managed: it caught the attention of the rest of New York’s media. It finally had people talking about the AIDS epidemic. According to Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, “With that one piece, Larry changed my world. He changed the world for all of us.”
Unfortunately, it also contributed to Larry’s growing reputation as a confrontational crazy person. He had gone toe-to-toe with an NIH agency of not devoting more resources to the AIDS crisis because he was deeply in the closet. Similarly, Larry had it out quite publicly with conservative fundraiser Terry Dolan, even throwing a drink in his face, for secretly having sex with men while using homophobia as a political tool to his advantage. He argued with his brother, whose law firm Kramer Levin refused to represent GMHC. He called Ed Koch his cohorts in city government “equal to murderers.” He even attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci, the scientist who was leading the government’s response (once there was one.) Ultimately, this behavior led to the dissolution of Larry’s long-term relationship with a fellow member of the board of GMHC and — perhaps even more devastating — it led to GMHC removing Larry from the organization he’d essentially started in 1983.
After his removal from the group, Larry traveled to Europe. While he was there, he visited the Dachau concentration camp where he was horrified to learn that it had begun operating in 1933 and no one, in or out of Germany, had seen fit to stop it. He felt this paralleled the US government’s response to AIDS. Despite having sworn never to write for the stage again, Larry churned out a script for the play The Normal Heart — a somewhat autobiographical look at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. I’m not going to talk too much about its contents, other than to say that you should absolutely watch it — you can see the 2014 film version on Hulu or Amazon Prime, starring Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer. The play itself was groundbreaking — one of, if not the, script to actually talk about AIDS. The play premiered in 1985, a full year before President Ronald Reagan would publicly mention the disease. It was produced by the Public Theater — running for over a year and becoming the Public Theater’s longest running production. It’s been produced over 600 times since then, in countries all over the world. (That’s not even counting the movie!)
Two years later, Larry was invited to speak at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in NYC. His speech was well-attended and focused on fighting AIDS. He started the speech by having two-thirds of the people in the room stand up — and then he informed them that they would be dead within five years. For the most part, the rest of his speech was rehashing his points from “1,112 And Counting.” At the end of the speech, he asked the attendees if they wanted to start a new organization devoted to political action. The audience agreed that they did, and two days later about 300 of them met again to form the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) — an direct action organization primarily focused on advocating on behalf of issues relating AIDS and HIV, such as medical research and improving public policies.
Initially, their primary method was civil disobedience. They sought to get attention for their cause by getting their members arrested. Larry himself was arrested over a dozen times. ACT UP did manage to capture a lot of attention — with new chapters forming rapidly across the United States and even into Europe. (And, if you’ve seen or heard RENT or watched the second season of Pose you already knew about them. And if you haven’t watched Pose, fix your life. After you finish reading this.)
In 1988, Larry wrote his next script — Just Say No, A Play About a Farce. Despite the title, the play is not a farce, it’s a dramatic piece that is almost entirely a commentary on the indifference the Reagan administration showed towards the AIDS epidemic. The play received a terrible review from the New York Times which kept most audiences away. However, those who did attend reportedly loved the show. After seeing it, activist and writer Susan Sontag wrote, “Larry Kramer is one of America’s most valuable troublemakers. I hope he never lowers his voice.”
The stress of the opening of the show caused Larry to suffer a hernia, which sent Larry to the a few weeks after the show opened. While there, they discovered he had experienced liver damage from Hepatitis B and, subsequently, they found that he was HIV positive. Nevertheless, Larry was not deterred, and he was not about to lower his voice.
He published a non-fiction book called Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist in 1989. The book documents his career as an activist, particularly his time at GMHC but also his work with ACT UP and a lot of letters to editors and speeches he wrote. The book encouraged gay men to take responsibility for their own health, and urged survivors to help strengthen their community by giving back to it and advocating for it. The book also, quite intentionally but definitely controversially, declares the AIDS epidemic a holocaust, stating the government ignored it because it was primarily wiping out minorities and poor people.
His next piece was a sequel to The Normal Heart called The Destiny of Me in 1992, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, won two Obie Awards, and the Lortel Award for Outstanding Play of the Year. To be honest, I haven’t seen it or read it (yet!) so I’m not going to tell you too much else about it.
In 1995, Larry reunited with his ex-boyfriend David Webster. The two were together for the rest of Larry’s life.
In 1997, Larry tried to give several million dollars to Yale to establish a continuous, permanent gay studies class, and to possibly construct a gay and lesbian student center. The proposal was incredibly narrow — something which Larry would later himself comment on the flaw of — and stated “Yale is to use this money solely for 1) the study of and/or instruction in gay male literature, by which I mean courses to study gay male writers throughout history or the teaching to gay male students of writing about their heritage and their experience. To ensure for the continuity of courses in either or both of these areas tenured positions should be established; and/or 2) the establishment of a gay student center at Yale.” The provost declined, stating it was too narrow a field of study. By 2001, however, Larry and Yale reached an agreement. Arthur Kramer gave Yale 1 million dollars to have a five year trial of the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies — a program focused on gay and lesbian history.
2001 was also the year that Larry needed a liver transplant. He was rejected by Mount Sinai Hospital’s organ transplant list because of his HIV. At the time, HIV positive patients were routinely rejected because of a belief that they were more likely to have complications. I don’t know if that was true or not at the time, I’m not a doctor and I don’t really follow advances in organ transplants. Larry certainly considered it discrimination, and — as we could predict by now — he was not quiet about it. In May — with the help of Dr. Fauci, who he had actually become very good friends with over the years — he was added to the transplant list at the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute at the University of Pittsburgh. It was too late to stop the media though — on June 11, Newsweek published an article titled “The Angry Prophet is Dying”. He received his transplant on December 21 and was moved out of the intensive care unit on December 26. There was some miscommunication about that, which led the Associated Press to release an article erroneously announcing that he had died. In actuality, he was in a regular hospital room and was released to his home the following week.
Larry managed to stay out of trouble for a couple of years after that — until George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004. Larry believed Bush’s re-election was mostly due to opposition to marriage equality, so he gave a speech entitled “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays” on November 21 of that year. The speech was published in a book the following year. In the speech, he laid out the framework for an intentional plan by the wealthy and conservative elite to destroy the lives of racial minorities, non-Christians, the poor, and gays and lesbians that went back as far as 1971 with the “Powell Manifesto”. He described the AIDS epidemic as a dream come true for this behind this — a genocide that the undesirables spread among themselves. It was mostly hailed as a passionate and truthful call to arms. Others, however, accused Larry of homophobia — pointing to his history of being anti-sex in the midst of the AIDS epidemic and Faggots to establish a pattern. I’d like to point out, though, that much of what he was warning us about is proving true right now.
The next decade was a fairly quiet one, although the Broadway revival of The Normal Heart won a Tony Award in 2011, and he married David Webster in 2013. The following year, of course, The Normal Heart was made into a movie.
In 2015 he published the novel The American People: Volume 1, Search for my Heart, a passion project he’d been working on since 1981. In it, he asserted that a number of important American historical figures were gay: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Herman Melville, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Richard Nixon…. while the novel is a work of fiction, apparently he put a great deal of research into it, but I am still really skeptical about most of those names. (But I’m definitely doing some of my own research just to be sure!)
Anyways, this year — 2020 — he released the second volume of The American People: Volume 2, The Brutality of Fact. The combined work is called The American People: A History. I haven’t read it yet. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Larry began writing a new play called An Army of Lovers Must Not Die. Unfortunately, he was unable to finish it before he came down with pneumonia and passed away on May 27.
Larry Kramer had a remarkable ability to force a spotlight to shine on issues. He probably garnered more attention for the AIDS crisis than anyone outside of Rock Hudson. He certainly reshaped the way that the government, and scientists — particularly those working with the government — respond to activists. He had a profound impact on medicine in general — it is because of him that part of the process the FDA uses to approve new drugs involves consulting with representatives from groups who will use the medicine. He will likely go down as one of the most aggressive activists in queer history, but he’ll have that reputation because when he did it…it worked.
TogoTakeshi — better known as Ken Togo — was born on June 10, 1932 in Kakogawa City in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan. He came from a highly political, very high profile family. After graduating from Kwansei Gakuin University in 1955, he worked a series of jobs ranging from chicken farm manager to bank clerk. In 1963, he caused a huge scandal for his family, when he left his respectable bank job and wife and children, openly proclaimed his homosexuality and began managing a gay bar in Himjei City. Under his management, he actually pushed the bar’s finances out of the red and it began to turn a profit — nevertheless, it closed two years after he took it over due to problems with employees and the administration. In 1968, Togo opened up a new gay bar in Tokyo which he called “Togoken” — although this bar was also destined for financial ruin.
Soon, Togo became heavily involved in politics with a political platform based around the radical queer politics — this was revolutionary in a global way. In the early ’70s in New York City and San Francisco, most queer activists were trying to get the LGBTQ+ community accepted into the “respectable” mainstream, Togo was rejecting the heteronormative mainstream culture entirely. He advocated against discrimination towards sexual minorities — not just homosexual and bisexual people, but also the BDSM community and sex workers. He advocated for gender equality — for women, and for transgender people. (Although, controversially, he did not believe that transgender people working in entertainment should get gender reassignment surgery in a train of thought that basically amounts to “artists need tension in their lives to create good art.”) He also advocated for other minorities often ostracized by Japanese society — including disabled people, children born out of wedlock. He also fully believed that capitalism was inherently bad for the disenfranchised and loudly proclaimed himself a socialist. He fashioned himself as “the okama Togo Ken” (which translates roughly to “the faggot Ken Togo”), formed a political party called “the Miscellaneous People’s Association” in 1971 and began to run for office. Between 1971 and 1995, Togo ran for office nearly a dozen times — though he was never elected. During the ’80s, Togo also included AIDS activism as a major part of platform.
Togo’s radical politics garnered him international attention — though not always of the positive kind. (Although his only English-language interview was with The Advocate in 1983.) He lost every election he ran for — not only because of rampant homophobia and because of his radical positions — but because he, essentially, made a mockery of the Emperor. He likened the coming out experience of queer people to the end of World War II — when the Emperor declared (at the behest of Allied forces) that he was not divine, but was now human. The Japanese people accepted this pronouncement, and Togo was certain it should be easier to accept when someone comes out as gay or transgender than when someone comes out as no-longer-a-god. He also named his cat “Chin” to mock a word for “we” reserved for use by the Emperor and liken it to slang for the penis. This did not make him a favorite person of many people in Japan.
Togo also released a couple of albums, the first in 1972, with a focus on queer-themed music. He also worked occasionally as an actor, director, and occasional pornographer — always with a political bent, bringing awareness and attention to his radical views. He also began publishing a magazine called The Ken — highly political, but also flagrantly defying Japan’s censorship laws (which Togo was opposed to) through the publication of pornographic images.
For several years, he was on friendly terms with the Japan Socialist Party — until 1978. In that year, Itsuro Kosaka published a statement in the Shukan Post that decried homosexuality as a disease and Togo publicly cut all ties with the party. Around this time, much of the rest of the queer community began to feel animosity with Togo because of his publicly effeminate appearance (he frequently wore makeup and dressed quite outlandishly) and his efforts to reclaim the term “okama“. Nevertheless, when he rebranded The Ken into The Gay in 1978, it became exceedingly popular. He began holding public photoshoots of his models.
In 1987, returning to Japan from San Francisco, Togo became embroiled in scandal because, upon searching his bags, customs found numerous videos and publications that were not permitted under Japan’s censorship laws. The items were confiscated, but Togo was additionally fined under charges that he intended to distribute the items. Togo fought the charges, going to court and claiming they were for his private use. Initially, he lost the court fight — but on appeals, the court found in his favor. Unfortunately, customs appealed further and the legal battle made it all the way to Japan’s Supreme Court — which found in favor of customs, and forced Togo to pay the fine and all of the (considerable) court costs.
By 2002, Togo’s effeminate image and radical positions had set him apart from most of the queer community in Japan. At a meeting regarding the discriminatory language regarding AIDS in the media, a number of Japanese LGBTQ+ activists including Hasegawa Hiroshi and Ōtsuka Takashi spoke about how they did not feel represented by Togo’s presentation of the gay identity. Togo remained a prominent figure to many in Japan’s transgender community, however, including Miyazaki Rumiko.
Although he was less politically active in his later years, he continued to espouse his views from his small bar (BAR Togo Ken — I have no idea when he established it) every night until 2011. He passed away on April 1, 2012. His children held a small, private funeral for him — but his friends and customers held a large celebration of his life at Togo’s bar the following July 1.
Although she regularly said her middle initial stood for “Pay it no mind”, Marsha P. Johnson proved to be a difficult person not to notice. Though Johnson is commonly referred to using female pronouns (she/her/hers) — and I’ll be doing that here — her actual gender identity is a bit of a mystery. She variously described herself as gay, a transvestite, and as a (drag) queen — though words like “transgender” really weren’t being widely used yet during her lifetime. My personal opinion is that she would probably identify as gender non-conforming or non-binary, but make your own judgments.
Johnson was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey on August 24, 1945 — one of seven children — and was named Malcolm Michaels Jr by her parents, Malcolm Michaels Sr and Alberta Claiborne. They were not, from all accounts, a particularly open-minded family and Claiborne was said to believe that being a homosexual was like being “lower than dog.” Johnson was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and remained a devout, practicing Christian for her entire life.
At the age of five, Johnson began to wear dresses — but stopped because she was harassed and teased by neighborhood boys. Some time during this period, Johnson was sexually assaulted by a boy who was roughly the age of 13. In 1963, Johnson graduated from Edison High School and promptly moved to New York City with $15 and a bag of clothing. By 1966, she was waiting tables, engaging in sex work, and living on the streets of the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan.
She also began to perform as a drag queen — initially going by the name “Black Marsha” before settling on Marsha P. Johnson. She was often recognizable for having flowers in her hair — something she began doing after sleeping under flower sorting tables in Manhattan’s Flower District. She usually had on bright colored wigs, shiny dresses, and long flowing robes. Marsha was known to be peaceful and fun, but there was a violent and short-tempered side to her personality (which her friends commonly called “Malcolm”) — leading some to suspect that she suffered from schizophrenia. Between her sex work and her occasional violent outbursts, Johnson claimed to have been arrested more than a hundred times.
When the Stonewall Inn began to permit women and drag queens inside, Johnson was one of the first to begin regularly visiting the bar. Some witnesses have even credited her with starting off the riots in 1969. Although this claim has certainly gained traction and become the popular version of events, she likely was not the woman who sparked off the Stonewall Riots by throwing the legendary “first brick” — this was also rumored, and was perhaps more likely to be Jackie Hormona or Zazu Nova by eyewitnesses — Johnson did have one particularly iconic, though unconfirmed, moment in the riots. She is said to have shouted “I got my civil rights!” and thrown a shot glass at a mirror. ( Some said this — the “shot glass heard round the world” — was the moment that started the riots, but Johnson herself disputed this. According to Johnson, word of the riots reached her and she immediately went to collect her friend Sylvia Rivera so they could join in — but Rivera was sleeping on a bench. According to Johnson, she arrived at about 2:00 am, forty minutes after the riots began. (I guess word traveled fast!) There are many reports that on the second night of rioting, Johnson climbed up a street lamp with a purse that was loaded down with a brick — which she dropped through the windshield of a police car. Though there’s a lot of stories about those riots, and a lot of confusion about the details it is very clear that Johnson was there and made a noticeable impact.
Although she’d been an activist before, Johnson became a real leader in the LGBT movements that followed the riots. In 1970, she and Sylvia Rivera founded the Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR) — an organization that provided community support for transgender youth. She also joined the Gay Liberation Front and participated in the Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally that commemorated the first anniversary of Stonewall (and was, essentially, the creation of the Pride festivals we celebrate.) At one rally in the early 70’s, Johnson was asked by a member of the press what they were protesting for –Johnson shouted into the reporter’s microphone “Darling, I want my gay rights now!”
Johnson once said, “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.” In 1972, she began to perform periodically with the international drag troupe Hot Peaches. She was also continuing to work as a sex worker, taking the money she (and Rivera) earned from that business to help pay the rent for the housing for transgender youth that STAR had established that year. Johnson also took on an active role mentoring all of the youth in their care, becoming a “drag mother” even to those who were not performers. Although STAR declined and closed in 1973, it was a groundbreaking organization and the shelter that it provided queer youth was truly revolutionary.
In 1973, Johnson also performed with the Angels of Light drag troupe — taking on the role of “The Gypsy Queen” in their production of “The Enchanted Miracle”. That same year both Johnson and Rivera were banned from participating in New York’s gay pride parade — the committee organizing the parade felt that drag queens and transvestites brought negative attention and gave the cause “a bad name.” In response, Rivera and Johnson marched ahead of the beginning of the parade.
In 1975, Andy Warhol took pictures of Johnson for his “Ladies and Gentlemen” series. Johnson’s success as an activist and a performer, as well as her regular appearances throughout the decade, earned her the nickname “Mayor of Christopher Street.”
By 1979, Johnson’s mental health was beginning to decline quite severely. Her aggressive side was coming out more often, and a Village Voice article called “The Drag of Politics” listed all of the Manhattan gay bars from which Johnson had been banned. In 1980, a friend named Randy Wicker invited Johnson to stay with him for a particularly cold night and the two remained roommates for the rest of Johnson’s life. This was — as far as I can tell — the first time Johnson had a permanent address since moving to New York in 1963.
In the 1980’s, Johnson began to work with ACT UP as an organizer and marshal, and was a prolific AIDS activist. She made this her primary focus for the last few years of her life. On July 6, 1992 — just after that years New York Pride festivities — she was found dead in the Hudson River with a large wound in the back of her head. The police ruled her death a suicide — despite pressure from the community and the fact that she had a wound in the back of her head. One witness had spoken of Johnson’s fragile mental health to the police — which was all the police, who had no interest in investigating a black queer person’s death, needed despite witness testimonies also describing Johnson being harassed by a gang. Another witness claimed to have heard a man brag about killing a drag queen named Marsha. The police did allow Seventh Avenue to be closed so that Johnson’s friends could spread her ashes out over the river.
In 2012, an activist named Mariah Lopez was finally successful in convincing the police to re-open Johnson’s case and investigate it as a homicide. That was also the year that the first documentary about Johnson was released: Pay It No Mind — The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson. This documentary included footage from an interview that had been filmed only ten days before Johnson’s death. Fictionalized versions of Johnson also appeared in the films Stonewall (released in 2015) and Happy Birthday Marsha! (released in 2016.) In 2017, another documentary was released — The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson — which followed the Anti-Violence Project’s Victoria Cruz investigating Johnson’s death on her own. Despite all of these tributes, it wasn’t until 2018 that the New York Times published an obituary for her.
Johnson — with her friend Sylvia Rivera — will be honored with a monument in Greenwich Village, near Stonewall. This is perhaps most fitting for Johnson, since she was quite insistent about moving the Stonewall monument from Ohio to Christopher Street in New York City in 1992 — famously saying “How many people have died for these two little statues to be put in the park to recognize gay people? 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?”
Johnson may not have “thrown the first brick” at Stonewall, but she led the fight for LGBTQ+ equality in every other way. Randy Wicker said of Johnson that she “rose above being a man or a woman, rose above being black or white, rose above being straight or gay”, while Rupaul described her as “the true Drag Mother.”
So, while we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, let’s all pay plenty of mind to Marsha P. Johnson — and to the other heroes who stood up that day and said “Darling, I want my gay rights now!”
So, June 5th actually marks an important moment in LGBT+ history — and for today we’re not delving into the ancient past. This day in 1981, the CDC published its first documentation on the disease that would be known as AIDS. The document was about a cluster of five gay men in Los Angeles infected with Pheumocystis Pneumonia — a fungal infection in the lungs that occurs almost exclusively in people with weakened immune systems. Within days of this report being published, doctors from across the United States would flood the CDC with reports of similar infections. Although in many ways this marks the “official” start of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, the LGBT+ community was already aware of the epidemic. On May 18, Lawrence Mass had become the first journalist to write about the epidemic, publishing a piece entitled “Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded” in a gay newspaper call The New York Native. Mass’s sources, NYC public health officials, had claimed to him that his assertion that a fungal infection was sweeping through New York’s gay community was totally unfounded — even though the CDC had been investigating the same claim for a month. By the end of 1981, 270 cases of severe immune deficiency were reported in gay men and 121 of those reported had died. At this point, the disease still did not have a name and was not clearly understood. The CDC would not dub the disease Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) until September 24 of the following year. By 1985 — the same year that President Ronald Reagan first publicly mentioned AIDS — at least one HIV infection had been reported in every region of the world.