Teachable Trans History: Marsha P. Johnson

If we want liberation, then we need activists, scholars, teachers, and everyone else to teach trans history.  That’s why I’m launching a new feature on this blog: teachable trans history.  I’ll be sharing primary sources, videos, and other resources that will give you everything you need to learn about transgender liberation movement and teach it to others.   I’ll be starting at the very top: Marsha “Pay it No Mind” Johnson

Why teach about Marsha P. Johnson:

Marsha P. Johnson is credited by many for starting the Stonewall Riots when she threw a shot glass at a police officer and shouted, “I got my civil rights.”  Her significance to history, however, doesn’t stop here.  Johnson also co-founded STAR, one of the first trans organizations.  She performed as a member of the Hot Peaches, and organized as a member of Act Up.  She was a Black transgender woman with both physical and mental disabilities. Her activism challenged racism, the prison system, transphobia, and the medical industrial complex.  She is important not only because lives like hers are erased from historical narratives, but also because her example can teach us how to organize powerful movements for mutual support, survival, and resistance.

Teachable Primary Sources:

If I were to teach one short text about Johnson, it would be the interview she gave to gay journalist and activist Arthur Bell entitled “Rapping with a Street Transvestite Revolutionary.”  Johnson talks about her life, her experiences in jail, and STAR’s political philosophy.  There is a lot to discuss in this short article.  You can find the text here, on transgender historian, activist and artist Reina Gossett’s blog.  Gossett has uploaded an image of the original article, which unfortunately is not screen-reader accessible.  For a text version, click here.  However, please be aware that Untorelli Press published primary sources that Gossett put on the internet publicly without giving her credit.  Gossett deserves support for her amazing work and gratitude for the effort she put into making trans history more widely available.

Teachable videos:

Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson is a beautiful documentary that includes footage of Johnson as well as interviews with her friends and community members.  It is 55 minutes long and presents an overview of her life.  However, it requires contextualization.  Some of the people interviewed misgender Johnson and many use ableist language to describe her.  Her political contributions are glossed over, but the opportunity to see footage of Johnson herself can’t be missed.  If you have plenty of time in your lesson, feel comfortable unpacking some of the problematic assumptions in the film, and a solid background on Johnson’s life, this video can be used to start a conversation.   Note: this version of the film does not include subtitles.  If you know of a subtitled version or a transcript, please leave a comment!

Happy Birthday, Marsha! is still in production but it promises to be amazing.  Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel are working together on this film.  They write, “Happy Birthday, Marsha! is a film about iconic transgender artist and activist, Marsha ‘Pay it No Mind’ Johnson and her life in the hours before she ignited the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City.”  This film will be an incredible tool as soon as it is released.

Contemporary Connections:

#BlackOutPride Chicago Pride Parade Shutdown: the legacy of Marsha P. Johnson is alive and well and it deserves to be taught alongside her history.  One example of Johnson’s legacy is the #BlackOutPride action in which Black queer and trans people and their allies shutdown Chicago’s Pride Parade.  The statement they made describing the reasons for their action is a great text to teach.  Well-resourced teachers (like tenured faculty) should, in my opinion, compensate the organizers of this action if they teach from this text.  One way to do so is to donate to one of the organizations whose members participated in this action: Assata’s Daughters.

More secondary sources from “If We Knew Trans History”:

Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, Guiding Stars

If We Knew Trans History, We would Distrust Nostalgia: On Marsha’s Death

Four ways that Transgender and Queer People Supported Each Other before Stonewall

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