Marsha P. Johnson, the Revolutionary

Written by Nico Lueba Jones, a second year at Sarah Lawrence College.

Marsha P. Johnson was born on August 4, 1945 in Elizabeth, NJ. She self-identified as a street queen and “transvestite” at a time when the word transgender did not yet exist, but she always called herself a woman and used “she” pronouns. The P stands for “Pay It No Mind,” and that was her attitude much of the time, with her friends saying she had an exuberant personality and a penchant for optimism. She dressed in brightly colored outfits and cared deeply for the people in her community, often praying for them. She was so generous, some of her friends even called her “Saint Marsha.” She has gotten a lot of attention lately as one of the trans women of color that Pride has forgotten, and many credit her with being an instigator at the Stonewall riots in 1969. The truth is much fuzzier than that, with Johnson herself saying she didn’t arrive until the riot was already underway, and her close friend and partner in activism Silvia Rivera saying she was there when the riot started but did not instigate it. She is remembered as a prominent figure nonetheless. Regardless of her involvement in the Stonewall riots, what I think makes Marsha so amazing is all the activist work she did after the riot.

    After the Stonewall riots, Marsha P. Johnson continued to advocate for LGBT rights, participating in and organizing protests. It was following one of these protests, a sit-in at New York University in 1970, that Johnson and Rivera decided to found Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR. At the protest, many groups had come together to protest for gay rights, but Johnson and Rivera noted that there were no groups protecting the interests and livelihoods of street youth, particularly transgender youth. Silvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson were themselves homeless and working the streets to make money, and they knew how dangerous it could be. Rivera even credits Johnson with saving her life, after meeting her in 1963 and offering her some comfort and constancy in her life. STAR was the first documented LGBT youth shelter in North America, and by the next year they had opened their first house for street youth in a trailer parked in a parking lot in Greenwich Village. When that shelter fell through, they got a building. Together, Silvia and Marsha provided a safe living space, a gathering space, and a space for LGBT youth to learn. STAR expanded to multiple cities before having to close in the mid 1970’s.

    Johnson’s activism did not end, though. In the 80’s she worked with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) as an organizer and marshall. Johnson herself was HIV positive, and participated in direct action demonstrations with ACT UP for much of the 80’s, and cared for many of her HIV+ friends. Johnson dedicated her life to activism, to protecting LGBT youth, homeless LGBT folks, and making her community better and safer for herself and everyone. She was an active member of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), marching every year on the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and her direct action both personally and through STAR helped feed and house many trans and gay homeless youths. She was also an activist against police brutality, regularly engaging with police who harassed her and addressing their harassment in court when she was arrested. Marsha P. Johnson’s activism extends far beyond Stonewall. As a trans person myself, I am happy to have Marsha as a radical trans icon, to remind me to always look out for my community, and when it comes to those who don’t like us, to pay them no mind.

Works Cited

Brockell, Gillian. “The Transgender Women at Stonewall Were Pushed out of the Gay Rights Movement. Now They Are Getting a Statue in New York.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 12 June 2019, http://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/06/12/transgender-women-heart-stonewall-riots-are-getting-statue-new-york/?noredirect=on.

Feinberg, Leslie. “Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries .” Workers World, Workers World, 24 Sept. 2006, 11:53pm, www.workers.org/2006/us/lavender-red-73/.

“Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries Found STAR House.” Global Network of Sex Work Projects, NSWP, 12 July 2017, www.nswp.org/timeline/event/street-transvestite-action-revolutionaries-found-star-house.

“From Cowtown to Gaytown”: Kansas Politics and Gay Rights in Wichita, KS

Korbin Painter (he/him/his) is an M.A. candidate in the History Department at the University of Iowa. He was born and raised in Kansas and he is an alumnus of the University of Kansas. His research interests include LGBT history of the United States and Germany, focused on LGBT politics, social movements, and the history of emotions. Korbin can be contacted by e-mail at korbin-painter@uiowa.edu.

In Kansas, before the election of Governor Laura Kelly, there were no laws on the books at the state-level to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people from discrimination in employment, housing, and adoption. However, individual cities such as Lawrence, Topeka, and Kansas City have enacted such laws. In 2007, during her service as Governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius issued an executive order protecting state employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Yet, in 2015, former Governor Sam Brownback revoked this order. In fact, during Brownback’s tenure, there had been many attempts by the Kansas state legislature to restrict the civil rights and protections of LGBT people in both the public and private sectors. Former interim Governor Jeff Colyer signed a law in May of 2018, which allowed adoption agencies in Kansas to refuse to place a child with LGBT couples on “religious or moral objection” (Polaski).  

It is clear that many Kansas leaders do not support LGBT Kansans. In at least the last decade, many Republican legislators have not only refused to support or enact legislation that protects LGBT people and their families, but they have also championed discriminatory and harmful legislation that threatens the lives and livelihoods of LGBT Kansans (Mallory and Sears). The elections of democratic Governor Laura Kelly and democratic Representative Sharice Davids signify the resilience and efforts of LGBT Kansans and serve as reminders of Kansas values and spirit. As we move into Pride Month, I am reminded of the radical history of LGBT people in Kansas.

Often, people who live in “blue states” and large coastal cities are quick to dismiss Kansas as merely “fly-over” country, characterizing Kansans as “backward” and deeply conservative. Without dismissing the patterns in Kansas electoral politics, this perception and characterization is unfair, inaccurate, and obscures the lives and history of LGBT Kansans, who have been active in fighting for their civil rights and protections for decades.

One example from LGBT Kansas history takes us not to Lawrence or Kansas City, often characterized as liberal hubs in the “red state”, but to the city of Wichita. Wichita, Kansas is perhaps best known as the home of airplane manufacturing, McConnell Airforce base, and the BTK killer. It may be surprising to some that Wichita holds an important place in LGBT history in the United States. In fact, the designer and creator of the iconic rainbow pride flag, Gilbert Baker, was born and raised in Wichita.

In May of 1978, Washington Post reporter Bill Curry visited Wichita to report on a major political battle over a gay rights ordinance passed in September of 1977, which would protect Wichitans from employment and housing discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation. While Curry was in Wichita, he observed the anti-gay slogan “From Cowtown to Gaytown” littering car bumpers across the city. Wichita is known as “Cowtown” because, in the 1860s and 1870s, the Chisolm Trail, the Southwest Railroad, and the Santa Fe Railway ran through the newly established city of Wichita. Wichita thus became a major center of commerce and trade, as well as a railhead for cattle drives from Texas. The bumper sticker indeed represented some Wichitans’ homophobic fears about an encroaching degenerate sexual minority who “cannot reproduce so they have to recruit” (Curry).

In the 1970s, there were a large number of gay and lesbian people and organizations in Wichita. Gay and lesbian Wichitans lived and worked, attended Church, and frequented bars and other community gatherings around the city. One of the early gay rights groups in Wichita was called the Homophile Association of Sedgwick County (HASC). In 1977, the HASC took a proposal for a city ordinance to the Wichita City Commission and Mayor Connie Peters. Wichita City Ordinance No. 35-242 would prohibit housing and employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the city of Wichita. Gay and lesbian leaders Bruce McKinney, Pat Kaslo, and Robert Lewis led the fight. “Kansans are conservative, but they’re not bigots, not all of them,” one woman told Curry, “if they were, we wouldn’t be voting on a referendum” (Curry).

Anita Bryant and “Save Our Children”, 1978 https://timeline.com/anita-bryant-anti-gay-dade-county-christian-conservative-video-history-e026fd5bfad8

Soon after the ordinance was passed by the Wichita City Commission in a 3-2 vote, Anita Bryant – celebrity, anti-Gay crusader, and spokeswoman of Florida Oranges – mobilized in Wichita. Bryant and her organization, “Save Our Children”, had just won a fight to repeal a similar gay rights ordinance in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Bryant and “Save Our Children” began recruiting many Wichita pastors, like Ron Adrian, and campaigned to put a stop to homosexuality in the heartland. “The whole strategy of homosexuals,” commented Adrian “is to get homosexuality recognized as a normal lifestyle and an accepted lifestyle – and they’re getting a lot of publicity, that’s for sure” (Curry).

A fierce battle played out among Wichitans as the city commission voted to hold a referendum for the gay rights ordinance. In this particular historical moment, Wichita, Kansas became the battleground in the United States over sex, deviance, civil rights, and religious liberty. However, on May 9th of 1978, the ordinance was repealed. Gay Wichitans became the subjects of sensational news coverage across the country. In fact, the night of the repeal, the gay residents of San Francisco’s Castro Street marched on Union Square, chanting, “Wichita means fight back.”

Governor Laura Kelly, Representative Sharice Davids, Janelle Monáe, Former Governor Kathleen Sibelius https://twitter.com/laurakellyks/status/1051187659878612993

As a gay man, born and raised in the small town of Augusta, Kansas, I was filled with excitement on election night in 2018 as I watched the results come in. Representative Sharice Davids became the first openly lesbian woman to be elected to the House of Representatives (Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin is openly lesbian but serves in the Senate). Alongside Deb Haaland of New Mexico, Davids was also among the first Native American women to be elected to the House. In the Kansas State Legislature, Representatives Susan Ruiz and Brandon Woodard were elected as the first LGBT state legislators in Kansas history. Laura Kelly’s election to the governorship of Kansas was significant as she expressed support for the LGBT community and has a voting record in favor of LGBT rights. One of Kelly’s first moves in January as Governor was to reinstate former Governor Sibelius’s executive order and restore state-level protections for LGBT state-workers (Shorman). On election night, I felt an immense swell of pride and hope that Kansas leaders may soon recognize the dignity of LGBT Kansans and move to provide us with civil rights and protections.

As we celebrate Pride month on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, it is critical now, more than ever, that we remember gay and lesbian radical liberation politics in the 1970s. When we do this, we discover that these stories extend far beyond the “Gay Meccas” of New York City and San Francisco. These stories remind us that LGBT people, love, and resistance are everywhere; even in Wichita, Kansas.

References

Cover photo comes from the @KansasDems twitter and can be found here, https://twitter.com/KansasDems/status/1134814393101893632

Two brilliant and thoughtful works on LGBT activism in Kansas are Beth Bailey’s Sex in the Heartland (1999) and C.J. Janovy’s No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas (2018).

Equality Kansas, https://eqks.org

Wichita Pride, http://www.wichitapride.org

Curry, Bill. “Wichita Gay Rights Vote Today.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 9 May 1978. www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1978/05/09/wichita-gay-rights-vote-today/9471d460-49de-4f80-9f59-ba06b6e0bd6b/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ee33b7742d0f.

Gilchrist, Tracy E. “Kansas Governor-Elect Laura Kelly Moves to Protect LGBTQ People.” Advocate, Advocate.com, 9 Nov. 2018. www.advocate.com/politics/2018/11/08/kansas-governor-elect-laura-kelly-moves-protect-lgbtq-people?amp&utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=politics&__twitter_impression=true.

Mallory, Christy and Brad Sears, “Discrimination against LGBT People in Kansas” UCLA School of Law, William’s Institute, January 2019. https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Kansas-ND-Report-January-2019.pdf

Polaski, Adam. “Kansas Governor Signs Dangerous Anti-LGBTQ Child Welfare Bill, Latest in Disturbing Trend.” Freedom for All Americans, 18 May 2018. www.freedomforallamericans.org/kansas-governor-jeff-colyer-signs-dangerous-anti-lgbtq-child-welfare-bill-latest-in-disturbing-trend/.

Shorman, Jonathan. “Kelly reinstates protections for LGBT state workers in Kansas eliminated by Brownback” The Wichita Eagle, 15 Jan. 2019. https://www.kansas.com/news/politics-government/article224559230.html