I'm talking about LGBTQ+ icon Marsha P. Johnson as an important illustration of disability being overlooked in other marginalized communities.
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Sources for this episode:
The Intersection of LGBTQ History and Disability
Black History Month: Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson
Life Story: Marsha P. Johnson
Pay It No Mind
TRANSCRIPT OF “LET’S TALK ABOUT MARSHA P. JOHNSON”
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This is Bad Attitudes.
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Hello friends and strangers! Welcome to another episode of Bad Attitudes: An Uninspiring Podcast about Disability. I’m your host, Laura.
Today, worlds collide as we talk about iconic LGBTQ+ activist, Marsha P. Johnson.
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As always, I want to remind you that disability is not a monolith. My experience as a disabled person is going to be different from the experiences of other disabled people. I am one voice for the disabled community but I am not the only voice.
Before we get started, let me refresh your memories on my identities: I am a cisgender, heterosexual, white, disabled woman. I am not a member of the LGBTQ+ community, but I do support the community. As an ally, I recognize that I am not perfect and that I will probably make mistakes. So if I say something incorrectly, let me know, but also extend some grace.
Marsha P. Johnson is a well known figure in the LGBTQ+ community. Many would call her an icon. A black, trans woman, whose middle initial stood for “Pay It No Mind,” in reference to her gender, Johnson was described by her friends as an incredibly warm and generous person.
Born in 1945, she began wearing feminine clothing at a young age, until she was sexually assaulted by a boy. She stopped wearing the clothes she was comfortable in, until she moved to New York City, eventually adopted the identity of Marsha P. Johnson, and began dressing almost exclusively in women’s clothes.
Johnson referred to herself variably as gay, a transvestite, or a queen. The term “transgender” was not in popular use at the time, and today, Johnson would likely be considered gender non-conforming, according to gender studies professionals.
Johnson is possibly best known for being an inciting force of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, the events which eventually led to what we know today as Pride. Johnson denied that she was there when the riots began and insisted they were in full swing when she arrived at the Stonewall Inn around 2 am.
Regardless of whether she actually threw the first brick at the Stonewall Riots, Johnson’s name is inextricably linked to the events of June 28, 1969.
In 1970, with her friend Sylvia Rivera, Johnson founded STAR House, a shelter for homeless gay and trans youth. STAR House’s first location was an abandoned truck in Greenwich Village, holding 24 young people. Johnson and Rivera hustled (ie, performed sex work) every night to ensure their “kids” had breakfast in the morning. One morning they arrived to see the truck pulling away, and the kids had to jump from a moving truck. For the next eight months, they rented a dilapidated house until they were evicted due to inability to pay rent. STAR House continued to exist in various configurations and various locations for several years.
In 1992, Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River. Her death was initially ruled a suicide although those who knew her well did not believe this to be the case because, although Johnson struggled with psychiatric disabilities, they did not lend themselves to suicidal ideation. After many years, Johnson’s case was reopened and the cause of her death was changed from “suicide” to “undetermined” in 2002.
We’ve arrived at the reason I wanted to talk about an LGBTQ+ icon on a disability podcast: Marsha P. Johnson was also a member of the disability community.
It is fairly well-known that Johnson struggled with psychiatric disabilities and some sources agree that she also had physical disabilities. But I could find NO information about Johnson’s specific disabilities. There is little evidence that Johnson often spoke specifically about her disabilities except to say, “I might be crazy, but that don’t make me wrong.”
It seems like whenever anyone talks about Johnson, they forget to mention the fact that she was disabled. Among lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults, 30 percent of men and 36 percent of women identify as disabled. So why don’t we hear about the fact that one of the names and faces most strongly identified with the Stonewall Riots — a foundational event for the existence of the LGBTQ+ community as we know it — was disabled?
I have both seen firsthand and heard from disabled members of the LGBTQ+ community that the community is ableist. Every year around this time, disabled queer creators post a lot about the inaccessibility of Pride events. Accessibility isn’t just about ramps and locations. Are there sign language interpreters for deaf or hard-of-hearing community members? Is there an area where people with sensory issues can decompress from sensory overload? Are the bathrooms accessible and easy to get to? There is so much more to accessibility than just ramps.
I’ve experienced hate from LGBTQ+ community members by advertising Disability Pride month in July. You may remember that episode from last year. Episode 10 if you’re new here. Among other things, I was accused of essentially stealing the concept of pride from the LGBTQ+ community and wrongfully applying it to the disabled community. They went on to say that the disabled community did not have the history or experience the violence to be able to use the word “pride.” Again, I recommend listening to episode 10 for more on that.
Earlier this year, I released an episode about the so-called Ashley treatment, a series of medical procedures that prevents disabled children from growing and experiencing puberty, essentially leaving them in their child bodies forever. In the episode, I pointed out the hypocrisy of politicians who objected to providing puberty blockers to transgender kids, but would likely have no objection to and would even laud the Ashley treatment. That’s episode 32 for those interested.
A trans person reached out to me in a very angry email insinuating I was throwing trans people under the bus in favor of disabled people. They clearly missed the point of the episode where I clearly stated, among other things, that I am in favor of trans kids having access to puberty blockers. They ended their message by telling me they hoped I fucked off and died. Their anger is valid, albeit misplaced. After all, the ADA didn’t include coverage for gender dysphoria until 2017. But, they also referred to the Ashley treatment as an inconvenience for disabled people, so I’m not too tore up about their feelings.
Of course, it’s not just the LGBTQ+ movement that lacks disabled voices. Disabled people of color are rarely heard from in conversations about race. Disabled women are generally left out of discussion on feminism and women’s rights. The truth is, unless you’re a straight, cis, white disabled man, if you belong to the disabled community, you very likely belong to one or more other marginalized groups.
It’s important to acknowledge that many Pride events around the country do have committees dedicated to increasing accessibility at their events. However, we have to ask how many of these committees actually include people with disabilities? Many times, NOT just in relation to Pride events, disabled people are not consulted on what actually makes an event accessible. How can individuals who have never experienced a need for accessibility be expected to consider all the aspects of accessibility? As I mentioned earlier, accessibility is not just about ramps.
I am not suggesting that all LGBTQ+ community members are ableist, any more than all members of any other marginalized population are ableist. I know many LGBTQ+ individuals who are extremely welcoming and inclusive. In fact, I would say that the majority of the people who belong in any of these communities are welcoming and inclusive. But, as a whole, these communities are omitting the very important voices of their disabled members from conversation and consideration.
We hear a lot about the erasure of LGBTQ+ identities, but disabled erasure exists, too, as evidenced by the fact that many people don’t even know that Marsha P. Johnson was disabled. By not mentioning her disabilities when we talk about Johnson, we are erasing an important part of her identity. A part of her identity that is equally important to modern disabled LGBTQ+ individuals so they can see themselves represented in their history.
Disabled people have been present at every major event throughout history, whether we realize it or not. Disabled people are a part of every community, whether we acknowledge them or not. Disabled people deserve that acknowledgment. They deserve to see themselves represented across all lifestyles, because they exist across all lifestyles.
If you are a non-disabled member of a marginalized group like the LGBTQ+ community, do your best to ensure that the disabled members of your community are being included. Speak up for them if you don’t hear their voices. Make inquiries about accessibility for major events. If you are able, invite disabled people to be active members of accessibility committees. Remind others in your community that disabled people exist in that community, too.
I only provided an entry-level introduction to Marsha P. Johnson, but I hope you gained insight into this incredible person, and also gained insight into how marginalized communities intersect.
If you are a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I hope you are able to celebrate Pride in ways that are meaningful and accessible to you. If you have suggestions as to how marginalized communities can include and amplify the voices of its disabled members, let me know.
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you in the next one.
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