“We bouta twerk for Marsha,” Qween Jean announces. She’s wearing a light pink tulle gown with monarch butterflies bobby pinned to it. This is her way of getting the celebration started for Marsha P. Johnson’s birthday.
Marsha Pay-It-No-Mind Johnson would have been 77 on August 24th. She’s known for a lifetime of activism including her involvement in the Stonewall protest, and helping start activist groups such as the Gay Liberation Front and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.). Her prominence in New York’s queer community earned her the label The Mayor of Christopher Street. Johnson died in 1992; her body was found in the Hudson River under questionable circumstances.
Her life’s work helped bring together generations of queer people, including last week’s gathering at Washington Square Park. Qween Jean is one of the founders behind Black Trans Liberation, an activist group that advocates for (you guessed it) black trans liberation.
Qween Jean and her co-founder Joel Rivera started a group called the Stonewall Protest in the summer of 2020 as a response to the murder of George Floyd. They held weekly protests that continued until the conviction of Derek Chauvin. Since then Qween Jean pivoted to create Black Trans Liberation, which holds regular rallies and events to bring together the LGBTQ+ community with a focus on black trans lives.
Safety and Camaraderie
As trans rights issues continue to be in the news, events like this bring an important element of safety and camaraderie. Twenty-one states this year have tried to pass legislation that would restrict healthcare for transgender youth. There has been similar legislation covering trans people’s access to bathrooms, stopping trans youth from having equal opportunities in school, and prohibiting trans people and others in the LGBTQ+ community from adopting children.
The overturning of Roe v. Wade has led to anxiety around the legal standing of LGBTQ+ people, given that the precedent of Roe helped establish later decisions that protect the community. That anxiety is well-founded, given the push by Republicans to do away with LBTQ+ legislation. A recent Gallup poll showed that 51% of Americans think changing one’s gender is morally wrong. A study from the Trevor Project claims that 93% of genderqueer youth are afraid of transgender access to gender-affirming care would be taken away.
Last Wednesday was both in celebration and in mourning of Marsha P. Johnson. The event featured twerking and voguing, but also speeches and cries for a better future. There were special guests from the Marsha P. Johnson Family Foundation, an organization started by Johnson’s family members in 2020 to carry on her work of activism in the queer community. The representatives announced, “The city of Elizabeth [where Marsha P. Johnson is from] gave us a plot in Freedom Trails that’s reserved for dignitaries, and they allowed us to erect a statue there.” They also asked for donations to help pay to get the statue built.
“I Mostly Call This a Family”
Most attendees have been coming to Qween Jean’s events for years. The thing that always draws them back is the community. “It’s way different than any other organization or community or space. I mostly call this a family more than any of the three things I’ve just mentioned,” says Acë T. Sinkita, who’s been coming to events since 2020. Similar sentiments were shared by Paco May, an attendee and friend of the organizers: “They brought dinner for everybody, the way they take care of each other is crazy.”
The line for dinner was black trans women first, and it only began after an hour of dancing and a vocal performance by one of the volunteers. “This should not be a faraway thing for us to have fair, affordable and nutritious food for our community,” says Qween Jean. “It is not something that should be a faraway dream, it shouldn’t happen right now.”
When the festivities were over and the sun had finally drooped out of the sky, it was time to march. “My favorite part of it is the boldness, like when they would do the Stonewall Protests, they would walk onto the West Side Highway in the middle of traffic and shut it down and hold a ball,” says May.
Qween Jean yells out call and responses to the group as they march like “Show me what community looks like” “This is what community looks like” and “If we don’t get it” “Burn it down.” If there is one thing Qween Jean knows how to do it’s lead a crowd in a chant.
Qween Jean and the other members of Black Trans Liberation will keep marching and protesting for as long as it takes. They carry on the legacy of Marsha P. Johnson and her activism. “We all have fun with each other not only about protesting supporting Black trans lives, but we’re also here for Marsha P. Johnson today,” says Sinkita. “If Marsha P Johnson was alive right now, I would have told her how much of a great father I’ve become.”