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Pay It No Mind: Transgender and Disability Activism in the Time of the Stonewall Riots

Cramming in the break room prior to class, my friend who is a literacy coach for San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) interjects, “You should come to the SFUSD drag show fundraiser Friday night! You will absolutely love it.”

Greeted outside of the OASIS nightclub by two young adults with disabilities, we walked into a small dark event space with red leather booths, a small stage adorned with a red velvet curtain, and pictures of drag queens in ornate frames filled the walls. Looking down from the second story balcony were colorful wigs and sparkly boots sprinkled throughout the crowd and the sounds of blissful chatter and laughter. The space is accessible and inclusive to individuals of all abilities and identities.

The drag show event raises money for the Access transition program at SFUSD. Teachers, students, and community drag queens, drag kings, and faux queens perform to raise money for the students to access community places, events, and programs throughout their classroom of the city of San Francisco.

The music starts and the attention of the audience is diverted to the stairs where the infamous drag queen, Serena, a former Access student, struts step by step to the stage. Lip-syncing to Stupid Girls by Pink in her jean vest and red suede boots the audience hollers and throw dollar bills onto the stage.

I.D.: A drag queen wearing a bubblegum colored pink wig with a black off the shoulder dress. She is leaning between a wall and a metal staircase in a dimly lit room. She is looking seductively at the camera. She is wearing long, black fringe earrings. The picture is overlaid with pink polka dots.

It is not too often that we walk into spaces where we feel at home and can truly be our authentic selves. To wear a rainbow-colored wig, daisy dukes and a crop top with a dyed pink beard and be fully accepted. To be in your wheelchair and not receive stares. To be outwardly compassionate with your partner of the same sex. The Oasis embodies inclusion, an aura of non-judgment, and a communal bathroom where we don’t have to choose if we are a suit or a dress. In the years following my first drag show experience at Oasis, I never stopped to think about how we got to this place.

June is Pride Month. LGBTQ Pride Month is currently celebrated annually in the month of June to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York City. The Stonewall Uprising was a tipping point for the Gay Liberation Movement in the United States.

In 1969, homosexual acts were illegal in every state except Illinois. Medical authorities labeled homosexuality a mental defect and a form of psychopathy. Consequently, homosexuals were subjected to lobotomies, castration, sterilization, and electroshock therapy. Under the law, homosexuals were labeled as promiscuous and sexual deviants and were not protected under the constitution. Drag was also illegal under the 1845 statute that made it a crime to “masquerade.” If caught in acts of homosexual behavior, the individual’s name, age, and home address would be published in the newspaper outing you to your family, friends, and your job.

In the 1960s, Greenwich Village located in New York City became a mecca for the LBGTQ community. Gay bars, housing complexes, and coffee shops were open to the LBGTQ community where they were able to openly express themselves. However, during the New York City mayoral election campaign, the current mayor, desiring to be reelected, ordered for police to “clean up” The Village. An average of 5,500 members of the LGBTQ community were arrested through patrols and raids.

In the summer of 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village. When the police entered through the front doors yelling “Everyone is under arrest!” the once compliant crowd now resisted. The patrons fought the police, drawing an angry and frustrated crowd. As the crowd grew, rocking police cars, overturning vehicles, and throwing items at the police, the police retreated inside the Stonewall for safety. The police barricaded the door to the Stonewall Inn.

Night after night, the protesters returned to the Stonewall Inn. The Black Panthers and anti-war demonstrators joined the fight. Tear gas was thrown by the police and beatings occurred. The effect of the Stonewall Riot was to change the direction of the gay movement. After the riots ensued, the LGBTQ community held a protest march which is now known as the Pride March. 2,000 people showed up for the first march to demand liberation and rights for the gay community.

More than one third of individuals in the LGBTQ community identify as having a disability. However, people with disabilities within the LGBTQ community are hidden from their role in the activism and place in creating change within their community.

One such hidden figure is Marsha P. (Pay it No Mind) Johnson, a Drag Queen, who was renowned for her role in the Stonewall Uprising. Johnson identified as having both a physical and a psychiatric disability. Johnson was one of the first people to resist the police during the Stonewall Riots; however, is rarely mentioned in documentaries as being a prominent figure in the initiation of the gay liberation movement.

I.D.: A photo of Marsha P. Johnson, an African American drag queen. She is wearing red lipstick and smiling. Her head is adorned with a flower crown made up of red and white roses and white baby’s breath in the front. She is wearing a white flower necklace and a red dress.

Johnson, along with friend and fellow transgender activist Sylvia Rivera, founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), one of the first transgender organizations in New York. STAR was a part of the revolutionary movement to show the community that transgender individuals are human beings.

Marsha P. Johnson recognized the importance of intersectional identities. Disability Rights was a focus of STAR, which was comprised of and served transgender individuals who were also disabled. Because Johnson was a disabled Black transgender woman, she was regularly arrested and subjected to medical treatments without her consent. As a result, she developed a vision for liberation that addressed interlocking systems of oppression. STAR was a group by and for transgender young people who lived on the street, many of whom were people of color and disabled. STAR demanded that transgender people who were subjected to non-consensual psychiatric treatment be released from hospitals. Johnson also advocated for people with disabilities to have free access to therapy and medical resources, but also demanded that doctors stop trying to cure their gender identity and sexuality.

I.D.: A dark skinned arm graphic holding a pink rectangular sign that says in yellow letters, “Trans Rights are Human Rights.”

Marsha P. Johnson was at the forefront of pivotal moments in modern history and her activism has shown that people with disabilities have helped to shape the queer and trans movement for decades. Often overlooked in history books and mainstream documentaries, it is important that as we celebrate Pride, that our history includes the hidden figures of the movement. The next time I tip a drag queen at a show, I will remember Marsha P. Johnson and her efforts in the gay liberation and pride movement. She will no longer be a hidden figure in my history book, but the visible and beautiful queen that she was.


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