Marsha P. Johnson – a towering figure in the Stonewall Rebellion – would have celebrated her 77e birthday this week. Johnson was an outspoken advocate for gay and trans rights, and the ‘P’ in her name stood for ‘Don’t care’ – her response when asked about her gender.
In honor of the late activist’s birthday, The Blade sat down with Elle Moxley, founder of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, to discuss how Johnson’s legacy lives on.
BLADE: When and why did you found the Marsha P. Johnson Institute?
SHE MOXLEY: The Marsha P. Johnson Institute was started in 2019, and my founding of the organization was in response to the constant reported murders of black trans women across the country. I spent many years working as an organizer and activist, and saw that there was a gap in social justice spaces – in terms of the solutions that were being generated in response to these killings, but also to the systemic and structural violence that existed around black trans people and the black people period.
The organization was named in honor of Marsha P. Johnson to affirm the movement that Marsha led and to create a space where today’s movement had a place to live, without neglecting the history of so many. others who preceded him.
BLADE: Can you tell me about the spirit of Marsha P. Johnson that you see in the Institute?
MOXLEY: The fight for fairness is something we see as an evolution of Marsha’s belief in equality, and we recognize that Marsha was very visible in a movement that didn’t always reflect faces that looked like hers, in terms of what we understand of LGBTQ rights or LGBTQ people. Knowing that black trans people exist outside of our deaths and outside of our murders is really where we see the evolution of our work at the Institute, but that evolution wouldn’t even be possible if Marsha hadn’t made visible in the front line of her. activism. It is in this respect that we see ourselves as a mirror of a model she created for the movement, and we have certainly held the torch and carried it forward.
BLADE: The Institute’s Starship Artists Fellowships are about to begin. What are your hopes for the new program?
MOXLEY: With all of our new programming, we really hope that we are changing the culture of global societies – that we are not just making black trans people visible, but we are making all of the humanity in our existence visible. The Artists Fellowship was created to honor the visionaries that exist in the black trans community. There is a black trans renaissance that is definitely underway, and we want to continue to support that function of the movement. A lot of people assume that the movement is literally about protesting – and that’s certainly a big part of it – but there are other ways to resist as well as practice your joy. We really want it to reflect that black trans people are joyful – we have joy and killing isn’t the only thing we expect. Our community of artists creates a space for artists to imagine a bigger picture, a bigger world, for future black trans people.
I’m an artist myself, so that was a big part of that as well. Activism is something that black trans people often have to choose to survive, and we’re mad and angry at our situation, but we’re actually people who have other dreams and desires outside of just fighting for our lives. Marsha P. Johnson again served as an incredible role model for the movement – her participation in street art and theater groups is a reflection of the joy so many people find outside of their activism.
BLADE: In honor of Black Philanthropy Month and Black August, are there any under-researched or under-reported freedom fighters and causes that people should be more aware of?
MOXLEY: Just a few weeks ago we lost one of the most important freedom fighters and political prisoners of our time – Albert Woodfox, who was held in solitary confinement for 44 years, the longest detention in isolation from the history of the United States. I would say that Black August is always an opportunity for people to understand the structural inadequacies that exist not only in prisons, but in the world. These are real people who are housed in prisons, and I say real people because the atrocities of life often happen to people who are in cages. I think Black Philanthropy Month creates space for more investment to happen in organizations that are leading the fight against apartheid and segregation that certainly exist in America.
To celebrate the freedom fighters of our time, we elevate the black trans freedom fighters who have given their lives to the movement, who have given their lives for others. And that happens inside and outside of prisons – those inside prisons always stand up for the members of the communities they believe in, and we are so grateful to those people.
BLADE: It seems that most of the recent news on reproductive rights and transgender rights has been dismal. Are there any bright spots on your radar, in terms of legislative progress on these issues?
MOXLEY: Every time a human right is interrupted or taken away, it is so negative for so many people who are looking for legislation that gives them hope. I will say that I just had hope for the future of democracy and our humanity. I think there are so many activists who have been activated to drive more generative resolutions around legislation, especially when you think that piecemeal legislation is actually the thing that is being abolished. It’s the beautiful juxtaposition of what happens when we lose a law — the thing with laws is that they can go away and they can always come back.
If we lean towards the positive, we have the opportunity to create more than what we originally started. And that’s what gives me so much hope — we can create more fundamental legislation that takes into account the human rights of everyone, not just one specific type. With reproductive justice at the center of so many of our policy conversations, we are seeing an expansion of what reproductive justice means and to whom reproductive justice applies. And that’s what gives me a lot of hope, that now we can report on more than trans men’s abortions, that we can think about the reproductive rights of black trans women and non-binary people in a way that we ‘ve never been able to consider before.