Firstly, I really want to apologize for the lack of articles this month (Pride month of all months!), my job has been insanely busy lately and, unfortunately — I’m sure you’ve all noticed and are probably upset by this too — queer people still have to work in June. So, while I was really trying to get this post up three weeks ago….I’m doing the best I can right now. (And honestly, this could have — maybe should have — been a lot longer but…life is getting in my way.)
Anyways, you all probably noticed earlier this month a lot of attention being paid to the 40th anniversary of the official beginning of the AIDS crisis in the United States. And while its certainly true that June 5th was when the CDC published its first report, it wasn’t the first time the growing epidemic had been publicly written about. Dr. Lawrence D. Mass had covered it nearly a month earlier.
Lawrence D. Mass was born in Macon, Georgia on June 11, 1946. I can’t really find anything about his childhood, so I assume it was pretty uneventful — which is pretty good considering he was growing up gay and Jewish in Georgia in the late 1940’s and 50’s. He graduated from the University of California at Berkley in 1969 with a B.A. and then attended the Abraham Lincoln School of Medicine at the University of Illinois, graduating with his M.D. in 1973. Following that, in association with Harvard Medical School, he completed a residency in anesthesiology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
In 1973, the American Psychiatry Association changed its classification of homosexuality, so it was no longer considered a mental illness. Unfortunately, that didn’t change the homophobia of many of the people practicing psychiatry at the time. Mass went up for a residency in psychiatry in Chicago, but mentioned in the interview that he was gay — and the response was, well, not good. It was the first of multiple interviews over several years where this happened. So Mass changed his whole career trajectory — he moved into activism and journalism. (And, not to be grateful for a bunch of homophobic jerks in Chicago or anything, but that turns out to have been a good thing for all of us.)
With homosexuality’s declassification as a mental illness, that did mean that gay practitioners could come out of the closet. Before long, the Gay Caucus of Members of the American Psychiatric Association was formed (now called the Caucus of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Questioning/Queer Psychiatrists.) Lawrence Mass became the editor of their newsletter. He was not afraid to feature politically charged articles in that newsletter — the first issue featured the article “Psychoanalytic Statute Prevents Legal Entry of Gay Aliens,” which exposed public policies that relied on out of date theories for justification. At the same time, he began contributing to a number of newspapers and magazines catering to the LGBTQIA+ community — using his expertise in medical fields to better inform his writing. His first piece was published in Boston’s Gay Community News.
Using his medical background and his insight into the American Psychiatric Association (through the caucus), Mass became — as he would put it — “a chronicler of a critical shift in scientific thinking about sexuality.” But he wasn’t just looking at how psychiatry was viewing homosexuality, he was watching shifts in a whole bunch of fields — not just medical science, but social science and political science. He interviewed a lot of leaders in the shift occurring across numerous fields of research, including Judd Marmor, Mary Calderone, John Boswell, Martin Duberman, and many others. Most of these interviews would go on to be compiled in his Dialogues of the Sexual Revolution collections. They provide important insight into the major cultural shift that was taking place in the USA in the decade following the Stonewall Uprising.
Mass also brought his medical background to discussions about sexual health in the gay community during the 1970’s in these same publications, covering the spread of STDs and even topics concerning fetish and kink — like 1979’s “Coming to Grips With Sado-Masochism” in The Advocate.
After a few years of that, it’s little wonder that rumors about an unusual illness afflicting gay men were brought to him. His best efforts to investigate met with little success — he’d talked to a friend who worked in a New York City emergency room, and learned of eleven cases (albeit only five or six of the patients were gay men). While that was promising, both the New York State Health Department and the Center for Disease Control assured him the rumors he was pursuing were baseless. Though he didn’t have all the information he was looking for, Mass went to print — hoping that laying out the facts as he had learned them would help keep his community informed and keep the rumors from starting any kind of panic. On May 18, 1981 his article “Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded” appeared in the pages of The New York Native which was, at the time, the most influential gay newspaper in the country. Although no one knew it at the time, it was the first published document about AIDS (at least in the US — though I haven’t found anything published earlier anywhere else either). The story would get picked up by the L.A. Times in June, with hardly any more answers that Mass had already gotten (as the L.A. Times article was published the same day as the CDC’s report.)
Mass’ article stressed that there was no reason to believe that whatever was (or was not happening) was linked to the gay community. One theory put forth in his research was that it was a new virulent strain of a fairly common microscopic organism, and such a thing obviously wouldn’t be tied to just one community. As Mass continued to publish articles as the epidemic unfolded, he stood by this — it was not a gay illness. While it certainly had a profound impact on the gay community, it’s true that we were not the only ones afflicted. Diseases don’t discriminate, and Mass was well aware of that.
By 1982, it was becoming increasingly clear as HIV/AIDS was found in more people than just gay men. Nevertheless, he joined Larry Kramer, Edmund White, Paul Rapoport, Paul Popham, and Nathan Fain in formally founding Gay Men’s Health Crisis (or GMHC) he was the last hold out on the organization’s name — insisting it was not a gay disease. He was overruled, something for which he later said he was grateful because the name works for the organization, even if it isn’t just a gay man’s disease. To this day GMHC remains one of the biggest and most important AIDS organizations in the world. Mass wrote all four editions of GMHC’s Medical Answers About AIDS.
Mass committed himself to providing up to date and accurate information about the AIDS epidemic and combatting AIDS denialism, but early in his research he was confronted with an incident of overt anti-Semitism — the first he’d experienced as an adult. The event was traumatic, and led him to realize that he’d been surrounded by anti-Semitism his whole life, and even internalized a lot of it. Ultimately, this led to his publishing an autobiographical collection of essays in 1994, entitled Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite. (“Wagnerite” because Mass was a big fan of Wilhelm Richard Wagner, the German composer. As Mass began to broach more subjects in his writing during the 90’s, his love of music became one of his chosen topics.)
The years of research into anti-Semitism helped give Mass a unique insight into the subject of his next major publication: We Must Love One Another or Die: The Life and Legacy of Larry Kramer, published in 1997. Mass was an editor for the book, taking contributions from notables like Anthony Fauci and Tony Kushner, but his own contribution — at the beginning of the book and entitled “Larry vs. Larry” — details a tumultuous friendship, but also recalls how inspiring Mass found Kramer’s personal voice in his writing was.
About that time, the late 90’s, Mass also found himself writing regular articles for gay publications about public health issues facing the gay community other than HIV/AIDS — crystal meth addiction, anal cancer. As the decade came to a close, he began writing specifically regarding bear subculture, publishing articles in American Bear Magazine and in A Bear’s Life Magazine.
Much of Lawrence Mass’ work has been collected and archived by the New York Public Library. That said, Mass is still listed as a contributor on the Huffington Post, but all of his most recent writings have been on Medium. He is presently living in New York City with his partner, activist Arnie Kantrowitz. Sounds like a happy ending, and after everything he (and Arnie, but that’s another story) have done for our community, I think that’s very well deserved.
With the Comic Code Authority’s giant switch in regards to LGBTQ+ content, things changed pretty immediately in the industry — instead of being forbidden, or being considered “adult” suddenly queer issues and queer stories were an untapped wellspring of fresh plot ideas.
Andy Lippincott returned to Doonesbury in 1989. While the character had appeared off and on since his introduction in 1976, this time he became a staple of the strip — appearing pretty frequently over the course of the next year. The story arc began withAndy’s friend, and one of the main characters of the strip, Joanie Caucus learning that Andy was in the hospital with AIDS. Over the next year, the comic would revisit Andy — touching on the stigma of the disease, the stigma of homosexuality, the medical community’s confusion over the disease’s unpredictability, the difficulty of getting into experimental treatments, and many other topics and issues facing AIDS patients. 900 newspapers carried Doonesbury at the time. Only three of them refused to publish this story arc, saying it was “in bad taste.” But for readers of those other 897 newspapers, all over the country, it brought the very real tragedy that so much of the LGBTQ+ community was dealing with into their homes every day. And then, finally, on May 24th, 1990, Andy Lippincott became the first comic character to die of AIDS complications. I gotta tell you, I read his whole arc in researching this article and I cried. I read it all at once, which….I don’t recommend. Give yourself a little time in between the strips, okay? But its understandable that people had an emotional reaction, and some people were galvanized to take action. Garry Trudeau received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for the story arc (well deserved, in my opinion). In Doonesbury, Andy Lippincott has a panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. A real panel was created by G. Scott Austen, Marceo Miranda and Juan-Carlos Castano which hangs in the NAMES Project Foundation’s offices (rather than being sewn into the actual quilt itself.) As far as I know, he is the only fictional character to have a panel in their honor.
With the Code having reversed its position on gay people, Marvel decided that 1990 was the year they were going to have someone with superpowers really actually come out in the pages of their comic books! So, at the end of Captain America #368 they included a short story in which the Machinesmith revealed that he was gay! But only for male robots like Vision (which is fine because Machinesmith has put his mind in a robot body himself.) But then again, like, we saw Vision in Wandavision and I’m kind of on board with Machinesmith for that one. Except that he was evil at the time which is how they justified the events of Avengers #325, wherein Machinesmith manages to knock Vision unconscious and has his way with him. However robots do that. And later his villainous cohorts find him spooning with the unconscious android. So, just to recap, Marvel’s first super-powered truly openly gay character is an evil robot and a rapist. What were you thinking, Marvel?
Marvel wasn’t the only kind of missing the mark when it came to positive LGBTQ+ representation that year. Around this time Dark Horse Comics was making waves, having steadily grown for years. In Dark Horse Presents #40, they began a story set in a dystopian future where homosexuality had taken over and heterosexuality was criminalized. It was making a really valid point, but still didn’t exactly paint gay people in the best possible light. The story was never finished. Still, there was worse happening that year. Mark Millar, in his first published work, wrote a series called Saviour for Trident Comics — the lead character was the antichrist and he was not above raping men. In particular, a priest (who he promptly also murdered.) Millar would go on to be a really significant comic book creator for both DC and Marvel, and some of his works for other companies are now successful movie franchises, like Kingsman and Kick-Ass. Rick Veitch self-published a limited series called Brat Pack, a really dark satire of mainstream comic books, sort of akin to Watchmen in some ways but like….worse. In it, the Batman analog Midnight Mink was a flamboyant gay man who sexually abuses his sidekicks. But never fear, because DC Comics would not let us down, giving an emotional moment to The Brain in Doom Patrol #34, when he confesses his love for Monsieur Mallah before his body promptly exploded. Okay, they’re villains, but it was still a heartfelt moment.
In 1991, LGBTQ+ people pretty much cornered the market when it came to telling queer stories in comics. Roberta Gregory created her landmark character Bitchy Bitch for the series Naughty Bits — accompanied shortly thereafter by a lesbian character named Bitchy Butch. Robert Kirby began publishing his long-running series “Curbside” in various LGBTQ+ newspapers and magazines, and released the first issue of his antholoy Strange Looking Exile. Celebrated German cartoonist Ralf König had the first of his work — Kondom des Grauens (or, translated, The Killer Condom) — translated into English in this year and released in the United States and in Canada. Diane DiMassa published the first twenty issues of Hot Head Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist. That series would continue running until 1998, and was described (on Wikipedia) as “rage therapy for the marginalised.”
By this point, you may have noticed, Marvel Comics was clearly falling behind when it came to LGBTQ+ representation. I mean, DC has more queer characters than I can count on one hand and has even tackled gender dysphoria (twice). But they were starting to get it — in December of 1991, in The Incredible Hulk #388, dealing with Tyler Lang‘s AIDS diagnosis. Lang’s father is a mob boss, who hires the supervillain Speedfreek to kill his son’s lover, Jefferson Wolfe for infecting him. Over the course of the book, it was revealed that major recurring character Jim Wilson — a friend of the Hulk and the nephew of Sam Wilson (better known as the Falcon, who MCU fans should recognize) — was HIV positive and managing an AIDS Clinic. Tyler Lang became the first Marvel character to die of AIDS complications in that issue. (Jim Wilson would ultimately meet the same fate three years later.)
DC comics spent that year fully embracing the new Code rules regarding LGBTQ+ characters by first having the former supervillain Pied Piper come out as gay in the opening pages of The Flash (vol. 2) #53 — which would win the first ever GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book the following year, despite it really having nothing at all to do with the main story of the issue. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series — published by DC’s Vertigo Comics — went on to introduce three queer characters, including Wanda Mann, a transgender woman. They kept that trend going in 1992 putting the reformed villain Lightning Lord in a gay relationship, and implying that the heroic duo Shrinking Violet and Lightning Lass were a couple, and Justice League Quarterly #8 casually mentioned that Tasmanian Devil was gay (not the Looney Tunes one, I know you were thinking it) by having him express how accepting the team was. In Hellblazer #51, John Constantine — the lead character of the longrunning series — casually mentioned that he’d had “the odd boyfriend” — the first official reveal of his bisexuality. They also did a whole story arc to finally deal with the rumors that had been circulating for decades about their character Element Lad and his romance with Shvaughn Erin by having it turn out that Shvaughn was a transgender woman, who had transitioned with the help of a sci-fi drug called “ProFem”. With this revelation, Element Lad declared that what they’d had together was “in spite of the ProFem, not because of it.” Because alien invasion interrupted the supply of ProFem, Shvaughn was forced to de-transition but the two stayed a couple. (Until DC rebooted their entire universe and retconned virtually everything about these two characters, but that’s beside the point.)
Marvel’s Northstar officially, finally came out in the page of Alpha Flight #106 in 1992! This was actually a pretty big deal, it even though everyone had already known for years. Seriously. If there was ever a superhero I would not trust to keep a secret…. Anyways, the plot, essentially, is that Northstar — in his public persona as a former Olympian — adopted a baby named Joanne, who had AIDS. This garnered a great deal of public sympathy. This made Major Mapleleaf (the Canadian version of Captain America, who was never in a comic before this and….) pretty mad because his gay son had died of AIDS and been blamed for it, because of the stigma surrounding both AIDS and gay people. So Major Maplelead attacked the hospital Joanne was in, quickly coming to blows with Northstar — venting his frustration during the fight. So, Northstar says he knows the hardships gay people face, since he is gay….and that makes Major Mapleleaf even angrier because Northstar isn’t using his fame to help gay people or act as an AIDS activist. The issue received a ton of acclaim from the LGBTQ+ community for tackling the AIDS crisis so well, dealing with HIV stigma and homophobia simultaneously, and finally getting Northstar out of the closet. They did a lot. And it just goes to show that when Marvel is trying they can do actually great LGBTQ+ representation! If you want to read the Major Mapleleaf fight sequence for yourself, I found it on Imgur here.
So, while this was all happening, the sci-fi TV show Quantum Leap was having additional “episodes” published as comic books. Andy Mangels wrote the ninth of these, published early in 1993, in which the lead character Sam Beckett leapt into the body of a lesbian photographer in New York City, in June of 1969. You know where this is going right? The issue touches on almost everything happening in NYC leading up to the Stonewall Riots — police corruption, mob run gay bars, Andy Warhol, Judy Garland — and leaves off right before the police raid begins. Quantum Leap, on television, had handled queer characters before (in fact, the lesbian photographer was a character in one of the TV episodes) this issue did not shy away from getting political. You can actually read the issue online for free here.
In March of 1993, Lynn Johnston’s syndicated comic strip “For Better or For Worse” — running in daily newspapers since 1979 — began a story in which long-running character Lawrence Poirier came out of the closet, becoming the first openly gay teenager and first gay person of color (as his father is Brazilian) in a syndicated newspaper comic strip. The story was inspired partially by the murder of Johnston’s friend Michael Boncoeur. Lawrence’s coming out was a four week set of strips, in which — to briefly summarize — he comes out to his friend Michael, then to his family, is rejected by everyone and then when he goes missing (after getting thrown out of his house), they all go looking for him, and in the end everyone comes around to accepting him for who he is. It’s pretty sad, until the end of the arc which is a much more upbeat ending than a lot of gay kids find with their families and friends even now. I think part of the hope was that by showing it in the strip, it might inspire some parents to come around to accepting their own kids. The publisher, Universal Press, was fully on board with the story, but when it was sent out to the various newspapers who ran the strip forty of them refused to run it. The response to the strip was overwhelming, and powerful — and much more negative than what I’ve read that Andy Lippincott’s reception was (perhaps because Doonesbury is inherently political and tends to lean to the liberal side of things?). Newspapers had to install new phone systems to handle the volume of calls, and Johnston began to be inundated with hate mail — including death threats. Nineteen papers stopped running “For Better or For Worse” altogether. Papers who were running the strip were attacked for it, and papers that refused to run it were accused of censorship. Within a couple of weeks, however, the tide changed — Johnston began receiving heartfelt letters of gratitude from the LGBTQ+ community. By the time the “coming out” story had finished, and the letters she’d received were sorted, more than 70% of the feedback Johnston received was positive.
In other comic strip news, one of the four leading characters of Doonesbury, Mark Slackmeyer, also came out of the closet as a gay man in that year. Rock ‘n Roll Comics #62 included a biography of Elton John — and by this point, there is so much LGBTQ+ themed work appearing in underground comics, I can’t even cover it all or this series will go on for forever. (Some of you probably already think it’s too long!) I just have to start hitting the highlights. But the biggest news of the year — for queer people anyways — was not actually in what was published, but what was won. The Comic Creators Guild awarded Gay Comics(formerly Gay Comix) its Best Anthology Award. After years of circulation, that bit of recognition was a big deal.
In comic books, Marvel gave the first-in-mainstream-comics explanation of the difference between sexuality, gender, and cross-dressing in Nomad #11, when the main character got into drag to investigate a series of murders in which the victims were all cross-dressers. Once again, Marvel goes to show that they can handle the queer stuff pretty deftly if they feel like it.
At the same time, under its Vertigo brand, DC was giving the gays everything. They created a mini-series called Sebastian O, the lead in which was basically a gay James Bond (and I don’t know about you but I’m dying for the film adaptions!) In Enigma #4, the Enigma entity awakened the latent homosexuality of its host Michael Smith — it was only an eight-issue series but it was still the lead character for the series grappling with his own sexuality. And then, just to confirm they had not been playing around by John Constantine’s casual coming out, in Hellblazer #69 depicts Constantine sharing a bed (well, a mattress on the floor) with a male prostitute. In Milestone Media — which published and distributed its comic books through DC — superhero Fade was outed by a telepathic supervillain in Blood Syndicate #8 — making him the first black gay superhero by a mainstream comic book publisher, even though he never really embraced who he was.
However, arguably DC’s most important queer character of the year was one we now often overlook — Coagula, who became a recurring character on Doom Patrol until about 2002. Coagula was the first transgender superhero (because Shvaughn Erin is technically not a superhero, she’s a just a regular cop), which she’d gotten her powers while working as a prostitute on the streets, after being hired by Doom Patrol’s Regis. She had first applied to join the Justice League and been rejected — something that seems to fly against previous statements by the Tasmanian Devil about how open-minded that group was. Whatever the case may be, she ended up joining the Doom Patrol and stayed with them until her death in 2002. But the most important thing about Coagula is her creator, Rachel Pollack — the first openly transgender writer to have worked for DC Comics. There have only been four others. The series Blood Syndicate would sort of reveal in their tenth issue that their shapeshifting character Masquerade was a transgender man, but they were just a few months after Coagula’s introduction.
One last important queer comics moment in 1993 that I wanted to touch on was when Malibu Comics Entertainment offered us a pretty harsh critique of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy three months before the Clinton administration enacted it, in The Strangers #5, in which the character Spectral comes out to the rest of the superhero team. They’re immediately accepting. (This also made Spectral the first gay character for Malibu Comics but since they were only going to be around another year before being absorbed into Marvel and basically forgotten, that’s kind of incidental.)
In 1994, a piece of anti-gay legislation appeared in the state of Washington. In order to combat it, Hands Off! Comics by Over 35 Artists Collected to Fight Discrimination and Homophobia! was published with all proceeds donated to Washington Citizens for Fairness. Advice columnist Dan Savage also took that year to dabble in comics, releasing two issues of Savage Love. The idea of gay superheroes took hold in underground comics, with Go-Go Boyby Neil Johnston and Leatherboy by Craig Maynard both being released.
In Marvel’s New Warriors #48, a time-traveling Justice would discover that his father — up to this point painted as a pretty unsympathetic abusive father character — was a closeted homosexual. And while that could have been dealt with really terribly, instead it was dealt with really compassionately, with Justice starting to come to terms with who his dad is and why. It’s kind of touching, but it doesn’t come close to what Marvel was gonna do next.
In The Incredible Hulk #417, Hector came out as gay and talked about how it wasn’t his choice. This set off an interesting relationship with his teammate Ulysses, who was homophobic. This would become particularly relevant later in the year when the two came to blows during The Incredible Hulk #420 — that issue revisited Jim Wilson’s AIDS in what is generally considered one of the best issues of the series. Aside from Jim’s storyline and ultimate death to AIDS complications (after being caught up in some violence at a protest over a student being expelled from school for being HIV positive), there’s a subplot wherein Betty Banner (the Hulk’s wife) tries to convince a straight white guy who’s just been diagnosed with HIV not to commit suicide — and she fails. Comic books often included letters from the fans at the end, but this issue instead had a number of comic book creators write a little bit about their own experiences with AIDS (all of which are in this really great article about the issue). The issue’s cover was used as an HIV awareness poster, so there’s a good chance you might recognize it even if you’ve never read it.
If it seems like DC was slacking off that year…well, not really. In the miniseries Fighting American, in which they were pretty blatantly parodying Captain America, they had their main character pursuing a relationship with a woman named Mary who turned out to be lesbian in the last issue. Shadow Cabinet revealed two of its female superheroes, Donner and Blitzen, were together, and in Static #16, the main character’s best friend Rick Stone came out after surviving a brutal gaybashing at the hands of white supremacists. The series The Invisibles introduced Lord Fanny, a transgender shaman from Brazil. The series Deathwish began, and one of the leads of the series was Marisa Rahm a transgender woman serving on the police force. Perhaps more notable is that Deathwish was written by Maddie Blaustein — a transgender woman herself, although she hadn’t changed her name yet. (Fun fact: Maddie also voiced Meowth on the first eight seasons of Pokémon.)
In 1995, the Atlanta AIDS Survival Project began including the strip “HIV + ME” by Chris Companik in their newsletter, which carried on into 2011. Kitchen Sink Press released….I mean just the most delightfully sacrilegious comic in Taboo #8, in which Jesus Christ and Lucifer have a philosophical debate that leads them to understand they have a lot in common. And then they kiss. The book was a collaborative effort between two openly gay creators P. Craig Russell and David Sexton, both of whom are fairly big in the comic industry.
That year would also see even more gay superheroes — Malibu Comics, recently acquired by Marvel, wrote superhero Turbocharge coming out in Prime (vol. 1) #21, becoming the first gay teenage superhero in mass produced comics. In Gen 13 (vol. 1) #2 by Image Comics, Native American superhero Rainmaker came out as bisexual. In DC’s Black Lightning (vol 2) #5, the hero Jefferson Pierce learned that his recently killed co-worker Walter Kasko was gay. Howard Cruse, best known so far for underground work, published a historical graphic novel called Stuck Rubber Baby for DC Comics, which dealt with the intersectionality of race and sexuality during the Civil Rights Movement. DC also released Chiaroscuro: The Private Lives of Leonardo Da Vinci, a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci that left in all the juicy gay parts that usually get dropped. They also gave Maggie Sawyer her own series — despite not being a superhero herself — called Metropolis S.C.U. — which was the first time a lesbian character was the lead in a mass produced comic book series that lasted for more than one issue (for which they would be awarded the GLAAD Outstanding Comic Award).
In 1996, DC, under their Vertigo Comics brand, published the autobiographical graphic novel 7 Miles a Second by David Wojnarowicz — four years after his death from AIDS. The book told his entire journey, not shying away from anything — from working as a teen prostitute, to his drug use, to his struggle with HIV — and especially his anger with the government for ignoring the epidemic. The call out of the government itself in a comic book is particularly significant. That same year, in the pages of Justice League of America #110 and #111, two different team members (Obsidian and Ice Maiden) told Nuklon about their queer sexualities. Just a couple of months later in DC’s series The Spectre (#45) in a story called “Acts of God”, the Spectre (and his alter-ego Jim Corrigan) learned to overcome his own homophobia and stand up against anti-gay violence being done in the name of religion. That story was nominated for a GLAAD Outstanding Comic Award, but lost to Neil Gaiman’s Death: The Time of Your Life — also published by DC. That miniseries follows a lesbian couple in which one is a popular musician on tour, tackling a whole lot of issues about public and private identities.
The following year, the character Hero came out about his homosexuality in the pages of Superboy and the Ravers #13. Supergirl (vol. 4) #10 introduced readers to Andy Jones — an angel made up of a man and a woman…it’s very reminiscent of Cloud only without having Andy’s attraction to Supergirl have any impact whatsoever on their gender presentation at any given time, which makes a lot more sense. (That’s Linda Danvers Supergirl not Kara Zor-El Supergirl…you know what? It’s a little confusing.) And the two did eventually have a relationship, albeit fairly short lived. Andy’s recurring appearances would score Supergirl a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Comic in 1999 — the fourth time DC won that award.
It seems like as soon as the Code said it was okay to do, DC was like “here’s all these queer issues we want to talk about, and a whole bunch of queer characters!” And they just went for it for most of the 90s. A big part of that can probably be credited to Neal Pozner, who was the Creative Director for DC Comics for a time and who was an HIV-positive gay man. He died from AIDS complications in 1994, and his romantic partner Phil Jiminez, who was a writer and artist for DC, began penning the miniseries Tempest shortly afterwards. It was based around Aqualad, a character Pozner had created a new costume for when he was writing Aquaman in the 80’s. At the end of the fourth issue of Tempest, which was published in 1997, Jiminez included an editorial in which he dedicated the miniseries to Pozner and publicly came out as a gay man — believed to be the first time a creator came out in the pages of a comic book. DC received over 150 supportive letters in response. Jiminez has gone on to great success since then and is arguably one of the more important comic book creators of the Modern Age.
Other openly gay creators, such as Maurice Vellekoop, began getting serious recognition for their work, even outside of underground circles. Drawn & Quarterly, one of the largest and most successful comic book publishing companies in Canada, collected a decade’s worth of Vellekoop’s works and published them in a book entitled Vellevision: A Cocktail of Comics and Pictures in November of 1997.
That was the same year that Disney animator Elizabeth Watasin debuted her character Magical Witch Girl Bunny in Action Girl Comics #13. Only a few years later, that character would be leading her own series called Charm School — of which nine issues have been published, and a tenth is currently on the way. Meanwhile, Andy Mangels and Michael A. Martin attempted to another franchise lagging in queer representation into the future by introducing the lesbian character Etana Kol into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine #10 — a comic book series created by Marvel Comics to tell additional adventures based on the TV series. I’m a big Trekkie myself, so let me tell you: it’s really a shame that these comic books aren’t considered canon because there wouldn’t be an actual lesbian in actual canon Star Trek for another 22 years. That’s another post I’m probably going to write at some point…
In 1998, Mangels and Martin introduced a gay man named Yoshi Mishima to Star Trek in Marvel’s Star Trek: Starfleet Academy #17 — still not canon, still about 18 years before actual Star Trek would have its first actual gay man. But a good effort all the same. Other than that 1998 mostly saw our representation in underground comics like Havoc Inc. — a comedic sci-fi adventure series starring Chester Magreer and Chris Deck, a gay couple who operate a space freighter business together with their adopted daughter. The series ran for nine issues, ending in 2001. The comic strips “Troy” (by Michael Derry) and “Chelsea Boys” (by Glenn Hanson) — both of which would end up published in various gay newspapers and magazines — both launched that year as well.
The following year seemed like it would be much the same — mostly queer artists telling queer stories in underground and alternative comic books. Julian Lake‘s cartoons were released in a collection called Guess Who’s ComingOut at Dinner, Samuel Delaney published an autobiographical graphic novel called Bread and Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York, Jennifer Camper put out the first strips of “Subgurlz.” And then San Diego Comic Con International happened — the first edition of Out in Comics, a guide to the work of LGBTQ+ comic creators, was released by Andy Mangels and an ashcan edition of Gay Force Quarterly appeared at the convention as well, creating quite a stir (until no finished issues were ever released. Oops.)
But even that paled in comparison to what would happen in December when DC, under their WildStorm imprint (which they had just acquired), released The Authority #8, wherein it was revealed that Midnighter and Apollo — basically the Batman and Superman of that comic universe, who’d been fairly central characters in two series for the past year — were a couple. (And when I say “revealed” I really mean “confirmed for people who really can’t read between the lines” — they were naked in a bedroom together in their very first everscene, for crying out loud.) There was nothing truly “first” or groundbreaking about them — two white male superheroes being gay together. What made it important was that they were already so important. And they’d be even more important in the coming decades….
Last June, as you may recall, I did a whole series on the Heroes of Stonewall. Obviously, it was a massive riot, I couldn’t cover everyone who was there in just a month. I left out someone incredibly important (several someones), and I can’t think of a better time to cover the story of another transgender person of color who heroically led us at the Stonewall Riots, and afterwards, than right now — when the Trump administration is attacking the healthcare rights of transgender people.
MissMajor Griffin-Gracy was born in Chicago on October 25, 1940 in the south side of Chicago at St. Luke’s Hospital. She was assigned to the male gender at birth. It didn’t last too long — while she was still fairly young, she discovered the drag ball scene and began participating regularly. She later explained that, without the terminology we have today existing, she did not realize that she and her peers were questioning their gender identities. But they were, and Miss Major was fairly open about it. Her parents attempted to curb this, but eventually just kicked her out.
Afterwards, she was homelessness — getting by as best she could through sex work and the occasional theft. She transitioned, using hormones she purchased on the black market — something that became a booming business following the very public transition of Christine Jorgensen. She briefly had a job as a secretary for the Mattachine Society, but even that didn’t last too long.
After a run in with the law, and a six month bout in a mental institution, Miss Major moved to New York City. She became a performer at the famous Jewel Box Revue, as well as the Cherries and the Powder Puff Revue. (As an aside, I’m definitely a 90’s kid because I definitely first thought that was “Powerpuff” but it isn’t.) During these years she experimented with a handful of names, but settled on the one her parents had given her: Major. She simply added the word “Miss” in front of it.
Although many of the gay bars would not let her in, Miss Major became a frequent customer at the Stonewall Inn — probably at least in part because of her and Stormé DeLarverie‘s shared association with the Jewel Box Revue. She was there on the night of June 27, 1969 and stayed late enough to be present when the police raided the bar. She participated in the rioting on that first night, until she spit in the face off one of the police officers — he responded by knocking her out. She awoke the next day in a prison cell. While she was in police custody, her jaw was broken.
After the riot, Miss Major was deeply changed by the murder of a Puerto Rican transgender friend of hers known as Puppy. Despite plenty of evidence, the police ruled the murder was a suicide. She realized that transgender women of New York could not depend on anyone but each other — she began to build a network so that they could help protect each other. This was especially true of sex workers, who started trying to get their “johns” to exit the cars so that all of the girls could see them — just in case a girl never came back from a job.
She was arrested in 1970 for burglary after a safe-breaking job went wrong, and spent four years at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. He had a great deal of respect for Miss Major, and her gender identity, and he talked to her about how she could help her community. She spent a good amount of time in solitary confinement — she was imprisoned with men, and every time a fight broke out between her and any other inmate, she was the one who was punished. She was paroled twice — but both times the parole was revoked when her parole officer reported her for deviant behavior (once was for adopting a more feminine appearance by shaving her face, and the second time was for “entering a deviant bar.”) While incarcerated, she communicated regularly with Frank “Big Black” Smith — who had been in charge of security at the Attica Correctional Facility Riots of 1971. When she was finally released in 1974, she took those lessons to heart.
In 1978, Miss Major’s long-time girlfriend gave birth to their son Christopher. Miss Major decided the life she’d built in New York was not one well-suited for raising a child, she secured sole custody of Christopher and moved to San Diego. She would eventually adopted three other boys — runaways she met at a park. This was the start of a growing chosen family that still rallies around Miss Major to this day. She started working at a food bank and attempted to help transgender people who were in prison or recovering from addiction, but as the AIDS epidemic began to ravage the queer community of California, Miss Major turned her attention to helping provide healthcare and performing funerals. The silver lining for the epidemic, Miss Major later recalled, was that many transgender people — especially women — were able to find legitimate, legal jobs for the first time, even if that job was the heartbreaking task of providing healthcare to doomed queer people no one else wanted to touch.
In the mid 90’s, Miss Major moved to San Francisco. She continued her HIV/AIDS activism, including serving with the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center (TARC). As part of that organization, she ensured they had a refrigerator available so that homeless people could store food and medications at the center. She fought for them to acquire a washing machine and a dryer so homeless people in the community could do their laundry.
In 2003, Miss Major — who’s activism was returning more to its original focus on incarcerated transgender people — joined the newly founded Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project (TGI Justice Project), and became the Executive Director. In this position, she is one of an estimated five people in the United States that is working full time towards equal transgender rights in prison. She has testified about human rights violations towards transgender people in prisons before both the California State Assembly and the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva. One particular focus of her activism is on the healthcare that transgender inmates receive — they are sometimes denied everything from hormones to routine medical examinations. But, as she notes, transgender inmates face abuse in almost every aspect of prison life, and are overrepresented in prison populations (where they are typically housed with the incorrect gender).
She has decried the gay rights movement for ignoring the plight of transgender people as they fought for equality — a sentiment that was shared deeply by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. (And frankly, shared by me too. It’s hard to argue with.) But Miss Major herself has continued to fight tirelessly for those the rest of society wanted to ignore. She’s known to have said: “Just because there’s this umbrella, LGBT, we’re all grouped together. But guess what? Someone poked a hole in the umbrella and the girls are still getting wet.”
And recently, although those sentiments still largely hold true, Miss Major herself has finally been getting attention for her decades of work. In 2014, Miss Major was made the Grand Marshall of the San Francisco Pride Parade. In 2015, the documentary MAJOR! was released, following Miss Major’s life as an activist.
More recently, in 2018 Miss Major has relocated from California to Little Rock, Arkansas. There, she has founded the Griffin-Gracy Historical Retreat and Educational Center — also known the House of GG. On July 4, 2019 Miss Major suffered a stroke — but survived and is recovering well enough that she has been engaged in Black Lives Matters protests within the past month according to her Instagram. If you want to help with her continued recovery or with her continued activisim for transgender and gender non-conforming people, a website has been set up for donations.
While articles about Miss Major’s life and activism are plentiful, they all have anecdotes of Miss Major saving lives by simply being there, lending an ear, or offering advice and a good book. It’s little wonder so many have rallied around her, now often calling her “Mama Major” or “Grandma Major.” Janet Mock, a writer, director, and producer — one of the creators of the TV show Pose, once said, “Without Miss Major’s contributions and work, I would not exist.” There are countless transgender people in this country who say the same. That’s a tremendous legacy, but when asked what she hoped her legacy would be in a 2018 interview she said: “If ain’t right, fucking fix it, whatever it takes.”
And if that’s not a mantra for the whole world to adopt, I don’t know what is.
(PS, Miss Major also has a Facebook page you should totally follow.)
Before we begin, I do want to take a moment to apologize for my lengthy hiatus — life just got really busy around the holidays and — I’m sure you’ve all noticed — a lot has been going on since then just in the world. Anyways, craziness aside, it’s Pride month now and festivals or no, I was not about to let this month go by without writing out some queer history for you! So, we’re back! I was writing a post about Harvey Milk, but then something happened that called for me to change courses: we lost a legend. Not to spoil the end of this post or anything, but Larry Kramer passed away last week. And as he was someone who had a profound impact on our community…I couldn’t just not write about him.
Laurence “Larry” David Kramer was born in Bridgeport, CT on June 25, 1935 in the midst of the Great Depression. He was the second child of a struggling Jewish family, who had really not wanted another mouth to feed as they struggled to find work. His father George Kramer was a government attorney, his mother Rea worked variously as a shoe store employee, a teacher, and a social worker with the Red Cross.
Eventually — after the Depression — the family moved to Maryland — I’m guessing because of his dad’s job — but they were in a much lower income bracket than the family’s of Larry’s fellow students at his school. Larry had his first sexual relationship with another boy during junior high school. It was, from what I can gather, purely sexual and not romantic at all.
As he grew up, he had mounting pressure from his family. His father wanted him to marry a wealthy Jewish woman, and go to Yale, and become a member of the Pi Tau Pi fraternity. Although Larry enrolled at Yale….the rest of that is not exactly how things were going to go down. When Larry got to Yale, he found himself very isolated, feeling like the only gay guy on campus. This is 1953, so there’s not like a Gay/Straight Alliance he can just join up with — he’s pretty much stuck on his own with no way of connecting with other queer students. So, he tried to kill himself by overdosing on aspirin.
Fortunately, the attempt failed. I don’t know the details, but I’m hoping he just like…got a cramp for ten minutes and then was fine. Probably not, because he was very much changed after that. He became loud, proud, determined to fight for gay people and determined to explore his own sexuality. And determined not to marry a rich Jewish woman. The following semester, he began a romantic relationship with his German professor. He joined the Varsity Glee Club, and was an active member there until he graduated in 1957 with a degree in English. As far as I know, he never joined Pi Tau Pi.
At the age of 23, Larry became involved in movie productions, taking a job at Columbia Pictures as a Teletype operator — a job where the office happened to be across the hall from the president’s office. This led pretty directly to his first writing credit, a dialogue writer for Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. He followed this by adapting the novel Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence into a screenplay. The movie was nominated for an Oscar in 1969. Larry’s third major project was a musical adaption of Frank Capra’s movie Lost Horizon, which debuted in 1973. Though Larry later was embarrassed by the project, it made him a substantial amount of money that, due to some wise investments made by Larry’s older brother Arthur, gave him enough money to not worry about money for the better part of the 80s and 90s. Doesn’t sound all that embarrassing when you look at it like that, huh?
Having established himself, Larry began taking some risks. He started writing plays and — much riskier — he started adding homosexual elements to his work. The first of these plays was 1973’s Sissies’ Scrapbook (which would later become the play Four Friends — I gather the play is better but the title’s pretty forgettable now.) Larry found he loved writing for the stage — until the producer canceled the show despite a favorable review in The New York Times. At that point, Larry promised never to write for the stage again.
In 1978, following a break up with his boyfriend David Webster, he wrote and published the novel Faggots. The book was based around a character who was looking for love, but was caught up in drugs and partying in bars and clubs on Fire Island and in Manhattan. To say that the book was not well received is an understatement. Heterosexual readers found it appalling, and could not believe that it reflected an accurate representation of a gay man’s life. The queer community had an even harsher reaction to the book — the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, the only gay bookstore in New York at the time, refused to sell the book at all. Larry was banned from the local grocery store where he lived on Fire Island. The book was universally trashed by mainstream and queer media alike.
Despite that, Faggots is one of the best-selling gay novels of all time and has not been out of publication at all since its debut. The book is often taught in LGBTQ+ studies. It’s been noted that the themes of Faggots are still relevant to the gay community to this day — the negative reaction to the book, as pointed out by many who’ve studied the book since it was first published, such as Reynolds Price and Andrew Sullivan, is largely because it touched a nerve and was more honest than people were comfortable with.
Despite the reaction to the novel, Larry still managed to have a lot of friends on Fire Island, so when a number of them began to fall ill in 1980, he was concerned. The next year, after reading an article in the New York Times about “gay cancer”, he decided something had to be done. He invited about 80 affluent gay men to his home in New York City, where they listened to a doctor explain what little they knew about the related illnesses afflicting gay men. By the next year, this group had officially formed into the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) which quickly became the primary organization raising funds and helping to provide services for those afflicted with AIDS in and around New York. GMHC is still providing support for people who are impacted by HIV and AIDS and has been expanding every year.
Kramer led the GMHC in a fight to get funding from the city to help them provide much-needed services to those fighting the disease. He made NYC mayor Ed Koch a principle target for this fight. When doctors began to suggest that, to curb the spread of the disease, gay men stop having sex, Larry brought this to the GMHC and suggested they spread the word. His colleagues refused.
Larry was not deterred. He wrote a fiery piece called “1,112 and Counting” which was published in the gay newspaper the New York Native. The essay attacked basically everyone. Healthcare workers, the CDC, politicians — and it also went after the apathy of the gay community. The piece did something important than no one else had managed: it caught the attention of the rest of New York’s media. It finally had people talking about the AIDS epidemic. According to Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, “With that one piece, Larry changed my world. He changed the world for all of us.”
Unfortunately, it also contributed to Larry’s growing reputation as a confrontational crazy person. He had gone toe-to-toe with an NIH agency of not devoting more resources to the AIDS crisis because he was deeply in the closet. Similarly, Larry had it out quite publicly with conservative fundraiser Terry Dolan, even throwing a drink in his face, for secretly having sex with men while using homophobia as a political tool to his advantage. He argued with his brother, whose law firm Kramer Levin refused to represent GMHC. He called Ed Koch his cohorts in city government “equal to murderers.” He even attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci, the scientist who was leading the government’s response (once there was one.) Ultimately, this behavior led to the dissolution of Larry’s long-term relationship with a fellow member of the board of GMHC and — perhaps even more devastating — it led to GMHC removing Larry from the organization he’d essentially started in 1983.
After his removal from the group, Larry traveled to Europe. While he was there, he visited the Dachau concentration camp where he was horrified to learn that it had begun operating in 1933 and no one, in or out of Germany, had seen fit to stop it. He felt this paralleled the US government’s response to AIDS. Despite having sworn never to write for the stage again, Larry churned out a script for the play The Normal Heart — a somewhat autobiographical look at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. I’m not going to talk too much about its contents, other than to say that you should absolutely watch it — you can see the 2014 film version on Hulu or Amazon Prime, starring Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer. The play itself was groundbreaking — one of, if not the, script to actually talk about AIDS. The play premiered in 1985, a full year before President Ronald Reagan would publicly mention the disease. It was produced by the Public Theater — running for over a year and becoming the Public Theater’s longest running production. It’s been produced over 600 times since then, in countries all over the world. (That’s not even counting the movie!)
Two years later, Larry was invited to speak at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in NYC. His speech was well-attended and focused on fighting AIDS. He started the speech by having two-thirds of the people in the room stand up — and then he informed them that they would be dead within five years. For the most part, the rest of his speech was rehashing his points from “1,112 And Counting.” At the end of the speech, he asked the attendees if they wanted to start a new organization devoted to political action. The audience agreed that they did, and two days later about 300 of them met again to form the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) — an direct action organization primarily focused on advocating on behalf of issues relating AIDS and HIV, such as medical research and improving public policies.
Initially, their primary method was civil disobedience. They sought to get attention for their cause by getting their members arrested. Larry himself was arrested over a dozen times. ACT UP did manage to capture a lot of attention — with new chapters forming rapidly across the United States and even into Europe. (And, if you’ve seen or heard RENT or watched the second season of Pose you already knew about them. And if you haven’t watched Pose, fix your life. After you finish reading this.)
In 1988, Larry wrote his next script — Just Say No, A Play About a Farce. Despite the title, the play is not a farce, it’s a dramatic piece that is almost entirely a commentary on the indifference the Reagan administration showed towards the AIDS epidemic. The play received a terrible review from the New York Times which kept most audiences away. However, those who did attend reportedly loved the show. After seeing it, activist and writer Susan Sontag wrote, “Larry Kramer is one of America’s most valuable troublemakers. I hope he never lowers his voice.”
The stress of the opening of the show caused Larry to suffer a hernia, which sent Larry to the a few weeks after the show opened. While there, they discovered he had experienced liver damage from Hepatitis B and, subsequently, they found that he was HIV positive. Nevertheless, Larry was not deterred, and he was not about to lower his voice.
He published a non-fiction book called Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist in 1989. The book documents his career as an activist, particularly his time at GMHC but also his work with ACT UP and a lot of letters to editors and speeches he wrote. The book encouraged gay men to take responsibility for their own health, and urged survivors to help strengthen their community by giving back to it and advocating for it. The book also, quite intentionally but definitely controversially, declares the AIDS epidemic a holocaust, stating the government ignored it because it was primarily wiping out minorities and poor people.
His next piece was a sequel to The Normal Heart called The Destiny of Me in 1992, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, won two Obie Awards, and the Lortel Award for Outstanding Play of the Year. To be honest, I haven’t seen it or read it (yet!) so I’m not going to tell you too much else about it.
In 1995, Larry reunited with his ex-boyfriend David Webster. The two were together for the rest of Larry’s life.
In 1997, Larry tried to give several million dollars to Yale to establish a continuous, permanent gay studies class, and to possibly construct a gay and lesbian student center. The proposal was incredibly narrow — something which Larry would later himself comment on the flaw of — and stated “Yale is to use this money solely for 1) the study of and/or instruction in gay male literature, by which I mean courses to study gay male writers throughout history or the teaching to gay male students of writing about their heritage and their experience. To ensure for the continuity of courses in either or both of these areas tenured positions should be established; and/or 2) the establishment of a gay student center at Yale.” The provost declined, stating it was too narrow a field of study. By 2001, however, Larry and Yale reached an agreement. Arthur Kramer gave Yale 1 million dollars to have a five year trial of the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies — a program focused on gay and lesbian history.
2001 was also the year that Larry needed a liver transplant. He was rejected by Mount Sinai Hospital’s organ transplant list because of his HIV. At the time, HIV positive patients were routinely rejected because of a belief that they were more likely to have complications. I don’t know if that was true or not at the time, I’m not a doctor and I don’t really follow advances in organ transplants. Larry certainly considered it discrimination, and — as we could predict by now — he was not quiet about it. In May — with the help of Dr. Fauci, who he had actually become very good friends with over the years — he was added to the transplant list at the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute at the University of Pittsburgh. It was too late to stop the media though — on June 11, Newsweek published an article titled “The Angry Prophet is Dying”. He received his transplant on December 21 and was moved out of the intensive care unit on December 26. There was some miscommunication about that, which led the Associated Press to release an article erroneously announcing that he had died. In actuality, he was in a regular hospital room and was released to his home the following week.
Larry managed to stay out of trouble for a couple of years after that — until George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004. Larry believed Bush’s re-election was mostly due to opposition to marriage equality, so he gave a speech entitled “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays” on November 21 of that year. The speech was published in a book the following year. In the speech, he laid out the framework for an intentional plan by the wealthy and conservative elite to destroy the lives of racial minorities, non-Christians, the poor, and gays and lesbians that went back as far as 1971 with the “Powell Manifesto”. He described the AIDS epidemic as a dream come true for this behind this — a genocide that the undesirables spread among themselves. It was mostly hailed as a passionate and truthful call to arms. Others, however, accused Larry of homophobia — pointing to his history of being anti-sex in the midst of the AIDS epidemic and Faggots to establish a pattern. I’d like to point out, though, that much of what he was warning us about is proving true right now.
The next decade was a fairly quiet one, although the Broadway revival of The Normal Heart won a Tony Award in 2011, and he married David Webster in 2013. The following year, of course, The Normal Heart was made into a movie.
In 2015 he published the novel The American People: Volume 1, Search for my Heart, a passion project he’d been working on since 1981. In it, he asserted that a number of important American historical figures were gay: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Herman Melville, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Richard Nixon…. while the novel is a work of fiction, apparently he put a great deal of research into it, but I am still really skeptical about most of those names. (But I’m definitely doing some of my own research just to be sure!)
Anyways, this year — 2020 — he released the second volume of The American People: Volume 2, The Brutality of Fact. The combined work is called The American People: A History. I haven’t read it yet. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Larry began writing a new play called An Army of Lovers Must Not Die. Unfortunately, he was unable to finish it before he came down with pneumonia and passed away on May 27.
Larry Kramer had a remarkable ability to force a spotlight to shine on issues. He probably garnered more attention for the AIDS crisis than anyone outside of Rock Hudson. He certainly reshaped the way that the government, and scientists — particularly those working with the government — respond to activists. He had a profound impact on medicine in general — it is because of him that part of the process the FDA uses to approve new drugs involves consulting with representatives from groups who will use the medicine. He will likely go down as one of the most aggressive activists in queer history, but he’ll have that reputation because when he did it…it worked.
Although she regularly said her middle initial stood for “Pay it no mind”, Marsha P. Johnson proved to be a difficult person not to notice. Though Johnson is commonly referred to using female pronouns (she/her/hers) — and I’ll be doing that here — her actual gender identity is a bit of a mystery. She variously described herself as gay, a transvestite, and as a (drag) queen — though words like “transgender” really weren’t being widely used yet during her lifetime. My personal opinion is that she would probably identify as gender non-conforming or non-binary, but make your own judgments.
Johnson was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey on August 24, 1945 — one of seven children — and was named Malcolm Michaels Jr by her parents, Malcolm Michaels Sr and Alberta Claiborne. They were not, from all accounts, a particularly open-minded family and Claiborne was said to believe that being a homosexual was like being “lower than dog.” Johnson was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and remained a devout, practicing Christian for her entire life.
At the age of five, Johnson began to wear dresses — but stopped because she was harassed and teased by neighborhood boys. Some time during this period, Johnson was sexually assaulted by a boy who was roughly the age of 13. In 1963, Johnson graduated from Edison High School and promptly moved to New York City with $15 and a bag of clothing. By 1966, she was waiting tables, engaging in sex work, and living on the streets of the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan.
She also began to perform as a drag queen — initially going by the name “Black Marsha” before settling on Marsha P. Johnson. She was often recognizable for having flowers in her hair — something she began doing after sleeping under flower sorting tables in Manhattan’s Flower District. She usually had on bright colored wigs, shiny dresses, and long flowing robes. Marsha was known to be peaceful and fun, but there was a violent and short-tempered side to her personality (which her friends commonly called “Malcolm”) — leading some to suspect that she suffered from schizophrenia. Between her sex work and her occasional violent outbursts, Johnson claimed to have been arrested more than a hundred times.
When the Stonewall Inn began to permit women and drag queens inside, Johnson was one of the first to begin regularly visiting the bar. Some witnesses have even credited her with starting off the riots in 1969. Although this claim has certainly gained traction and become the popular version of events, she likely was not the woman who sparked off the Stonewall Riots by throwing the legendary “first brick” — this was also rumored, and was perhaps more likely to be Jackie Hormona or Zazu Nova by eyewitnesses — Johnson did have one particularly iconic, though unconfirmed, moment in the riots. She is said to have shouted “I got my civil rights!” and thrown a shot glass at a mirror. ( Some said this — the “shot glass heard round the world” — was the moment that started the riots, but Johnson herself disputed this. According to Johnson, word of the riots reached her and she immediately went to collect her friend Sylvia Rivera so they could join in — but Rivera was sleeping on a bench. According to Johnson, she arrived at about 2:00 am, forty minutes after the riots began. (I guess word traveled fast!) There are many reports that on the second night of rioting, Johnson climbed up a street lamp with a purse that was loaded down with a brick — which she dropped through the windshield of a police car. Though there’s a lot of stories about those riots, and a lot of confusion about the details it is very clear that Johnson was there and made a noticeable impact.
Although she’d been an activist before, Johnson became a real leader in the LGBT movements that followed the riots. In 1970, she and Sylvia Rivera founded the Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR) — an organization that provided community support for transgender youth. She also joined the Gay Liberation Front and participated in the Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally that commemorated the first anniversary of Stonewall (and was, essentially, the creation of the Pride festivals we celebrate.) At one rally in the early 70’s, Johnson was asked by a member of the press what they were protesting for –Johnson shouted into the reporter’s microphone “Darling, I want my gay rights now!”
Johnson once said, “I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville until I became a drag queen. That’s what made me in New York, that’s what made me in New Jersey, that’s what made me in the world.” In 1972, she began to perform periodically with the international drag troupe Hot Peaches. She was also continuing to work as a sex worker, taking the money she (and Rivera) earned from that business to help pay the rent for the housing for transgender youth that STAR had established that year. Johnson also took on an active role mentoring all of the youth in their care, becoming a “drag mother” even to those who were not performers. Although STAR declined and closed in 1973, it was a groundbreaking organization and the shelter that it provided queer youth was truly revolutionary.
In 1973, Johnson also performed with the Angels of Light drag troupe — taking on the role of “The Gypsy Queen” in their production of “The Enchanted Miracle”. That same year both Johnson and Rivera were banned from participating in New York’s gay pride parade — the committee organizing the parade felt that drag queens and transvestites brought negative attention and gave the cause “a bad name.” In response, Rivera and Johnson marched ahead of the beginning of the parade.
In 1975, Andy Warhol took pictures of Johnson for his “Ladies and Gentlemen” series. Johnson’s success as an activist and a performer, as well as her regular appearances throughout the decade, earned her the nickname “Mayor of Christopher Street.”
By 1979, Johnson’s mental health was beginning to decline quite severely. Her aggressive side was coming out more often, and a Village Voice article called “The Drag of Politics” listed all of the Manhattan gay bars from which Johnson had been banned. In 1980, a friend named Randy Wicker invited Johnson to stay with him for a particularly cold night and the two remained roommates for the rest of Johnson’s life. This was — as far as I can tell — the first time Johnson had a permanent address since moving to New York in 1963.
In the 1980’s, Johnson began to work with ACT UP as an organizer and marshal, and was a prolific AIDS activist. She made this her primary focus for the last few years of her life. On July 6, 1992 — just after that years New York Pride festivities — she was found dead in the Hudson River with a large wound in the back of her head. The police ruled her death a suicide — despite pressure from the community and the fact that she had a wound in the back of her head. One witness had spoken of Johnson’s fragile mental health to the police — which was all the police, who had no interest in investigating a black queer person’s death, needed despite witness testimonies also describing Johnson being harassed by a gang. Another witness claimed to have heard a man brag about killing a drag queen named Marsha. The police did allow Seventh Avenue to be closed so that Johnson’s friends could spread her ashes out over the river.
In 2012, an activist named Mariah Lopez was finally successful in convincing the police to re-open Johnson’s case and investigate it as a homicide. That was also the year that the first documentary about Johnson was released: Pay It No Mind — The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson. This documentary included footage from an interview that had been filmed only ten days before Johnson’s death. Fictionalized versions of Johnson also appeared in the films Stonewall (released in 2015) and Happy Birthday Marsha! (released in 2016.) In 2017, another documentary was released — The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson — which followed the Anti-Violence Project’s Victoria Cruz investigating Johnson’s death on her own. Despite all of these tributes, it wasn’t until 2018 that the New York Times published an obituary for her.
Johnson — with her friend Sylvia Rivera — will be honored with a monument in Greenwich Village, near Stonewall. This is perhaps most fitting for Johnson, since she was quite insistent about moving the Stonewall monument from Ohio to Christopher Street in New York City in 1992 — famously saying “How many people have died for these two little statues to be put in the park to recognize gay people? How many years does it take for people to see that we’re all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race? I mean how many years does it take for people to see that we’re all in this rat race together?”
Johnson may not have “thrown the first brick” at Stonewall, but she led the fight for LGBTQ+ equality in every other way. Randy Wicker said of Johnson that she “rose above being a man or a woman, rose above being black or white, rose above being straight or gay”, while Rupaul described her as “the true Drag Mother.”
So, while we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, let’s all pay plenty of mind to Marsha P. Johnson — and to the other heroes who stood up that day and said “Darling, I want my gay rights now!”
So, June 5th actually marks an important moment in LGBT+ history — and for today we’re not delving into the ancient past. This day in 1981, the CDC published its first documentation on the disease that would be known as AIDS. The document was about a cluster of five gay men in Los Angeles infected with Pheumocystis Pneumonia — a fungal infection in the lungs that occurs almost exclusively in people with weakened immune systems. Within days of this report being published, doctors from across the United States would flood the CDC with reports of similar infections. Although in many ways this marks the “official” start of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, the LGBT+ community was already aware of the epidemic. On May 18, Lawrence Mass had become the first journalist to write about the epidemic, publishing a piece entitled “Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded” in a gay newspaper call The New York Native. Mass’s sources, NYC public health officials, had claimed to him that his assertion that a fungal infection was sweeping through New York’s gay community was totally unfounded — even though the CDC had been investigating the same claim for a month. By the end of 1981, 270 cases of severe immune deficiency were reported in gay men and 121 of those reported had died. At this point, the disease still did not have a name and was not clearly understood. The CDC would not dub the disease Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) until September 24 of the following year. By 1985 — the same year that President Ronald Reagan first publicly mentioned AIDS — at least one HIV infection had been reported in every region of the world.