Sunday, June 2, 2019

Pay It No Mind

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"Pay it No Mind"

Marsha P. Johnson was a woman set apart. Her own community regarded her both as a saint and as an outcast. While she has begun to be remembered as one of the founders of the gay rights movement, one of the first to resist in the Stonewall Riots, and a co-founder of one of the first transgender rights groups, in New York during the 1960’s and 70’s there were many members of the trans and gay community who did not want anything to do with her. Unlike some of the trans women and drag queens who lived in the Village, Marsha’s poverty and homelessness made it hard for her to afford high quality clothing or make-up. Instead, this black trans woman with chronic mental illness would accept free donations and buy resale clothes from the thrift store. As a result, trans women, drag queens, and gay men would cross the street to avoid her because they felt that her way of dress and behavior was an embarrassment. She was even within the LGBTQ community considered by some unclean.

At the same time, Marsha was revered. A friend recalled seeing her sleeping under tables in the flower district. When they asked the shop owners if they should tell her to leave, they said, “no, she is holy.” These flower shop owners came to know and adore Marsha. They would give her extra flowers with which she would create these hair pieces and hats that would crown her face like a floral halo. And they were not the only ones who called Marsha a holy woman. Members of the community in the 1960s and 70s recall how people would meet her from all around, people visiting New York from other countries, and how she would attract people with her friendliness, generosity, and good spirit. Over time, people began referring to her as Saint Marsha. And this is all before her rise to prominence one night when police were harassing the LGBT community at the Stonewall Inn and Marsha was one of the first to riot in resistance. After this she would join with Sylvia Rivera to form STAR, one of the first trans rights organizations. Yet before this and throughout her life, Marsha was called a saint not just because of her activism but because of what might be more accurately called her ministry.

Marsha says she married Jesus when she was 16 years old. Jesus was the only man she could trust, she told interviewers. Jesus never laughed at her, she said. Jesus took her very seriously. Marsha was a mystic as well as an activist, performer, and community leader. She lived with mental illness as well but told people, “just because I am crazy, doesn’t make me wrong.” Despite or because of her eccentricities, literally a woman who lived outside the center of the community, she was considered a woman set apart. She was known for being holy, for being compassionate and generous. She was known for being brave and yearning for justice. She had next to nothing but gave everything for her community and her faith.

May we come to see the saints God has called from among the outcasts and the unclean. May we be guided by the spirit and the love of holy women like Marsha P. Johnson. May we likewise welcome the stranger, give generously, wear flowers in our hair, and when we find ourselves harassed by unfair systems of oppression, may we know when to stand, may we be brave enough to resist, and may we pay no mind to a world that would shame us for who we are. May we find hope, find life, find love, and find pride among God’s most unlikely of saints.

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