Marsha P. Johnson Institute honors, uplifts Black trans lives

Marsha P. Johnson — a towering figure in the Stonewall Rebellion — would have celebrated her 77th birthday this week. Johnson was an outspoken advocate for gay and trans rights, and the “P” in her name stood for “Pay it no mind” — 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?

ELLE MOXLEY: The Marsha P. Johnson Institute launched in 2019, and my founding of the organization was in response to the consistent murders that were being reported of Black trans women across the country. I have spent many years working as an organizer and activist, and I saw that there was a gap in social justice spaces — in terms of the solutions that were being generated in response to those murders, but also to the systemic and structural violence that existed around Black trans people and Black people period.

The organization was named in honor of Marsha P. Johnson to affirm the movement that Marsha spearheaded and to create a space where the movement of today had a place to live, without disregarding the history of so many that came before.

BLADE: Can you tell me about the spirit of Marsha P. Johnson that you see in the Institute?

MOXLEY: The fight for equity is something that we see as an evolvement of Marsha’s belief in equality, and we recognize that Marsha was very visible in a movement that did not always reflect faces that looked like hers, in terms of what we understood about 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 evolvement of our work at the Institute, but that evolvement would not even be possible if Marsha had not made herself visible on the front lines of her activism. It is in that regard where we see ourselves very much mirroring a model that she created for the movement, and we have certainly held up the torch and are carrying it forward.

BLADE: The Institute’s Starship Artists Fellowships are set to begin soon — what are your hopes for the new program?

MOXLEY: With all of our new programming, it really is our hope that we are changing the culture of global societies — that we are not only making Black trans people visible, but we’re making the full humanity of our existence visible. The artists’ fellowship was created to pay homage to the visionaries that exist in the Black trans community. There’s a Black trans renaissance that certainly is underway, and we want to continue to support that function of movement. A lot of people assume that movement is literally about protesting — and that certainly is a big part of it — but there are other ways that you can resist but also practice your joy. We really want it to mirror that Black trans people are joyful — we have joy, and murder is not the only thing we expect to happen to us. Our artists’ fellowship creates space for artists to imagine a bigger picture, a bigger world, for Black trans futures.

I am an artist myself, so that was also a big part of it. Activism is something that Black trans people often have to choose to survive, and we are mad and angry about our circumstances, but we actually are people who have other dreams and desires outside of just fighting for our lives. Marsha P. Johnson again served as an amazing model for movement — her participation in street art and in theater troupes is a reflection of the joy that so many people find outside of their activism.

BLADE: In honor of Black Philanthropy Month and Black August, are there any understudied or underreported causes and freedom fighters that people should be more aware of?

MOXLEY: Just several 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 solitary confinement in U.S. history. 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. It’s real people who are being housed in prisons, and I say real people because the atrocities of life are often happening to the people who are in cages. I think Black Philanthropy Month creates a space for more investments to happen to organizations who are leading the fight against the apartheid and the segregation that certainly exist in America.

To celebrate the freedom fighters of our time, we are uplifting Black trans freedom fighters who have given their lives to movement, who have given their lives for others. And that’s happening in and outside of prisons — those who are on the inside of prisons are always still advocating for the people in the communities that they believe in, and we are so grateful and thankful to those folks.

BLADE: It seems like most of the recent news about reproductive rights and trans rights has been dismal. Are there any bright spots on your radar, in terms of legislative progress on these issues?

MOXLEY: Anytime a human right is interrupted or taken away, it is such a negative for so many people who are looking for legislation that gives them hope. I will say that I’ve just been hopeful about the future of democracy and of our humanity. I think there are so many activists who have been activated to lead to more generative resolutions around legislation, especially when we think about piecemeal legislation actually being the thing that’s being abolished. That’s the beautiful juxtaposition of what happens when we lose a law — the thing about laws is that they can go away, and they can always return.

If we lean into the positive, we have an opportunity to create more than we originally started with. And that’s the thing that gives me so much hope — we can create more foundational legislation that accounts for the human rights of all people and not just a specific kind. With reproductive justice being at the center of so many of our political conversations, what we are seeing is an expansion of what reproductive justice means and who reproductive justice applies to. And that is what gives me great hope, that we will now be able to account for more than just the abortions of trans men, that we’ll be able to think about the reproductive rights of Black trans women and nonbinary people in ways that we’ve never been able to consider before.