"New" Archives: the Life of Marsha P. Johnson
A draft of something a wrote in 2018. News that wasn't fit to print.
I decided to take a short break from the correspondence project I’ve been working on. My final entry in that will be published later this week.
Back in 2018, a writer at The New York Times reached out to me about a project they were working on. It was called “Overlooked,” and it was described as a chance to right some of the wrongs of the paper’s obituaries section, which had disproportionately celebrated the lives of white men while ignoring other notable people in history. I thought that was really neat.
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The writer thought I might be a good fit to write a piece about Marsha P. Johnson, a trans woman involved in New York City LGBTQ advocacy during the 1960s through her death in 1992. I was excited, and I was honored to be given the opportunity to celebrate her life in a prestigious paper.
But after weeks of working on it, the editors overseeing the project and I just couldn’t make my draft work for what they were looking for. The feedback I got was fair, and I just couldn’t seem to figure out what the paper was looking for. That stuff happens. No biggie. I was mostly frustrated that Johnson might get left out of the project entirely. Luckily, the paper assigned her story to one of their staff writers. Slightly… less luckily, here’s how it opened:
And, to be perfectly clear, it’s not that anything in what the Times ran was incorrect, but opening it with a paragraph about how she was “a prostitute,” that “she battled severe mental illness,” that she was “usually destitute and, for much of her life, effectively homeless” felt… off. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Some of the other entries in the series took a similar tone (the Sylvia Plath entry began, “She made sure to spare the children, leaving milk and bread for the two toddlers to find when they woke up. She stuffed the cracks of the doors and windows with cloths and tea towels. Then she turned on the gas.”), but most opened with at least a hint of accomplishment (Ada Lovelace’s opened “A century before the dawn of the computer age, Ada Lovelace imagined the modern-day, general-purpose computer. It could be programmed to follow instructions, she wrote in 1843. It could not just calculate but also create, as it ‘weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.’”).
For the most part, I’ve just sort of sat on my draft in its half-finished state, but with the attacks on trans people and trans rights continuing to ratchet up, I figured, “Hey, why not share this as an exclusive piece of content for my paid subscribers?”
A few disclaimers: this is an unfinished piece, I haven’t updated it, and I definitely don’t consider it to be some great work of writing. The version NYT went with, from a different writer, is probably better. But this has been sitting in my Google Drive for 4+ years collecting dust, and I wanted to share it.
So, without further ado, here’s that rejected draft, last updated by me in February 2018: St. Marsha
By the time Marsha P. Johnson arrived at the Stonewall Inn, the riot had already begun. Raids were pretty routine back in those days, with police cracking down on businesses that catered to gay men and drag queens, like the Stonewall, but that night was different.
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