Terminology is interesting here, and I would like to add a note of clarity for younger readers, as well as add some personal observations.

Today, “drag queen” is a label for a performance artist or entertainer. Ru Paul has done a lot, obviously, to center traditional drag art on the American popular stage.

But in Marsha’s day, “drag queen” had not yet become mostly limited to that specific meaning.

People like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha Johnson called themselves drag queens or street queens in the sense that they were gender non-conforming or presented as women in day-to-day life, rather than on stage.

I saw Marsha around town sometimes, and I only realized because my partner Lenny was aware of her activist history and pointed her out to me. Neither of us actually knew her, though.

When I saw her at the 13th St LGBT Community Center in Greenwich Village or in the park at Christopher Square, (perhaps three or four times) she presented as a woman without some of the more elaborate outfits she’s usually pictured in in her well known photos.

People who knew her better than Lenny did told me she dressed as a woman all the time as far as they knew, and that she preferred to be called she and her.

Transgender as a word was only beginning to become known then, as you point out. Marsha worked hard to make sure gender-nonconforming people kept a forward place in activism, recognizing the intertwined interests of gender and sexual minorities.

Would she have called herself transgender if she had survived? I suspect so, but whether she had or not, her history shows us she would have fought hard for the liberty and equality of all LGBTQ people.

Written by

Writer. Runner. Marine. Airman. Former LGBTQ and HIV activist. Former ActUpNY and Queer Nation. Polyglot. Middle-aged, uppity faggot. jamesfinnwrites@gmail.com

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