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Transitivity

As Lune Ames writes in Issue 1, the trans-ness of Marsha P Johnson beckons us to reach across, over and beyond genders, streets and categories.


Marsha P Johnson Mural under the concrete Turnpike. Photo by Lune Ames.

Marsha P Johnson Mural under the concrete Turnpike. Photo by Lune Ames.



We are all in a state of trans – transacting, transitioning, transferring, transplanting, transforming. As quickly as we create borders, we move across them. In this Issue 1 piece that flows between prose and poetry, writer Lune Ames guides us to the site along the NJ Turnpike where gay rights activist Marsha P Johnson and her lasting message to "pay no mind" transcends the limits of place and personhood. At this site, boundaries blur between trans-ness and transit, with her childhood street rendered in painted flowers while trucks rumble overhead. In these complexities, Lune wonders "how we converge across cultures and histories and even species within our own bodies" to make way for universal liberation.


 

Transit is about moving across borders. At any given time, boundaries exist, but they’re always changing.


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For people once wishing for road access, paying a toll meant turning the pike—a sharp spike in the road meant to restrict passage without payment. The movement of certain ethnicities, races, classes, or genders remains permissible and prioritized, but those without money, identification, citizenship, or rank are punishable by law. For the foreigner, the outcast, the queer, the toll has always disincentivized the transience of nomads, travelling cultures, and any who refuse borders.


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Trans just means “across, over, beyond.”


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Refusing any kind of border takes a toll, not just monetarily.


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Marsha P Johnson was five years old when she began wearing dresses.


The year was 1950, and her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey had just lost their lawsuit against the NJ Turnpike Authority aimed to stop construction of the Turnpike along Fourth Street, a residential neighborhood of 450 families.


What’s the difference between cutting across gender and cutting through a city?


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Marsha P Johnson, P for “Pay It No Mind”


Pay her gender and sexuality no mind.


Paying attention, or not—minding your damn business—is a refusal.


To not pay

is

to not judge.


Our livelihoods are trans.

transit


transaction


transfer

transplant


transform


transfigure


Our livelihoods are trans.


We move across, over, beyond many things. That’s what relationships require. We’re always shaping and reshaping our environments, and our environments shape us back.


*


We’re all building and unbuilding our bodies, as writer Jack Halberstam describes in trans*.


Eating, exercising, aging, getting injured, getting pregnant, moving across the country, making new friends, picking up an old hobby—they all change our gut, muscles, lung capacities, neuron connections. Our bodies are fluid. The same is true of other creatures, too. Gender is just one component of how we construct our lives.

Trans threatens certainty in a world where category is truth.

Cutting across gender is about the freedom of fluidity, and Marsha P Johnson was about that freedom for all of us. But the Turnpike cutting through a city was about imposing new rules in the same settler colonial system, finding and dividing the one neighborhood with the highest density of Black residents, all in the name of convenience for those in power.


The Turnpike maintains its reputation for controlling who has access and who is kept out. How do we quantify the kind of toll that takes?


*


The Turnpike’s displacement foreshadowed a larger pattern that the Interstate Highway System, approved of in 1956, would go on to enable in city after city: “urban renewal as Negro removal.” In Elizabeth, the Turnpike unhoused 450 families—easily 1,000 people or more—along Fourth Street. Despite the city of Elizabeth fighting back by suing the Turnpike Authority, the courts ruled against the community. The judge cited that a municipality like Elizabeth is a “creature” of the state subject to the state’s sovereign will. He reiterated that the state granted the Turnpike Authority the right to do whatever is not only what they deem necessary but desirable or convenient.


Fourth Street, the Turnpike, and the Marsha P Johnson Mural. Photo by Lune Ames.

Fourth Street, the Turnpike, and the Marsha P Johnson Mural. Photo by Lune Ames.


A municipality as a “creature” of the state sounds subhuman on purpose. It’s the classic humans-have-dominion-over-everything, just in the form of a law. It has less rights than the state. After all, western thought has taught us to see creatures as wild, and for us humans to either fear and avoid or tame through domestication.


Creatures are transitory. They migrate, roam, flit, drift… It’s not that there aren’t boundaries. But they’re blurry. They overlap. They converge and coalesce. They evolve, too. The water’s edge is always changing shape. That’s its power. There’s one mushroom with over 20,000 sexes. Fellow creatures like clownfish and striped maple trees transition to different sexes at various stages in their lives.


Trans reminds us that creatures are powerful, and that humans are creatures, too. This blurry, multiplicitous life is beautiful. We are re-remembering, after centuries of settler colonial oppression, how we converge across cultures and histories and even species within our own bodies.


After all, God is change, says Octavia Butler.


*


Gender is relative to conditions, and conditions are always changing. New facets emerge in unlikely contexts. It’s relational. It’s about letting something beguile you. For Marsha P Johnson that was flowers. And as she was beguiled, so she beguiled. And she continues to.


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After leaving New Jersey at age 18 to find acceptance in Manhattan, Marsha P Johnson sometimes found shelter in the Flower District. Friends remember the florists calling her holy. She experienced houselessness but made a home wherever she could and created community. Whenever she asked for money, she often gave it away to others who she felt needed it more, or bought herself flowers to embellish her hair. The flowers connected her to people and helped her make ends meet amidst the traumas she faced as a trans person on the streets.



Marsha P Johnson and her vibrant flowers now adorn the Turnpike. You can’t see her 10-foot-by-25-foot mural from the interstate commute, though—only by walking underneath it along none other than Fourth Street. Adorning the Turnpike’s hulking concrete facade, two glamorous portraits of Marsha P Johnson in pearls, gold, and pink and yellow flowers beam with her toothy smile. A blue and pink transgender flag extends between portraits with her declaration dripping in yellow like nectar: “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.”


In 2020, a community organization called The People’s Committee of Elizabeth (TPCOE) commissioned three New Jersey graffiti artists—Malcolm A. Rolling, Slim Suli, and Cent—to paint the mural in advance of the city’s first-ever pride parade. TPCOE chose this location because Fourth Street is frequented by many residents. Even after the displacement and division of the Turnpike, the street remains a neighborhood throughway and a meeting place.


transience can heal and restore our relationships

As a Gay Liberation Movement activist, Marsha P Johnson surely knew its popular anthem: “Out of the closets and onto the streets!” And she advocated that being on the street wasn’t enough, knowing first hand that the street has always been a jurisdiction for policing gender, especially for trans people. Marsha P Johnson described being arrested over 100 times for wearing makeup in public or for sex work. Police punished her for not conforming to gender norms, for refusing to “pay” the street’s gender toll.


Though she was regularly persecuted for simply being in public, the street was the place where Marsha P Johnson brought people together and fought for liberation. The community nicknamed her “the mayor of Christopher Street” for her welcoming presence in Greenwich Village. She knew how connected streets were to shelter, to being unhoused, so she and fellow activist Sylvia Rivera cofounded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), the first shelter for houseless LGBT youth and sex workers.


*


In the last decade of her life, Marsha P Johnson found home back in New Jersey, residing in Hoboken with a friend. As she returned then, so too she has returned again to finally find, and model, acceptance in her hometown and home state. Her flowers remind of the Garden State—what it is and can still become—and how transience can heal and restore our relationships with the community and our environment.


Marsha P Johnson reaches across, over, beyond eras as an ancestor, adorning what was meant to be a divider and gatekeeper, but which remains a meeting place along and underneath 12 lanes of rumbling traffic that leave the ears ringing. But her words resound louder still: “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.”


Fourth Street, the Turnpike, and the Marsha P Johnson Mural. Photo by Lune Ames.

No Pride For Some Of Us Without Liberation For All Of Us... Photo by Lune Ames.

 

Lune Ames (she/they) is Cofounder and former Editorial Director of Dense whose work focuses on storytelling as a form of transformative justice. An Indiana transplant, they’ll never forget merging on the Rt 4-17-208-Parkway interchange in 2014 when it clicked that somehow Jersey’s erratic driving was a sort of syncopated dance.


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