Marsha P. Johnson (1945–1992) was an African American transgender woman and revolutionary LGBTQ rights activist. She is credited for being an instigator in the Stonewall riots.
Who Was Marsha P. Johnson?
Marsha P. Johnson was an African American transgender women who was an LGBTQ rights activist and an outspoken advocate for trans people of color. Johnson spearheaded the Stonewall uprising in 1969 and along with Sylvia Rivera, she later established the Street Transvestite (now Transgender) Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group committed to helping homeless transgender youth in New York City. She was tragically found dead on July 6, 1992 at the age of 46. Her life has been celebrated in numerous books, documentaries and films.
Early Life and Drag Queen Stardom
Marsha P. Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels, Jr. on August 24, 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Johnson experienced a difficult childhood due to her Christian upbringing. She engaged in cross-dressing behavior at an early age but was quickly reprimanded. Johnson moved to Greenwich Village in New York City after graduating from high school. In New York, Marsha struggled to make ends meet. She was homeless and prostituted herself to make ends meet. However, she found joy as a drag queen amidst the nightlife of Christopher Street. Johnson designed all of her own costumes (mostly from thrift shops). She quickly became a prominent fixture in the LGBTQ community serving as a “drag mother” by helping homeless and struggling LGBTQ youth and touring the world as a successful drag queen with the Hot Peaches.
An eccentric woman known for her outlandish hats and glamorous jewelry, she was fearless and bold. Despite her difficulties with mental illness and numerous police encounters, whenever she was asked what the “P” in her name stood for and when people pried about her gender or sexuality, she quipped back with “pay it no mind.” Her forthright nature and enduring strength led her to speak out against injustices.
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera
On June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street (the hub of the NYC Gay Community in the 1960s), things turned violent after a few LGBTQ people were arrested on questionable charges, handcuffed, and very publicly forced into police cars on the streets of NYC. The LGBTQ community was fed up with being targeted by the police and seeing these public arrests incited rioting that spilled over into the neighboring streets and lasted several days. These events have been collectively described as a “riot,” a “rebellion,” a “protest,” and an “uprising.” Whatever the label, this was certainly a watershed moment in LGBT history. Many eyewitnesses have identified Marsha as one of the main instigators of the uprising and thus, some have recognized her as the vanguard of the gay liberation movement in the United States.
Marsha P. Johnson at the First Christopher Street Liberation Day March
Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR)
As an African American trans woman, Johnson has consistently been overlooked both as a participant in the Stonewall uprising and more generally, LGBTQ activism. As the broader gay and lesbian movement shifted toward leadership from white cisgender men and women, trans people of color were swept to the outskirts of the movement. Despite this, following the events at Stonewall, Johnson and her friend Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and they became fixtures in the community, especially in their commitment to helping homeless transgender youth. STAR provided services — including shelter (the first was a trailer truck) — to homeless LGBTQ people in New York City, Chicago, California, and England for a few years in the early 1970s but eventually disbanded.
Death and Tributes
On July 6, 1992, Marsha’s body was found floating in the Hudson River. The police officers ruled her death a suicide. Marsha’s friends and acquaintances strongly disagreed. They thought it was more likely that Marsha was a victim of an attack. Trans women, particularly women of color, were regular targets of hate crimes. The LGBTQ community was furious the police did not investigate her death. At Marsha’s funeral, hundreds of people showed up. The church was so full that the crowd spilled into the street.
The case involving Marsha’s death remained closed for decades. In 2012, the New York City Police Department finally agreed to re-open it, yet the case still remains unsolved. Since then, Marsha has become an icon of the transgender community. In 2016, Victoria Cruz of the Anti-Violence Project also tried to get Johnson’s case reopened and succeeded in gaining access to previously unreleased documents and witness statements. She sought out new interviews with witnesses, friends, other activists, and police who had worked the case or had been on the force at the time of Johnson’s death. Some of her work to find justice for Johnson was filmed by David France for the 2017 documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.
In 2019, New York City announced that a statue of Marsha and Sylvia would be the first monument to honor trans women in the city. In 2020, New York State named a waterfront park in Brooklyn after Marsha.
Documentary and Institute
Johnson’s story is featured in Pay It No Mind: Marsha P. Johnson (2012) and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017) and Happy Birthday, Marsha! (2017). In 2015, The Marsha P. Johnson Institute was established. Its mission is to defend and protect the human rights of transgender and gender non-conforming communities. Marsha is honored as a Stonewall instigator, a drag queen, and Andy Warhol model, an actress, and a revolutionary trans activist.
This video was created by the New York Historical Society Teen Leaders in collaboration with the Untold project.
HERSTORY Makes History10, June 2022
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