Marsha P. Johnson was an over-all badass gender-nonconforming drag queen, sex worker, and gay liberation activist. She was representative of some of the most marginalized communities – black, queer, poor, homeless, mentally ill, and physically sick. But, she was a fighter – a pioneer for the LGBTQ movement.
Born in 1945, Johnson was raised in New Jersey, along with six siblings, in a devout Christian home. She began wearing dresses as a young child. She was teased by neighborhood boys and her mother told her that being homosexual is like being “lower than a dog.” She moved to Greenwich Village in New York City in 1963 with some clothes and a few dollars in her pocket, but better able to embrace the part of her she always had to keep hidden. But, the time was still such that homosexuality was illegal, as were gay bars and even same-sex dancing.
Johnson initially called herself “Black Marsha” but later decided on “Marsha P. Johnson” as her drag queen name, getting Johnson from a neighborhood restaurant. She said that the P stood for “pay it no mind,” a phrase she would say when asked about her gender. Although she favored the pronoun “she,” Johnson described herself as a “gay transvestite.” (Transgender was not a common term at the time.)
Stonewall was originally a bar for only gay men, but Johnson became a regular when they started to allow women and drag queens. The bar was owned by a mafia family, and they would pay off police since they had no liquor license. The police were bothered that they weren’t getting kick-backs from other illegal dealings, and police raids on bars like this were frequent. One such raid happened on June 28, 1969, and was the start to the Stonewall Riots.
Johnson denied being the instigator, but many have said she was among the three people in the vanguard of the push-back against the police. Some say she threw a shot glass at a mirror, and this was “the shot glass that was heard around the world.”
Following the Stonewall uprising, Johnson joined the Gay Liberation Front and participated in the first Pride, held on the one year anniversary of Stonewall.
One of Johnson’s most notable direct actions occurred in 1970 when she and fellow GLF members staged a sit-in protest at New York University after administrators canceled a dance when they found out it was sponsored by gay organizations.
Johnson was a prominent figure on the stages in Greenwich. And, Andy Warhol photographed her and produced screen prints of her portrait.
Johnson has been 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, Johnson and her friend Sylvia Rivera founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), a group committed to helping homeless transgender youth in New York City. In 1972, she and Rivera established the STAR House, a shelter for gay and trans street kids, and paid the rent for it with money they made themselves as sex workers.
Johnson struggled with drug addition. She contracted HIV/AIDS and joined ACT UP, an organization founded in the 1980s to combat the epidemic. She was instrumental in raising awareness about issues impacting people with the virus. She also battled mental health issues most of her life, and she was most often homeless and engaging in sex work to survive. Some have said the mental instability was akin to schizophrenia.
After Pride in 1992, her body was found in the Hudson River. The police claimed it was a suicide. Some friends and family questioned this, especially because of the huge wound on the back of her head; Rivera questioned it because of a pact they had together; others claim she was murdered by a group of homophobic men. The case was reopened in 2012 as a murder investigation, and remains open today.
In 2018, the New York Times did a piece on Johnson, saying “she has been praised for her insistent calls for social and economic justice; for working on behalf of homeless street youth ostracized by their families for being gay or otherwise not conforming to traditional ideas about gender; and, later, for her advocacy on behalf of AIDS patients. Some have called her a saint.”
The Marsha P. Johnson Institute was created in 2015 in response to the increasing number of trans women being murdered and trans people committing suicide, with trans people of color disproportionately represented in both categories. MPJI builds the leadership of transgender and gender nonconforming people to heal, develop transformative leadership, and build power through media advocacy, civic engagement, public policy, and arts and culture.”