Today is the 75th birthday of the activist Marsha P. Johnson. The privilege you take for granted every day is a gift due to her tireless fight for equality. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
NAME: Marsha P. Johnson
BIRTH DATE: August 24, 1945
DEATH DATE: July 6, 1992
PLACE OF BIRTH: Elizabeth, New Jersey
PLACE OF DEATH: New York City, New York
REMAINS: Cremated, Specifically: Johnson’s ashes were spread over the same river where her body was found as a special memorial by her friends.
BEST KNOWN FOR: Marsha P. Johnson was an African American transgender woman and revolutionary LGBTQ rights activist. She is credited for being an instigator in the Stonewall riots.
Born Malcolm Michaels, Jr. on August 24, 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Marsha experienced a difficult childhood due to her Christian upbringing. She engaged in cross-dressing behavior at an early age but was quickly reprimanded. Marsha 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. She found joy as a drag queen amidst the nightlife of Christopher Street. Marsha 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.
I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville until I became a drag queen. That’s what made me in New York, that’s what made me in New Jersey, that’s what made me in the world.
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.
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.
As an African American trans woman, Marsha P. 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.
Sadly, at the age of 46, on July 6, 1992, Marsha’s body was found in the Hudson River off the West Village Piers. The police ruled she had committed suicide despite claims from her friends and other members of the local community that she was not suicidal. Twenty-five years later, Victoria Cruz, a crime victim advocate of the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP) re-opened the case. 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 nonconforming communities. Marsha is honored as a Stonewall instigator, a drag queen, an Andy Warhol model, an actress, and a revolutionary trans activist.