Queer History from LGBTQueer-ies
Marsha P. Johnson
Activist, drag performer, Stonewall warrior queen, transgender pioneer
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Known as Malcolm Michaels Jr in her early life, Marsha P. Johnson grew up in a home with six siblings and two working parents. She was only five years old when she started wearing dresses but quickly stopped when neighboring boys began harassing her. She later spoke out about being a victim of sexual assault at a young age. Because of this abuse, she lived as an asexual person until leaving her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey at age seventeen following her high school graduation.
In 1963 she arrived in New York with only $15 in her pocket and a small bag of clothes. Marsha was homeless for most of her adult life and only survived by submitting to prostitution. But in 1966, while living in the Greenwich Village area, she waited tables for a short time. She met many gay people in the city and finally felt it was possible to come out as gay herself. Marsha P. Johnson, the drag queen extraordinaire, soon followed.
“Black Marsha” was her initial namesake. She later settled on Marsha P. Johnson. “Johnson” was in recognition of a Howard Johnson’s restaurant on 42nd Street in Manhattan. In the 1960s it was sort of like a Denny’s from today. It was a place she would go with her friends after a night out. When asked what the “P” stood for, she responded with, “it stands for pay it no mind,” a sarcastic reference to her gender identity.
Marsha P. Johnson never self-identified with the term transgender, but the term was also not in broad use while she was alive. It wasn’t commonly used until the 1990s. Marsha sometimes referred to herself as gay or a transvestite, but most often used the term “queen” preferring to use the female pronouns for herself. Many believe Marsha would be considered gender-nonconforming if alive today.
Although many conversations connect a 23-year-old Marsha to starting the Stonewall riots of 1969, she, herself, stated she didn’t arrive there until after the chaos began. However, when hearing about the uprising, she said she went to get her close friend, Sylvia Rivera, who was uptown sleeping on a park bench to tell her about it.
The Stonewall riots continued for six days with thousands of gay demonstrators participating. On the second night, many have testified seeing Marsha climb up a lamppost and shatter the windshield of a police car by dropping a bag containing a brick onto it.
After the riots of Stonewall, Marsha joined the Gay Liberation Front which advocated for sexual liberation and pushed to align gay rights with other social movements. She participated in the first Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally on the first anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion in June 1970. And in August of that same year, Marsha staged a sit-in protest at Weinstein Hall at New York University after the school’s administrators canceled a dance that was sponsored by gay organizations.
Shortly after that, Johnson co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with nineteen-year-old Sylvia Rivera. These two New York drag queens of color created this gay, gender-nonconforming, and transgender street activist organization that supported the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ+ community. They provided housing, clothing, food, and support to homeless queer youth and sex workers in Lower Manhattan from a building on East Second Street. It was the first of its kind and has since been a model for other organizations.
These two women became constant participants at gay liberation marches and many other radical political actions.
Their continuous activism was repaid by being banned from the gay pride parade in 1973. The gay and lesbian committee who were organizing the event didn’t want drag queens giving them a bad name at their marches. So, in true activist fashion, Marsha and Sylvia responded by marching ahead of the parade.
Marsha P. Johnson also included AIDS activism to her repertoire from 1987 until her death in 1992. She joined ACT UP, a grassroots political group working to end the AIDS pandemic, and attended protests and meetings of the advocacy organization.
Then in 1980, Marsha was invited to ride in the lead car of New York’s annual Gay Pride Parade. That same year she moved in with a friend and fellow gay activist, Randy Wicker, in Hoboken, New Jersey. While living there she helped care for Wicker’s lover, David Combs, before he died of AIDS in 1990.
In June of 1992, only weeks prior to her death, Ms. Johnson stated in an interview that she had been HIV-positive for two years.
During her life in New York, Marsha quickly built a reputation for being generous and warm-hearted to all who visited the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan. She was quickly labeled the “mayor of Christopher Street.”
“I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville, until I became a drag queen.” — Marsha P. Johnson
Ms. Johnson brought her creative spirit to the stage with the drag performance troupe Hot Peaches for more than twenty years. She also performed with The Angels of Light for part of that time.
In 1975 Marsha made a splash in the art world with Andy Warhol. The leader of the American pop art movement included his polaroids of Ms. Johnson in a collection of work called “Ladies and Gentlemen” depicting patrons of The Gilded Grape, a New York nightclub typically filled with drag and trans folk.
Even with her notoriety and charismatic personality, Marsha P. Johnson’s life was never easy. Poor her entire life, she struggled as a homeless sex worker for most of her adulthood and claimed to have been arrested more than one hundred times because of it. She was even shot once in the late 1970s in connection with her prostitution work.
Marsha battled mental health issues as well reportedly having her first breakdown in 1970. Stress and depressive episodes would plague her for the next decade. At times she needed to be sedated or put on medication. Other times she was hospitalized for a while.
But even with her struggles, Ms. Johnson continued her activism and advocacy.
“I may be crazy, but that don’t make me wrong.” — Marsha P. Johnson
On July 6, 1992, shortly after the pride parade, Marsha P. Johnson’s body was pulled from the Hudson River, near the Christopher Street piers. Her death was quickly ruled a suicide, although many of Johnson’s friends and local community insisted she was not suicidal despite her mental health history. It was also noted that the back of Ms. Johnson’s head had a massive wound.
Those who were closest to Marsha considered the death suspicious. Many locals stated later that police weren’t interested in investigating Johnson’s death because the case was about a “gay black man”.
Marsha P. Johnson was cremated after her funeral at a local church. Her friends scattered Marsha’s ashes over the Hudson River.
In November 2012 — twenty years after Ms. Johnson’s death — activist Mariah Lopez succeeded in getting the New York police department to reopen the case as a possible homicide. Her cause of death has since been reclassified as “undetermined.”
Then, in 2016, Victoria Cruz, transgender activist and volunteer of the Anti-Violence Project, gained access to previously unreleased documents and witness statements. Ms. Cruz contacted witnesses, friends, other activists, and police who had worked Marsha’s case or had been on the force at the time of the drag queen’s death and documented new interviews. Some of the compiled work was used for a documentary film, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, by David France in 2017.
The investigation into Marsha P. Johnson’s death remains open.
Marsha brought out joy hidden in the suffering world that surrounded her. She showcased her creativity through personal expression that included the stage, artwork, and advocacy.
There are many tributes to this “true Drag Mother,” as TV personality, RuPaul has stated in reference to Marsha. The New York Times published a belated obituary for Ms. Johnson in 2018. A painted mural of Marsha and her colleague, Sylvia, is on display in Dallas, Texas. It was unveiled in 2019 in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. There are also monuments being constructed at Greenwich Village near the Stonewall club that honor the two friends.
In June 2019, Marsha P. Johnson was inducted as an American “pioneer, trailblazer, and hero” on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument in New York. The following year in February, the Governor of New York announced that the East River Park in Brooklyn would be renamed in Ms. Johnson’s honor. It will be the first New York state park named after an LGBT person.
Marsha P. Johnson was a renaissance woman of sorts. She influenced many areas of LGBTQ+ life, advocacy, and activism during her short forty-seven years. She poured herself into political activism with ferocity and grace as a black, queer woman. She will be forever remembered by the LGBTQ+ community and many more.
Zada Kent is co-founder of LGBTQueer-ies where the focus is on education to foster understanding, acceptance, and equality of all human beings, and proud parent to her young adult transgender son. For all parents of transgender kids here are 10 Questions Every Parent Should Ask Their Transgender Teen.