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Marsha P. Johnson

Updated: Jan 18


Who was Marsha P. Johnson?


Marsha P Johnson, a pivotal figure in the LGBT civil rights movement (Image Source: Netflix)
Marsha P Johnson, a pivotal figure in the LGBT civil rights movement (Image Source: Netflix)

Marsha P. Johnson was a Black LGBTQ+ activist, drag queen, and pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement. Johnson was also the co-founder of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), which she led alongside Sylvia Rivera.


Early Life


Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels Jr. in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on August 24, 1945. Johnson maintained a very religious mindset throughout her life. After being sexually assaulted, Johnson's perception of her sexuality became hidden until she graduated from Edison High School and moved to New York City at the age of 17.


Exploring Identity


Marsha P Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels in Elizabeth, New Jersey (Image Source: USA Today)
Marsha P Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels in Elizabeth, New Jersey (Image Source: USA Today)

Johnson originally referred to herself as Black Marsha. However, she later took on the drag queen name Marsha P. Johnson. She got "Johnson" from the restaurant Howard Johnson's and is well-known to have stated that the "P" stood for "pay it no mind" when asked.


While many people refer to Marsha P. Johnson as a Black transgender activist, she never explicitly used the term transgender. While this may be because the term wasn't prevalent then, it is more accurate to consider Johnson as gender non-conforming or non-binary.

Johnson relied on sex work to get by and suffered countless transgressions both from the public and police throughout her life. This tension, which was felt across the entire LGBTQ+ community, would come to a head on June 28, 1969.


Stonewall Riots


Johnson was a regular performer at the Stonewall Inn, a bar that had originally only served gay men. After an altercation between Storme DeLarverie and a police officer who attempted to arrest her, riots broke out between the patrons of the bar and police in Greenwich Village, where the Stonewall Inn is located.

While many consider Marsha to be one of the initiators of the clash, Johnson repeatedly denied this, stating the riots had already begun when she arrived at the Stonewall building.


Later Activism


Johnson joined the Gay Liberation Front, a coalition of LGBTQ+ civil rights groups and activists, soon after the Stonewall riots. Johnson later participated in the first gay pride march on the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots in 1970. Soon after, Johnson founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) organization alongside Sylvia Rivera, which sought to provide housing and other assistance to gay and trans sex workers and homeless youth in New York City.

In the 1980s, Johnson became heavily involved with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), an international organization aimed at ending the AIDS epidemic.


Death and Legacy

Marsha worked tirelessly to unite transgender and gender non-conforming individuals under the LGBT umbrella (Image Source: Unknown)
Marsha worked tirelessly to unite transgender and gender non-conforming individuals under the LGBT umbrella (Image Source: Unknown)

Marsha P. Johnson's body was found floating in the Hudson River on July 6, 1992, soon after the pride parade that year. Although Marsha P. Johnson was well-documented as having struggled with mental health issues, many people in her life denounced the classification of her death as a suicide. In 2002, the police reclassified Johnson's cause of death from "suicide" to "undetermined". In 2012, the New York police department reopened the case as a possible homicide.


Johnson is credited with being at the forefront of the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement. She played a pivotal role in providing a space within the broader LGBTQ+ community for transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals and drag queens, paving the way for the work that has been done in the decades since her passing.

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