Updated: May 13, 2022
Who is Marsha P. Johnson?
Marsha P. Johnson was a black LGBT activist and drag queen who is credited as a 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.
Johnson was originally born Malcolm Michaels Jr. on August 24th, 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. 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.
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 at the time, it is more accurate to consider Johnson 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 LGBT community, would come to a head on June 28th, 1969.
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 as one of the initiators of the clash, Johnson repeatedly denied this, stating the riots had already begun when she arrived at the Stonewall building.
Johnson joined the Gay Liberation Front, a coalition of LGBT 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 (S.T.A.R.) organization, which sought to provide housing and other assistance to gay and trans sex workers and homeless youth in New York City, alongside Sylvia Rivera.
In the 1980s, Johnson became heavily involved with AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), an international organization aimed at ending the AIDS epidemic.
Death and Legacy
Marsha P. Johnson's body was found floating in the Hudson River on July 6th, 1992, soon after the pride parade that year. Although Marsha P. Johnson was well-documented in 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 LGBT civil rights movement. She played a pivotal role in providing a space within the broader LGBT 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.