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Icons of Queer History - Marsha P. Johnson

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

Introduction

Marsha P. Johnson was an American gay liberation activist, drag queen, and a prominent force within the gay rights movement of the 1960s and 70s throughout New York City. An outspoken advocate for many issues within the LGBTQ+ community, including gay and transgender rights, Marsha became one of the central figures of the Stonewall uprising of 1969.


Johnson was also a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and co-founded the radical activist group Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), an organization dedicated to sheltering transgender youth who had been shunned by their families, alongside her close friend Sylvia Rivera.


She was also wildly popular among New York City’s gay and art scenes, having modeled for Andy Warhol and performing onstage with the drag troupe Hot Peaches and came to be known as the “Mayor of Christopher Street” on account of her welcoming presence throughout Greenwich Village. From 1987 to the end of her life, Johnson was an outspoken AIDS activist through the grassroots political group ACT UP.


Marsha’s body was found in the Hudson River on July 6, 1992. Initially and quickly ruled a suicide by the NYPD, many friends questioned the verdict and suspected foul play, as that year marked an all-time record of violence against LGBTQ+ people. Police reclassified the case as a drowning of undetermined cause, yet this drew outrage and protests from the community as hundreds of people appeared at the church on the day of her funeral. In 2012, the NYPD reopened the case into Johnson’s death.


Johnson is now the subject of many documentaries and tributes. She remains one of the most recognized and admired LGBTQ+ advocates and helped to pioneer the modern drag movement.



Picture of Marsha Johnson with a flower crown and a red dress.

Early Life

Marsha P. Johnson was born on August 24th, 1945, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Assigned male at birth, Johnson grew up in an African-American working class family as the fifth of seven children to Malcolm Michaels Sr. and Alberta Clairborne. Her father Malcolm worked on the assembly line at General Motors in Linden, New Jersey and her mother Alberta was a housekeeper. Growing up in a religious family, Marsha began attending Mount Teman African Methodist Episcopal Church as a child, and remained a practicing Christian throughout her life.


Johnson expressed enjoyment for wearing women’s clothes and began wearing dresses at the age of five; though they reflected her sense of self, she was pressured to stop on account of bullying by other children and the experience of a sexual assault at the hands of a 13-year-old boy. Immediately following her graduation from Thomas A. Edison High School, Johnson made the decision to move to New York City with just one bag of clothes and $15 to her name.


Once there, she adopted the name “Marsha P. Johnson” for herself and returned to dressing in clothing made for women. The “P” famously stood for “pay it no mind”, a phrase that would eventually become her motto whenever asked a question about gender. Johnson described herself as a gay person, a transvestite, and a drag queen and used she/her pronouns; the term transgender was not widely used during her life. According to her nephew, Johnson always maintained a close but fraught relationship with her family back in New Jersey.


Performance Work

Finding employment in New York City was a challenge for Johnson, as the state still persecuted and criminalized members of the LGBTQ+ community, and their rights were either limited or ignored entirely. She turned to sex work in order to make a living, yet was often abused by clients or arrested by the police. Lacking a permanent shelter for herself at the time, Johnson resorted to shuffling between the homes of friends, hotels, restaurants, and movie theaters.


Not long after she relocated, Johnson, then 17 years old at the time, met 11-year-old Sylvia Rivera, a Puerto Rican transgender girl, and the two became immediate friends with one another. Marsha encouraged Sylvia to love herself and her identity, just as the former had done with herself, and became a mother figure and protector to her.


In addition to waiting tables for extra income, Marsha also participated in drag shows. Johnson was noted for adoring colorful, fun outfits that she could piece together from discarded items and thrift store bargains, since she could not afford more expensive clothes, and was also commonly seen wearing crowns of fresh flowers.



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The Stonewall Riots

Johnson was one of the first drag queens to become a patron of the Stonewall Inn following a change in policy that allows women and drag queens inside, as it was previously reserved for exclusively gay men. In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, police raided the bar and began arresting the patrons, many of whom were gay men. By the time Johnson and Rivera arrived, around 2am, the place had already been set ablaze by police and the riots had begun.


There are conflicting accounts surrounding Marsha’s involvement in the uprising, including reports that she had thrown a shot glass which sparked the riots themselves, but what is certain is that she was on the front lines; she repeatedly denied starting the uprising throughout the rest of her life, but like many other transgender people, Johnson felt as if she had nothing to lose, angered not only by the police raid but also the oppression and fear that permeated their daily lives. The first two nights of the rioting were the most intense, but clashes with police would pave the way for a series of impromptu marches and demonstrations throughout Greenwich Village, led by Johnson and Rivera, for nearly a week afterward.

Activism

The raid on Stonewall Inn helped inflame and galvanize the gay rights movement. In the year 1970, the first Gay Pride parade took place, and Johnson would go on to co-found the Gay Liberation Front, an organization devoted to giving a voice to a newly-out and newly-radicalized LGBTQ+ community which also served as a forum for the emergence of many other coalitions, such as the Gay Activists Alliance and the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.).


That same year, Johnson and Rivera would go on to form STAR House, a shelter where homeless LGBTQ+ youth who were shunned by their families could stay in safety. These living quarters were of personal importance to both Johnson and Rivera, as they had spent much of their youth faced with homelessness and destitution. Although evicted from the original location of STAR House in 1971, the household existed in different locations and in different configurations over the years.


Throughout the decade, Johnson became more radically prominent and visible within the gay rights movement. She began performing with the drag troupe Hot Peaches from 1972 up until the 90s. In 1975, the famous pop artist Andy Warhol included her in a series of Polaroids titled “Ladies and Gentlemen”. Marsha was also called upon to perform several interviews, where she spoke of her ambitions to see gay people liberated and free, and to have equal rights that other people have in America, and to have her gay brothers and sisters out of jail and on the streets again. In 1980, Johnson was chosen to ride in the lead car of New York City’s Gay Pride parade.



Picture of Marsha Johnson in a pride parade.

Later Life & Death

Despite her saintly personality and effervescent smile, Johnson experienced turmoil and hardships throughout her life, although she never allowed these setbacks to put a stop to her advocacy efforts. During the 1970s, Johnson suffered a series of mental health breakdowns and spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals. She also continued to engage in sex work, not knowing any other way to make money, and had been arrested over one-hundred times and shot once, according to Marsha’s own testimony.


Between 1980 until her death, Marsha lived with her close friend and fellow activist Randy Wicker, who had invited her to stay one cold night and “simply never left”. When Wicker’s partner, David, became terminally ill with AIDS, Johnson served the role of being his caretaker. It was during the AIDS pandemic when Johnson, herself HIV-positive, became dedicated to sitting with the sick and dying, as well as participating in street activism with AIDS coalitions, including ACT UP, to raise awareness of the disease.


Near the time of Johnson's death, Randy Wicker had noted that Johnson became increasingly sick and in a fragile state. However, none of Johnson's friends or relatives believed she was suicidal. Wicker later stated that Johnson might have hallucinated and walked into the river, or may have jumped into it to evade harassers, but insisted that she would never take her own life.


On July 6, 1992, one week after participating in the Gay Pride parade, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River; she was 46 years old. Initially and quickly ruled a suicide, many of her friends and associates questioned the conclusion and suspected foul play; according to the New York Anti-Violence Project, that year was the worst on record for anti-LGBTQ+ violence and involved more than 1,300 reports of discriminatory crimes, with 18% of them based on violence perpetuated by police. Johnson was one of the primary activists drawing attention to the epidemic of violence against the community, demanding justice through protests and marches among other forms of activism, and was an outspoken opponent of “dirty cops” and the elements of organized crime she believed was responsible for provoking assaults and murders.


The case was eventually reclassified as a drowning of undetermined cause, yet this sparked anger from the LGBTQ+ community as they had refused to investigate the matter further and too many press outlets did not cover her death.


Johnson’s body was cremated. On the day of her funeral, hundreds of people showed up at the local church to pay their respects; it became so crowded that people stood on the streets. Following the service, her friends and supporters marched down Seventh Avenue to release Marsha’s ashes over the Hudson River off the Christopher Street Piers. Police allowed the procession to take place and closed off Seventh Avenue while her ashes were carried to the river. After this, a series of demonstrations and marches to the police precinct took place, demanding justice for Johnson.


In 2012, the New York Police Department reopened the case into Johnson’s death. The 2017 documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson follows trans woman Victoria Cruz of the Anti-Violence Project as she investigates her death, relying on archival footage and interviews.

Legacy

The 2012 documentary Pay It No Mind – The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson heavily features segments from a 1992 interview with Johnson, which was filmed shortly before Johnson's death. Many of her friends from Greenwich Village are interviewed for the documentary. That same year, American drag queen and TV personality RuPaul referred to Johnson as the “true Drag Mother” and told contestants on an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race that she was a pioneer who “paved the way for them all”.


On May 30th, 2019, New York City announced that Marsha, along with her friend Sylvia Rivera, would be the subject of a monument commissioned by the Public Arts Campaign, “She Built NYC.” The monument would be the first in NYC, and throughout the world, to honor transgender women and activists. On May 31st, queer street artists Homo Riot and Suriani created a mural as part of the WorldPride Mural Project and the Stonewall riots’ 50th anniversary, featuring multiple images of Johnson.


In June of that same year, Marsha became listed as one of the inaugural fifty American “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes” inducted onto the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument at the Stonewall Inn. It is the first U.S. national monument dedicated to LGBTQ+ rights and history, and its unveiling was timed to occur on the 50th anniversary of the riots.


In August 2020, the Union County, New Jersey office of LGBTQ Affairs announced that her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, would erect a monument to Johnson and launched a petition to remove the Christopher Columbus monument and replace it with a statue of her, which received over 75,000 signatures.


On August 24th, the 75th anniversary of Johnson’s birth, the Marsha P. Johnson State Park was renamed and commemorated in her honor, becoming the first New York state park named after an openly LGBTQ+ person.

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Conclusion

Marsha P. Johnson continues to be an inspiration to the LGBTQ+ community to this very day, and her staunch radical advocacy for the rights of queer folk the world over has galvanized and uplifted both members and allies to fight for a world liberated from the grasp of hatred and bigotry. Her legacy will never be forgotten.

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