Marsha P. Johnson (1945–1992)
Marsha P. Johnson was an African-American activist and revolutionary, who was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front.
She is credited as being one of the key figures during the Stonewall Riots (1969), which is widely considered the watershed event to transform the gay liberation movement and the twentieth-century fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the US.
Since the term transgender wasn’t used during her time, she identified as gay, a transvestite (now-outdated and disregarded, due to its harmful connotations, terminology for being transgender) and as a drag queen, using the pronouns she/her.
Marsha ‘Pay It No Mind’ Johnson, born 24 August, 1945, was an African-American activist and pioneer.
After high school graduation, Johnson moved across the Hudson River to New York City in 1963, with only a bag of clothes and $15.
She took on the name “Black Marsha,” and eventually added on her famous middle initial, coined from ‘pay it no mind’, an expression she often used, and took her last name from a Howard Johnson restaurant she frequented.
Given the illegalities of being openly queer at the time (NYC laws against private, consenting homosexual sexual conduct between adults weren’t abolished by the New York Court of Appeals until the 1980 case New York v. Onofre) and hostility being the overall mood of the general public, to make ends meet, she became a sex worker.
Johnson was often getting arrested, saying she lost count after the 100th incident.
However, she also found a community in the city, especially after meeting Latina drag queen Sylvia Rivera – the beginning of a friendship which would later play a huge part in queer liberation for generations to come.
Despite having spent much of her life ostracised by society, 30-something years following her death, Johnson began getting the acknowledgment and attention she had been denied while she was alive.
“No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.” #OnThisDay in 1945, Marsha P. Johnson was born.
Credited as one of the instigators of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, a watershed moment for LGBTQ+ rights.
— GLUE magazine 🏳️🌈 🏳️⚧️ (@thegluemagazine) August 24, 2022
On June 28, 1969, when Marsha was 23 years old, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar located in Greenwich Village in New York City.
The raid sparked a riot among bar patrons and neighborhood residents as police roughly handled employees and patrons out of the bar, leading to six days of protests and violent clashes with law enforcement outside the bar on Christopher Street, in neighboring streets and in nearby Christopher Park.
The Stonewall Riots, sometimes called the Stonewall Uprising, was a series of spontaneous demonstrations by members of the gay community (then more of an umbrella term for all LGBTQ+ identities) and their allies fighting back against continued police brutality.
Lesbians and trans women of color were some of the key people involved in the act of resistance, including other names you may have heard like Stormé DeLarverie, and Sylvia Rivera (mentioned above).
Marsha resisted arrest, but in the following days, led a series of protests and riots demanding rights for gay (LGBTQ+) people.
Johnson, along with Rivera, would later go on to establish STAR (1970), an organisation in to help homeless trans youth and other marginalised groups in NYC.
As the MPJInstitute – an organization founded in 2019 which advocates for the human rights of Black transgender people – describes:
“Marsha P. Johnson devoted her life to bettering the lives of trans, queer, and nonbinary people, from Stonewall to the Gay Liberation Front; to STAR. Her courage and determination sparked a movement.”
In 1992, shortly after the now-annual Gay pride parade, Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River. It was ruled a suicide by the NYPD, but controversy followed concerning the cause of death.
During that time, anti-LGBT violence was at a peak in New York City and bias crime by police was rife.
Johnson’s friends and other members of the local community insisted Johnson was not suicidal and noted that the back of Johnson’s head had a massive wound.
Johnson’s body was cremated and, following a funeral at a local church, and a march down Seventh Avenue, friends released Johnson’s ashes over the Hudson River, off the Christopher Street Piers.
According to Sylvia Rivera, a mutual friend named Bob Kohler believed Johnson had committed suicide due to an ever-increasing fragile state.
However Rivera disputed that claim, along with others who were close to Johnson and who considered the death suspicious, claiming she was never suicidal.
Several people reportedly came forward to say they had seen Johnson harassed by a group of “thugs” who had also robbed people. According to Randy Wicker – an American author, activist, and blogger who was also involved in the Gay Liberation Movement – a witness saw a neighborhood resident fighting with Johnson on July 4, 1992.
Reportedly, during the fight, the resident used a homophobic slur, and later bragged to someone at a bar that he had killed a drag queen named Marsha.
The witness said that when he tried to tell police what he had seen his story was ignored.
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In December 2002, a police investigation resulted in reclassification of Johnson’s cause of death from “suicide” to “undetermined“.
In 2016, the Anti-Violence Project tried to get Johnson’s case reopened, and succeeded in gaining access to previously unreleased documents and witness statements.
Victoria Cruz of AVP sought out new interviews with witnesses, friends, other activists, and police who had worked the case or had been on the force at the time of Johnson’s death.
Some of the work to find justice for Johnson was filmed and used for the 2017 documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (trailer below).
Some more famous Marsha P. Johnson quotes:
On Coming of Age: “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.”
On Changing History: “History isn’t something you look back at and say it was inevitable. It happens because people make decisions that are sometimes very impulsive and of the moment, but those moments are cumulative realities.”
On Equality: “How many years has it taken people to realize that we are all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race?”
On being trans: “I’d like to see the gay revolution get started… If a transvestite doesn’t say ‘I’m gay and I’m proud and I’m a transvestite,’ then nobody else is going to hop up there and say ‘I’m gay and I’m proud and I’m a transvestite’ for them.”
On freedom: “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.”
Read more on the crucial Stonewall Riots, including how the mob was involved, by clicking here.
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