When you ask someone to name a famous person from LGBTQ+ history many will come up with the name ‘Marsha P Johnson’ and rightly so in my opinion.
Marsha P Johnson was an American activist and self-identified drag queen. She was well known for being an advocate for the gay rights movement and a key party in the Stonewall Riots in 1969.
Life wasn’t easy for Marsha. Born Malcolm Michaels Jnr on August 24th 1945 in New Jersey, Marsha was part of a large, working class, family. Marsha was brought up in a very religious family, infact they are quoted as saying “I got married to Jesus Christ when I was sixteen years old, still in high school” (Johnson, 1992)
Johnson was interviewed in 1992 and describes being the victim of rape which led to them describing the idea of being gay as a dream rather than a possibility. Johnsons mother described being gay as the lowest form of low and remained unaware of the LGBT community.
Marsha left home in 1963 for NYC with $15 and a single bag of clothes. Marsha survived by waiting tables and hanging out with street hustlers. She finally felt able to ‘come out’.
Initially she used the name “Black Marsha” as her drag queen name but then changed it to “Marsha P Johnson” with the P standing for ‘pay it no mind’ which was a phrase used when people commented negatively on their appearance or choices. Johnson identified as gay, a transvestite and a drag queen, although according to others their gender would be accurately described as gender non-conforming.
Marsha was one of the first drag queens to frequent the Stonewall Inn once they were allowed in. Infact Marsha has been named as one of the “three individuals known to have been in the vanguard” against the police during the uprising. Johnson denied being one of the catalysts of the riots but was reportedly there.
On the first anniversary of the uprising Johnson marched in the first ever Gay Pride rally on June 28th 1970.
Later in 1970 Marsha and their close friend Sylvia Rivera started STAR – Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries and became loud voices in the gay liberation campaign.
Marsha remained an active and loud voice for the rest of their life.
In 1992 Marshas body was discovered in the Hudson river. Whilst the police ruled this death a suicide, their friends insisted this was not possible and in fact pointed out wounds on their body that could not be self-inflicted. This occurred at a time when there was anti-LGBT voilence and Marsha theirself was spaking out against ‘dirty cops’ and organised crime rings believed to be responsible for voilence against members of the LGBT community.
Eventually, in 2012, the NYPD reopened the case into Marshas death and cause was changed from suicide to undetermined.
But why is Marsha P Johnson so important to LGBT history – well its simple really. Marsha stood up and shouted when all around was violence against the LGBT community. They dedicated their life to helping others, despite their own mental health issues.
We should not forget the sacrifices of others to allow us to be able ourselves.
Marsha P Johnson
One of the most famous and widely used images of Marsha. Source unknown.