Because June is LGBTQ Pride Month, the upcoming weeks will include parades and celebrations all around the world. None of the month’s excitement would be happening without the 1969 Stonewall Riots, though, and those events couldn’t have happened without Marsha P. Johnson, the transgender woman who helped lead New York’s gay liberation movement.
While most people now recognize Johnson for her role in the Stonewall police raid, which happened in the early morning hours of June 28th 1969, the activist had already made a name for herself in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood before the uprising took place. After the Stonewall Riots, too, Johnson continued her work as an activist, notably working as an advocate for AIDS patients’ care before she died in 1992.
Johnson was born in 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. According to The New York Times, she was the fifth of seven children in her working-class family. After graduating from Thomas A. Edison High School in 1963, Johnson moved to New York City. From there, she began going by a new persona called Black Marsha. The term “transgender” wasn’t used during Johnson’s lifetime, but the activist usually used female pronouns and sometimes called herself either gay, a transvestite, or a queen.
Johnson’s Life in New York
After she’d moved to New York City, Johnson worked as a prostitute and a drag performer. Due to the heavy, violent police presence in gay communities during the 1960s, Johnson faced systemic discrimination and was arrested often. The New York Times reports that “she stopped counting after the 100th [arrest].” According to The Daily Beast, Johnson maintained a cheerful disposition and was seen as a fixture of the West Village.
After Johnson became known as Marsha P., the drag queen would tell people that the P stood for “Pay it no mind!”
The Stonewall Uprising
Johnson and her friend and political partner, Sylvia Rivera, are credited with igniting the events at Stonewall on June 28th, 1969. The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street had served as a safe space and a hub for LGBTQ folks to gather. When the police raided the bar to arrest 13 people on dubious charges, many of the bar’s attendees decided to fight back. Based on many eyewitness accounts, Johnson and Rivera were among the first people to fight back against the police officers’ outright discrimination against gay people.
As her Penn State biography states, most of Stonewall’s patrons were members of marginalized groups, even within the LGBQ community, including people of color, trans people, butch lesbians, drag queens, and other non-mainstream queer identities. The Stonewall uprising — which many people call a “riot” or “rebellion” — lasted six days and attracted hundreds of people to Christopher Street to demand LGBTQ rights.
Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR)
Following the events at Stonewall, many activists started groups advocating for gay rights, including the Gay Liberation Front, Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, and more. As an offshoot of the Gay Liberation Front, Johnson and Rivera co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR, in 1970. That group championed the rights of young transgender people, and according the The New York Times, STAR used a tenement to house, clothe, and feed trans youth.
Johnson also continued performing as a drag queen during the early 1970s. In 1972, her group the Hot Peaches began performing, and in 1975, Andy Warhol photographed Johnson for a collection called “Ladies and Gentlemen.” Although Johnson was thriving while working as an activist and touring the world with the Hot Peaches during the ’70s, she began struggling with mental breakdowns, and she frequently checked in and out of psychiatric institutions.
Like with so many members of the LGBTQ community, the AIDS crisis of the 1980s greatly affected Johnson. She cared for her activist friend Randy Wicker’s boyfriend, David Combs, who died of AIDS in 1990. That year, Johnson contracted H.I.V., which she didn’t reveal until 1992.
Johnson’s Tragic Death
On July 6th, 1992, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River. At the time, the authorities called the death a suicide, but The New York Times states that many of Johnson’s friends questioned that designation. Later that year, Johnson’s cause of death was reclassified as “drowning from undetermined causes,” and then in 2012 the authorities re-opened the case to look again at Johnson’s cause of death; it remains open.
In many ways, Johnson opened the door for so many people to identify themselves as proudly LGBTQ, and more specifically as transgender. Although her life came to a tragic and mysterious end when she was just 47 years old, Johnson’s legacy as an activist and performer should always be remembered.