MARSHA P. JOHNSON.
With 24 August marking her 73rd birthday, we look back on the everlasting legacy of the queer rights trailblazer.
We look back at the life and legacy of the mother of LGBTQ liberation, and delve further into her life beyond the Stonewall Riots to discover what made her the face of the movement.
Marsha P. Johnson was an American activist, drag queen, and sex worker. A key figure in the post-Stonewall gay liberation movement, she was a radical and ever-present fixture on the streets of Greenwich Village, New York until her death in 1992 which the police ruled as suicide – but her friends and community still insist it was murder. Marsha’s life and death tell the story of the continuing violence and discrimination faced by the trans community in the US and UK today – perpetrated by gay and straight alike – but also of the integral role gender non-conforming people have played in the strule for LGBTQ rights. Her name has become synonymous with the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and the mythology that evolved around those events, including that she resisted arrest and threw a shot glass at a mirror in the Stonewall Inn while screaming “I got my civil rights”, and thus started the riots. Marsha herself later said that she arrived after the building was already on fire, but in the six days that followed became a key part of the strule, and later joined the Gay Liberation Front which emerged from those events.
While the Stonewall Riots were part of a longer history of the gay rights strule in America, that moment represented a turning point in the willingness of LGBTQ people to stand up and fight for their rights, starting a movement which spread across the world. Trans activists (especially those of colour) were at the centre of that strule and fought for everyone under the LGBTQ umbrella. Wearing their difference so visibly, they were often the most persecuted, and had for a time even been excluded from the Stonewall Inn, but still fought together as allies against police persecution.
Born the fifth of seven children in a working class family in New Jersey, Marsha first started wearing dresses at five, but said she stopped because of the pressure and aression of other children, later revealing that she had been sexually assaulted by another boy while growing up. After graduating high school in 1963, she moved to New York with just $15 and a bag of clothes to her name.
Black, queer, poor, gender non-conforming, and an outsider to many communities, she gradually evolved the persona of Marsha P. Johnson during her time living in Greenwich as an often homeless, but optimistic, sex worker. Beginning initially as Black Marsha, she added the Johnson from the Howard Johnson restaurant where she frequented, while the middle P she said, stood for “pay it no mind”, in reference to the frequent questions about her gender.
Despite the challenges she faced, she became known as an incredibly friendly and generous member of the community, often willing to hand over her last dollar to those she thought were in more need than herself.
Often seen with trademark flowers in her hair, which she found underneath the tables of the flower market where she sometimes slept, Marsha was an iconic and well-loved fixture of the fashionable and avantgarde Greenwich scene. Her drag aesthetic was born of necessity –
she couldn’t afford expensive clothes or makeup and instead created her looks from discarded and found objects including red plastic high heels, costume jewellery, bright wigs, thrift store dresses, and plastic flowers. Some considered this an art form in its own right, which played into her style of performance on stage with the drag troupe Hot Peaches, and was given the nod of approval from artist Andy Warhol – a Greenwich Village resident – when he began taking portraits of her because she was a person worth looking at.
She was someone who, in being true to herself, had no choice but to
live and dress almost permanently as Marsha. But this wasn’t easy. The often transient community in Greenwich was a collection of throwaways and runaways – young, vulnerable people who often found themselves the victims of sexual and physical abuse and police brutality. This was especially the case for what we would now call gender non-conforming individuals, but Marsha termed transvestites. She was at the very centre of the intersection of class, race, gender, and sexuality, and thus understood the strules faced by people like her. She suffered significant mental health problems throughout her life – sometimes appearing as her male persona Malcolm, becoming violent and getting into fights. She spent periods of time institutionalised, but still continued to fight for the trans community.
After Stonewall, she set up STAR – Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries – with her close friend and fellow drag queen Sylvia Rivera. Initially operating out of a trailer in a car park, the organisation sought to protect young trans people who found themselves in Greenwich after being thrown out by their families and communities. Many inevitably ended up involved in drugs and prostitution, and often died violent deaths. Recognising that little was being done for these people by the wider lesbian and gay community, Sylvia and Marsha worked to give them a home and protect them from that same path. Walking the streets as sex workers to pay for STAR, they briefly managed to operate an apartment for vulnerable trans people before it was acquired by the city and later demolished.
Marsha and Sylvia continued to fight for trans rights. At times, this was in opposition to the wider gay community who in becoming increasingly mainstream, wanted to avoid associations with drag queens and trans individuals. Marsha nevertheless kept fighting, and was eventually invited to ride in the lead car of New York’s annual Gay Pride Parade in 1980, as the community came to realise the pivotal role she had played and continued to play in the LGBTQ community. She was later involved in AIDS activism, working with ACT UP and nursing friends with the disease. In an interview in 1992, just weeks before her death, she revealed she had been HIV positive for two years, commenting: “They call me a legend in my own time, because there were so many queens gone that I’m one of the few queens still left from the ’70s and the ’80s, but I’m not the only one”.
In 1992, soon after the Pride parade, Marsha’s body was found in the Hudson River. Police ruled her death as suicide, but based on her experiences of harassment and intimidation by groups of men while she was street walking, many believed that she may have been a victim of a hate crime. Protests took place, but it wasn’t until after November 2012, following a campaign by activist Mariah Lopez, that the police reopened the case, although there have been no subsequent developments. Marsha’s funeral was attended by hundreds of people from the community, who marched down the street to the Hudson River where her ashes were thrown into the water. Over two decades later, trans people are still victims of horrific hate crimes, with new generations of bigots still trying to deny them their rights.
Marsha is a reminder that there is nothing inevitable about change – history happens because people step up. She was a leading light of the gay rights movement fighting for marginalised gay, genderqueer, black, and femme individuals in an embodiment of the phrase “no one is free until we are all free.”