Sunday, April 10, 2016

Marsha P. Johnson, Transgender and Gay Rights Activist

Marsha in NYC, 1992. Source Unknown
Marsha P. Johnson was a transgender activist, drag queen, and Stonewall riot instigator whose activism, compassion, and willingness to be herself made her an icon in New York's gay and transgender community.

"I may be crazy, but that don't make me wrong." ~ Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson was born in 1944 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and experienced conflict between her own sense of identity and society's expectations from an early age. As told in the documentary Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson, Marsha first experimented with gender presentation (in Marsha's case, trying on dresses) when she was five years old, but stopped after getting unwanted attention for doing so.

Adding to her experience as Marsha sought to establish her identity (and simply to exist) was her mother, who did not understand nor sought to understand what it meant to be gay or transgender. She told Marsha if she was a homosexual, she was "lower than a dog."

Marsha did not legally change her name until she was 22, but the moment she finished high school at the age of 18, she left home - "My mother didn't even have to show me the door." She took a bag of clothes, $15, and her high school diploma and left for the streets of New York.

She found a job waiting tables for a while, but when the restaurant kicked her out she learned how to ask for money on the streets, and how to go out with different men and get treated by them - she learned how to get by.

Life on the streets was never easy for Marsha. She had very little and what she did have, she would give away - friends recalled how she would get $2 in spare change from a passerby, then turn around and give it to someone else she saw that might need it more - "She was like a Robin Hood," one of her friends described.

Marsha became a familiar sight in Greenwich Village, instantly identifiable for her highly creative and individual way of dressing. She wore flashy jewelry and hats, or a wig and a crown of her own creation, made of fresh flowers, tinsel, even Christmas lights. Her clothing was donated or bought at a thrift store.

From the documentary, Pay It No Mind, 1992
From the documentary, Pay It No Mind, 1992
Both friends and strangers celebrated her lack of agenda, and willingness to be who she was. “She was like the mayor of Christopher Street,” one friend said in “Pay It No Mind."

Another described a typical encounter with Marsha in the street: "She's be coming up Christopher Street, stockings rolled down, fuzzy slippers, over the top with the jewelry, her wig in beer can rollers... and she'd be saying, good morning, everybody! Isn't it a beautiful morning."

It was a time when to many Americans, being gay meant there was something wrong. Kids who were gay often had trouble at home if they displayed who they were; those who kept it to themselves might be just as unhappy. It was common for gay or transgender youth to run away from home, or be driven from home by a parent or family members who rejected them. Some were terribly abused, and could never go home again.

Even between gay people and groups, there was discrimination. Gay men might look down on transgender people and drag queens, or vice-versa. While it was hard to be gay in America in the 1940s-60s, it was even harder to be black and gay; and being black and a transgender woman or drag queen was tougher than all of those.

As a homeless transgender person, Marsha additionally experienced discrimination due to class and poverty. Reported friend James Gallagher, "Marsha used to say that some of the queens treated their dogs better than they treated her. They used to walk by and say 'What is it?' And Marsha would say, 'What do you care what 'it' is, you're not giving 'it' anything.'"

The "P" in Marsha P. Johnson stood for "Pay it no mind," a response Marsha gave when people asked what her middle name was, but it also stood for the broader, sometimes unspoken question she frequently encountered regarding her gender. It was not just a sharp response, but an attitude and pointed suggestion.

In her own dignified way, Marsha found a way though those layers of stigma and dress as she wanted to dress, head held high, presenting herself in a way that was freeing.

For this she became a cherished and familiar face on Christopher Street in New York. Marsha was called a patron saint, "holy" and "angel" for the glow and kindness she displayed. Meeting her was "like a religious experience."

For her creativity and bravery alone Marsha might have gone down in history, but she was also a part of something bigger, much of which culminated on June 28th, 1969, in the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.

The Stonewall Riots

Stonewall Inn was just one of the bars on Christopher Street that catered to the gay community, where a gay kid or runaway or any member of the LGBT community could go and feel safe and accepted. At 3AM one morning, however, the police raided the Stonewall Inn for serving liquor without a license, among other violations.

While police claimed to be legally justified in raiding the bar, for the gay community, whom had been feeling pressure from the police for months as bar after bar was targeted and shut down, this was the final straw. A riot that spilled out onto the streets ensued.

Many who were present recall the role Marsha played in the riots that night. Remembers Robert Heide, he "just saw her in the middle of the whole thing, screaming and yelling and throwing rocks and almost like Molly Pitcher in the Revolution or something."

Among the gay community, it was widely reported that Marsha was the one who started the riots. "Marsha said 'I got my civil rights," then threw a shotglass into a mirror, and that started the whole thing," reported David Carter, activist and author of Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution. "It became known as the shotglass heard around the world."

The crowd on the street that night was initially quiet as the police arrested Stonewall employees, but began throwing bottles at the police when three drag queens and a lesbian were forced into the paddy wagon. The police had to take shelter in the bar, and several were injured before reinforcements arrived.

Marsha handing out brochures during a protest, New York City
Courtesy of Reuters
What became known as the Stonewall riot was followed by several days of demonstrations in New York and was the driving factor behind the formation of the Gay Liberation Front and many LGBT organizations. It is regarded by many as the first demonstration on behalf of gay rights and the beginning of a radical mass movement in the fight for LGBT acceptance and legitimacy.

STAR and Gay Liberation Activism

The Stonewall riots were a turning point for Marsha personally, as she remembers this being the first time she began performing as a drag queen at a local bar with a popular group called Hot Peaches. While Marsha stressed that "I never did drag seriously. I just always do drag. I never do it seriously. Because I don't have have the money to do serious drag," the crowd accepted Marsha for who she was, hooting and hollering their support as she performed, usually out-of-tune and hamming it up for the crowd. She brought the house down with her performances, which also served to generate a few dollars.

With fellow trans activist and friend Sylvia Ray Rivera, Marsha formed a group called STAR, which stood for Street Transvestite Activist Revolutionaries. They had an apartment that was donated to them by the owner of a club, and they turned it into a home for runaway or homeless trans individuals. According to Sylvia, "STAR was for the street gay people, the street homeless people, and anybody that needed help at that time."

The primary goal of STAR was to keep other transgender people off the street, keep them safe, and get them fed. Marsha and Sylvia handed out fliers alerting the community of the STAR home, and raised money and awareness. They created a home for a group that was so far one of the most marginalized, even among the gay community.

With a STAR poster at a Gay Rights protest,
source unknown
At one of the local universities, talking with trans and drag college students.
source unknown
When members of the gay community tried to keep drag queens and transvestites out of the local Gay Pride Parade in 1978, Sylvia and Marsha took their STAR banner and walked out in front of the parade; with this one action they went from being excluded from the parade to leading the way.

Another organization that emerged from the Stonewall riots was the Gay Liberation Front, or GLF. This group sought political action and protection for individuals based on their sexual orientation or behavior, and rallied against oppressive laws and ethics.

An important distinction made by the GLF at that time was that they stood not only for gay rights and liberation, but for the rights of all who did not identify with traditional gender and sexual identities, including drag queens and transgender people.

The GLF offered acceptance to individuals like Marsha and Sylvia, who did not identify as gay, but as transgender.

In her later years Marsha also became involved with the help and acceptance of individuals with AIDS, and acted as nurse for a friend who was diagnosed. She cleaned his clothing, tended to his bedside, held him and helped him back into bed when he fell. She was present in the room when he passed away, and was shaken by the quiet manner in which he passed - he did not go out "screaming and hollering" as she expected, but just closed his eyes and died.

Marsha was deeply affected by his death and by the loss of many friends with AIDS. She was diagnosed with AIDS herself in 1990. Regarding her advice for friends of anyone diagnosed with AIDS, she said, "Stand as close to them as you can, help them as much as you can."

Marsha goes missing

By the early 1990s Marsha had become such a celebrated and well-known fixture on the streets of Greenwich Village that it was a huge shock to many when she went missing one summer day. Two days later, on July 4th, 1992, her body was pulled from the Hudson River. It was a river she had been thrown into on at least one occasion prior, after being harassed by local bullies.

Her death was ruled a suicide, but Marsha's friends were convinced that she had been murdered. The police did nothing to investigate, a fact that appalled but did not shock her friends, who reflected "It's the murder of a black gay person. They didn't care."

The ruling on Marsha's death was changed from "suicide" to "undetermined" in December 2002 when a police investigation decided there was not enough evidence to call it a suicide, but it remains unsolved, despite a witness who saw a local bully fighting with Marsha on the pier on July 4th.

Marsha's funeral was attended by hundreds of people, so many that they could not be contained within the church she frequented so regularly. When it came time to hold the funeral procession down 7th Avenue, the Chief of Police even agreed in the moment to shut the street down to traffic so the funeral could proceed down the street, though they didn't have a permit to do so.

The Legacy of Saint Marsha

For many at that time, Marsha was an example of freedom of expression and gender identity in an environment that was not tolerant of either. More importantly, she was an example of the intersectionality that occurs when an individual is discriminated against not just by one institution, but by many, due to that person's overlapping identities tied to race, gender, and sex (to name a few).

By being who she was she brought attention to this notion, and the idea that within groups that are oppressed, there are subgroups, and each has a unique set of challenges. With Sylvia Rivera, Marsha created a safe, non-judgmental place for street people facing these challenges, at a time when they felt they had nowhere else to turn.


"What's the point of complaining? It don't get you nowhere."

"I carry my wonder drug with me everywhere I go - a can of mace. If they attack me, I'm going to attack them, with me bomb."[Interviewer: "Did you ever use it?"] "Not yet, but I'm patient."

"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."

"I found out if you're a pretty boy or a pretty little transvestite, you can make a couple dollars."

On the statues that were placed in the park following the Stonewall Riots, to commemorate gay rights:
"Now they got two little nice statues in Chariot Park to remember the gay movement. How many people have died for these two little statues to be put in the park for them to recognize gay people? How many years has it taken people to realize that we are all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race? I mean how many years does it take people to see that? We're all in this rat race together!"

"Nobody promised you tomorrow."

  • Gay rights activists give their verdict on Stonewall: "This film is no credit to the history it purports to portray." Nigel M. Smith, The Guardian. September 25th, 2015
  • The Stonewall Riot: June 28th, 1969.
  • Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson, Shotgun Seamstress Zine, October 29th, 2012
  • Rapping With Marsha P. Johnson, Reina Gossett,The Spirit Was...February 24th, 2012.
  • The Piers: Marsha P. Johnson, 1992. Whose Streets Our Streets
  • Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson, Documentary, 2012.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Marsha P. Johnson made great contributions to LGBT history yet so few people know about her! I wish they taught us about activists like her in school-- her story is so important

  3. Thank you Marsha P Johnson, I hope someday I'll be able to impact the world almost as much as you did.

  4. It keeps saying "Martha". Can you please correct these as her name is Marsha :)

    1. Thanks so much! I have changed it. Along with some other typos and references. I appreciate you calling my attention to this.

    2. No problem! Glad to help! Was a great read other than that!