Written By Lily Weeks
Marsha P. Johnson was one of the most prolific LGBTQ+ activists of her era, being one of the key players in the Stonewall Riots and founding the STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) organization for gay activism with friend and comrade Sylvia Rivera. Later, the two would found the STAR House for homeless gay and trans youth. They worked hard to provide food, shelter and emotional support to LGBT children who had been turned away by their blood families. Despite other activists being reluctant to give her the credit she deserved for her actions, due to their belief that a drag queen would “give them a bad name”, she continued to fight for gay rights until her death in 1992. Today we take a look at one of the greatest heroes of modern LGBTQ+ activism.
She was born on August 24, 1945, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Her father worked on an assembly line at General Motors, while her mother stayed home and took care of Marsha – then called Malcolm – and her six siblings. Johnson began to wear dresses at the age of five, but stopped for a while due to harassment from boys who lived near her house. The idea of being gay was “something like a dream” to Johnson, until she graduated high school and moved to New York City with fifteen dollars and a bag of clothes. She got a job waiting tables at a restaurant in Greenwich Village, and it was meeting other gay people there that made being gay feel like a real possibility for Johnson. It was around this time that she began to live her life as an out gay person; that is, she was no longer closeted or attempting to hide her sexuality.
Johnson did not consider herself transgender, but it is important to note that the term was not widely used while Johnson was alive. She identified herself as gay, as a transvestite, and as a queen (meaning drag queen). Most of her drag performances were comedic, as opposed to haute couture “high drag”. She sang and performed with the drag performance group Hot Peaches from 1972 until the 1990s, and with The Angels of Light, the East Coast branch troupe of The Cockettes. In 1973, they put on a production called The Enchanted Miracle with Johnson starring as “The Gypsy Queen”.
When Johnson was not performing, she was fighting for the rights of LGBTQ+ people as a member of the Gay Liberation Front, and later STAR(Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) which she helped found in 1970. Before any of this, however, was the Stonewall Riots, an event that must be mentioned whenever the history of gay civil rights is discussed.
The events of June 28, 1969 are still disputed to this day, though not nearly as much as they used to be. It is agreed that Johnson was one of the individuals at the front of the pushback against police when they attempted to raid the Stonewall Inn and arrest the gay people drinking inside. After this, however, details get murky – a side effect of the chaos that night. Some have said that Johnson threw a shot glass at the wall, others said this did not happen. Some say she threw a brick at a police officer, others say she dropped it through the windshield of a cop car. One thing we know for sure happened, however, is that fellow activist Marty Robinson avoided mentioning her at all in his accounts of the night, possibly out of fear of the gay rights movement being discredited by being associated with Johnson, due to her well-known gender nonconformity. Sadly, this point of view was not uncommon among Johnson’s fellow activists – both Johnson and her friend Sylvia Rivera, despite being key figures in the riot that kicked the whole movement off, were banned from participating in a gay and lesbian pride parade due to the organizers’ belief that drag queens would give the parade a bad name. In response, they marched in front of the parade.
Johnson was regarded widely as generous and “saintly” by those who knew her, not least of which were the children who stayed at STAR House. There is a long and established tradition of chosen family within gay communities, and Johnson acted as a mother figure for the children with nowhere else to go. Nevertheless she had quite a fiery personality; a particular incident from the early 70s illustrates this well. Johnson was confronted by police officers for hustling, and when they attempted to apprehend her, she hit them with a handbag containing two bricks. (Perhaps this is where the story of her hitting a police officer with a brick at Stonewall came from?) This landed her in court, where she declared that she was trying to secure enough money for her dead husband’s tombstone, during a time when gay marriage was illegal in the United States. Steven Watson in a 1979 Village Voice article, “The Drag of Politics”, listed off a roster of gay bars from which Johnson had been banned.
Johnson’s mental health was notably turbulent, and she was frequently in and out of hospitals and prisons – sometimes for her illegal sex work, and sometimes for getting in fights. By her count she had been arrested over 100 times. Around the time of her death, she was becoming increasingly sick and fragile emotionally, and this is one of the reasons her death in 1992 was initially ruled a suicide.
Shortly after the day’s pride parade, Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River. The police, reluctant to investigate the death of a “gay black man”, initially ruled the death a suicide, though Johnson’s friends and other community members insisted she was not suicidal. The back of Johnson’s head had a massive wound, and several people later came forward to say they had seen Johnson harassed by a group of criminals. Johnson’s body was cremated and her ashes spread in the river. In 2012, the case was reopened, and her cause of death was changed from “suicide” to “undetermined”. In 2016, Victoria Cruz succeeded in getting the case reopened again, gaining access to various unreleased documents and witness statements. Some of her work was filmed for the 2017 documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, which I encourage one to watch if they find themselves curious about her after reading this article.
When we discuss marginalized identities and their civil rights, we often discuss African Americans or LGBTQ+ people, when they are not mutually exclusive. Marsha P. Johnson was gay, and gender non-conforming, and black, and mentally ill, and none of these separate oppressions affected her any less than any of the others. Each of them amplified the others. Marsha lived a very difficult life, and she could easily have allowed it to turn her bitter; instead she left the world a better place than the one she entered. On February 1, 2020, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, announced that the East River State Park in Brooklyn will be renamed after Marsha Johnson in order to properly honor her and her legacy of fighting for LGBTQ+ rights. After the travesty that was the investigation of her death by New York police, this feels to this reporter like an apology. Nearly thirty years after Johnson’s death, the world is a more accepting place than she could have imagined, and though we still have work to do, everyone in the gay community now honors Marsha P. Johnson for the work she has done.