Gay Liberation and AIDS Activist Marsha P. Johnson (1945 – 1992)

Matt Reicher

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Marsha P. Johnsonbiography.com

“We have to be visible. We should not be ashamed of who we are.” ~ Marsha P. Johnson

The outside world saw Marsha P. Johnson as part of a subculture, within a subculture, within a subculture. However, the marginalization of her existence couldn't diminish her efforts to advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. To them, the happy-go-lucky, full-of-life drag queen was a hero that rose from anonymity to worldwide fame.

Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels Jr. on August 24, 1945. She first tried on women's clothing at age five, but unwelcome advances from neighborhood boys forced her to stop. Her mother told her she'd have to leave the house if she was gay. After graduating high school, Johnson did, moving to New York with fifteen dollars and whatever clothing she could carry.

Life in the new city wasn't easy. She had little money and eventually fell into prostitution and homelessness. In 1966, Johnson moved to Greenwich Village and began exploring her identity. She alternated between her birth name and "Black Marsha," a drag-queen persona she created. Soon she was known as Marsha P. Johnson. She took her last name from Howard Johnson's restaurant on 42nd Street. Her middle initial 'P' stood for 'pay it no mind.'

The Stonewall Inn riots, which occurred on June 28, 1969, propelled 23-year-old Marsha to the forefront of the gay liberation movement. After being shamed and abused for too long to hide in society's shadows, the event galvanized an entire community of people.

The June 28, 1969, Stonewall Inn riots propelled twenty-three-year-old Johnson to the forefront of the gay liberation movement. The event galvanized an entire community of people that had been shamed and abused into society's shadow.

Police had raided the LGBTQ+ friendly club multiple times. Once again, authorities set upon the establishment, bullying customers with the same demeaning, heavy-handed approach they'd taken in the past. A crowd formed to protest the mistreatment by local police. Soon, the community fought back.

The Stonewall Inn uprising was the breaking point that began a revolution. The fight for LGBTQ+ rights and civil rights became synonymous with battles for human rights.

Historical accounts have disputed Johnson's participation in the first night's events at the Stonewall. She may not have thrown the shot glass heard around the world, and likely didn't throw a brick through the bar's window. However, the mythology of those moments shows Johnson's standing within the local LGBTQ+ community.

True or not, she stood in person or in spirit at the forefront of nearly every pivotal moment after.

In the weeks after the uprising, Marsha and Sylvia Rivera, her friend, and fellow drag queen helped in the early development of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). The group's position was to welcome any "gay person, regardless of their sex, race, age, or social behavior." Although it recognized the divide between drag and gay communities, it welcomed all.

On June 28, 1970, the first anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, Johnson and Rivera took part in the inaugural LGBTQ+ rights parade. It was then known as the Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally.

In fall 1970, parade organizers held fundraiser dances at NYU's Weinstein Hall. The first three events took place; however, the university canceled the last one until a group of ministers and psychologists could determine the moral acceptability of homosexuality. On September 25, the GLF and other groups organized a sit-in to call out the NYU administration's discriminatory behavior.

A fierce battle occurred between protesters, the administration, and the city's Tactical Police Squad. After a series of demonstrations, the school gave in.

The success at Weinstein Hall further galvanized Johnson and led her and Rivera to co-found the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in 1971. This radical group's mission was to offer support to homeless gay, gender non-conforming, and transgender youth and sex workers. It was the nation's first trans-political organization.

In 1972, the duo launched the STAR house on New York's Lower East Side. It was a shelter for trans sex workers and other LGBTQ+ youth. The organization was the first LGBTQ+ youth shelter in North America. Johnson and Rivera financially supported the space by hustling on the street at night.

The following year, the duo was barred from marching in the 1973 pride parade. The gay and lesbian administrative committee hoped for mainstream acceptance from their straight peers and felt allowing flamboyantly dressed drag queens into their public celebration would send the wrong message.

Johnson and Rivera took part, anyway. They proudly marched at the front of the parade, daring onlookers not to recognize them.

By the early 1970s, Johnson was recognized by the LGBTQ+ community as the "Queen of the Village." Her larger-than-life flamboyant personality shone as she strolled through Greenwich Village, smiling and waving at everyone who called her name. She soon made her way onto the local stage.

Johnson became a member of the drag-performance troupe, Hot Peaches. She wasn't much of a performer, and less of a singer, but the large crowds that came to see her loved every second. In 1973, she also performed with the Angels of Light theater group.

She gained worldwide recognition in 1975 when famed artist Andy Warhol photographed her as a model for his 'Ladies and Gentlemen' Polaroid series of trans-women.

The 1970s weren't all glitz and glamor. Johnson was homeless and continued to be harassed by authorities. Reportedly, she was arrested over one hundred times. She also began having mental breakdowns, spending time in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Despite many personal challenges, Johnson remained committed to helping LGBTQ+ youth.

In 1980 she moved into the home of Randy Wicker, a prominent gay-rights activist. Admittedly transphobic at first, Wicker came to adore Johnson. The two became like family.

She rode in the lead car that year at the city's pride parade. Once barred from taking part, she was now celebrated.

Johnson continued to support the LGBTQ+ community throughout the decade. In 1987, she also became an HIV/AIDS activist. She assisted disease sufferers with the same vigor she had shown local youth and sex workers for so many years. Johnson fought to give sick people back their dignity—to force society to recognize them as fellow human beings.

During a June 26, 1992 interview, Johnson noted she had been HIV positive for the last two years.

On July 6, 1992, shortly after that year's pride parade, Marsha was found floating face down in the Hudson River near Christopher Street. Police initially ruled her death a suicide, but friends and other community members believed there was more to the story. In their opinion, Johnson wasn't suicidal.

Witnesses came forward to report a confrontation between her and unknown assailants. The police didn't immediately consider the information.

In December 2002, authorities changed the ruling on the case from "suicide" to "undetermined," noting there wasn't enough information to call her death a suicide. The case was re-opened in December 2012, but the investigation was closed a year later, unresolved.

Marsha P. Johnson was an LGBTQ+ pioneer who continues to be celebrated for her incredible work. She fought personal demons and found a purpose in activism. She walked toward people society had turned away from with her arms wide open. Johnson was a fearless advocate who believed in humanity, equal rights, and justice for everyone.

Sources

  • Chan, Sewell. “Overlooked.” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/obituaries/overlooked-marsha-p-johnson.html.
  • “Gay New York.” https://www.gay-bikers.org/gay-new-york.htm.
  • Kasino, Michael. “Pay It No Mind — The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson.” YouTube. October 15, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjN9W2KstqE.
  • “Marsha P. Johnson, LGBT Pioneer Born.” African American Registry. Last modified August 2, 2020. https://aaregistry.org/story/marsha-p-johnson-lgbt-pioneer-born/.
  • “Marsha P. Johnson.” YAKIMA PRIDE. https://www.yakimapride.org/stonewall/Marsha-P-Johnson.
  • “Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.” https://www.workers.org/2006/us/lavender-red-73/.
  • Washington, KC. “Marsha P. Johnson (1945–1992).” BlackPast is Dedicated to Providing a Global Audience with Reliable and Accurate Information on the History of African America and of People of African Ancestry Around the World. We Aim to Promote Greater Understanding

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