Marsha P. Johnson, 1945-1992

  • Marsha-P.-Johnson-WWP

Woman Category: Activism & FeminismWoman Tags: African-American Women, LGBTQ, and NYC Women

  • HerStory

    Transgender and gay rights activist, one of the leading figures in the Stonewall Riots of 1969, when the NYC gay community fought for equal rights.

    Born as a male named Malcolm Michaels Jr. in Elizabeth, NJ. At age 5, she started wearing dresses but stopped after suffering from recurring harassment from the kids in her neighborhood. During her childhood, she constantly heard from her mother that homosexuals are considered “lower than dogs.” After she was sexually assaulted, Johnson figured that being openly gay is no more than a dream, and she thought herself as asexual. That changed when she graduated high school, and at 17 years old, she took a bag of clothes and $15 and moved to NYC, where she felt she could be herself and come out.
    In the city, Johnson frequently lived on the streets and had to work as a prostitute. She was often arrested and even got shot once. She settled in Greenwich Village and became involved in the thriving gay scene. She changed her name to “Marsha P. Johnson” and became a member of the Hot Peaches, an international drag performance troupe based in the Village. Her performances as a drag queen were considered “not serious” because she couldn’t afford to spend her money on expensive clothing. Her dress style was a combination of masculine and feminine – wig, makeup, sheer shirts, alongside pants and parka.
    Johnson was one of the first drag queens to go to the Stonewall Inn gay bar after it opened its doors to other members of the LGBTQ community (besides only gay people). At the time, gay bars weren’t granted licenses, and the police were raiding them regularly. On June 28th, 1969, a raid on the Stonewall Inn sparked a riot, known as the “Stonewall Riots.” Those were spontaneous demonstrations by the LGBTQ community members. Many credit Johnson as the one who started the riots by throwing a brick or a glass shot at a mirror while screaming, ‘I got my civil rights,’ though Johnson claims that she wasn’t at the bar when the rioting broke out. On the second night of the riot, she climbed up a lamppost and threw a bag with a brick in it on a police car, shattering the windshield.
    Soon after the riots, Johnson became a prominent advocate for the gay rights movement. She joined the Gay Liberation Front, participated in the 1st Christopher Street Liberation Pride Rally, which marked the first anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, and was among the protesters who demonstrated against New York University for canceling a dance after realizing gay organizations sponsored it.
    Jonson co-founded with Sylvia Rivera, the “Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries” (STAR) organization. In 1972, the two established the STAR House (Street Transvestite), a home for gay and trans street kids. Marsha was the ‘drag mother’ of the house, providing the kids’ food, clothing, and emotional support. During the ’80s, she was a founding member of the ACT UP – a political group who raised awareness of the AIDS pandemic and worked to end it.
    Throughout her life, Johnson suffered from a mental illness and had recurring breakdowns; those occurred especially when she was under her male persona. In July of 1992, 46 years old Jonson was found floating in the Hudson River. Some say she killed herself as a result of her mental illness, while people who knew her claim that it was a homophobic hate crime. The police didn’t investigate the case; some say it is probably because she was a “gay black man.”

    “If it wasn’t for the drag queen, there would be no gay liberation movement. We’re the front-liners.”

    “If it wasn’t for the drag queen, there would be no gay liberation movement. We’re the front-liners.”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • The P in her drag queen name stands for a phrase she often used, “pay it no mind.”
    • She was photographed by Andy Warhol for his “Ladies and Gentlemen” Polaroids series.
    • Her trademark was flower headpieces.
    • She was devoutly religious throughout her life; she used to say that Jesus is the only man she can trust, who listen to her problems and never laughing at her.
    • The documentary “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” is following after the investigates of Johnson’s murder.
    • The baroque pop band ‘Antony and the Johnsons’ name is a tribute to her.
    • In 1973 she and Sylvia Rivera weren’t allowed to participate in the gay pride parade after the gay and lesbian committee claimed that drag queens are banned from the parade because they’re giving the community a bad name. Johnson and Rivera’s response was to march defiantly ahead of the parade.
    • During 2020, a monument honoring Johnson and Rivera will be placed in Ruth Wittenberg Triangle in the Village, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.
  • More About Her Legacy
    Creations By and About Her:

    * A movie about the Stonewall Uprising
    * Books about her


    * Inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor

  • Watch and Learn More

  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Did Marsha P. Johnson Start the 1969 Stonewall Riots?

    On a hot June night in 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a well-known gay bar in New York City, as they had many times before. This time, customers fought back. The uprising launched a national movement for LGBTQ rights. Many believe the powder keg exploded when a trans woman named Marsha P. Johnson threw a shot glass that shattered the mirror behind the bar. It wouldn't have been her first feat of activism. Decades later, when she was found dead, others had to advocate for her justice.

  • Photo credit - By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, Wikipedia