by C Icart, Staff Writer

Marsha P. Johnson was born on August 24, 1945. She was a Black trans woman, an activist, a sex worker, and a drag queen. Today, she is mainly remembered for her involvement in the 1969 Stonewall Riots, also known as the Stonewall Uprising, which was subsequently called the first Pride. However, Johnson’s story encompasses so much more than that. As her birthday anniversary has just recently passed, it is the perfect occasion to reflect on her legacy.

Johnson was marginalized in several ways. She was Black, gender non-conforming, queer, poor, and a street-based sex worker. But she was not a victim. The hardships she experienced motivated her political action, and she always found reasons to be joyful. Language has shifted so much in the past several decades. She referred to herself “as a gay person, a transvestite, and a drag queen.” Historians refer to her as a trans woman. The “P” in her name stood for “Pay It No Mind” because that was her motto and response to questions about her gender.

For most of her life, Johnson was houseless. Like many other trans women in her position, she began working as a sex worker and experienced violence from clients and the police. Johnson was also mentally ill, but she did not let hardship define her. She was creative and quickly became admired for her innovative looks consisting of elaborate fresh flower crowns and items she scavenged. As she became more known in the community, she became a “drag mother” and mentor for LGBTQIA2S+ street-based, houseless youth.

Johnson moved to New York’s Greenwich Village as a teenager with nothing but $15 and a bag of clothing. At that time, cross-dressing was illegal. Police would weaponize masquerade laws to harass and arrest LGBTQIA2S+ individuals. There are conflicting accounts about what exactly happened on the night of the Stonewall Riots, but we know it was a pivotal moment in LGBTQIA2S+ history. According to a news release from the White House, the police raided the Stonewall Inn to “enforce a prohibition against selling alcoholic drinks to ‘homosexuals.’ This law, alongside the masquerade laws and prohibitions against same-sex dancing, were some of the many ways LGBTQIA2S+ people were criminalized in New York in the ‘60s. On the morning of June 28, 1969, police initiated the raid that would eventually turn into the now historic Stonewall Riots that lasted for five more days. Despite the longstanding myth that she was a catalyst for the confrontation with the police at Stonewall on June 28, Johnson herself has said “she didn’t arrive at Stonewall until ‘the place was already on fire.’”. On June 28, 1970, America’s first Pride parade took place on the one year anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. “Thousands of people marched in the streets of Manhattan from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park,” chanting, “Say it loud, gay is proud.”

On top of gay rights, Johnson’s advocacy centred around social and economic justice. She also advocated on behalf of houseless LGBTQIA2S+ youth and AIDS patients. She fought back against oppressive policing. Alongside her friend Sylvia Rivera, a change-making activist in her own right, Johnson was involved at the beginning of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). Together, they also founded the “Street Transvestite (now Transgender) Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group committed to helping homeless transgender youth in New York City.” They created the first LGBTQIA2S+ “youth shelter in North America, and these trailblazers became the first trans women of color to lead an organization in the United States.” The first STAR building was at 213 Second Avenue. Later, chapters opened in Chicago, California, and England.

Despite the critical work Johnson, Rivera, and other trans activists did for gay liberation, the trans community was banned from participating in the pride parade in 1973. The gay and lesbian organizing committee claimed that drag queens negatively impacted the movement. As an act of defiance, Johnson and Rivera marched ahead of the parade that year.

In 1992, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River. Despite her friends suspecting she had been murdered, the police labelled it as a suicide and did not investigate further. Regardless of her tremendous impact and the troubling circumstances of her passing, mainstream media didn’t report a lot about her death. The documentary The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson dives into the unanswered questions surrounding her death.

Johnson fought tirelessly for the liberation of all. She is an important figure in gay history, the sex workers’ rights movement, trans history, and Black history. She was a trailblazer, and her impact is still felt today. Happy belated birthday, Marsha!

Leave a Reply