CW/TW: homophobia; transphobia; police violence; potential homicide;suicide (mentioned); sexual abuse of a minor (mentioned)
Marsha P Johnson was born on August 24th,1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She was the fifth of seven children. Assigned male at birth, Marsha started to express her trans identity very young, wearing dresses and other traditionally feminine clothing as early as 5 years old according to her recollections. She continued to do so until she was sexually assaulted by a 13 year old neighbour, at which point she decided to wear traditionally masculine clothing for her own safety. Not much has been shared about Marsha’s childhood outside of these facts, facts that she herself shared in an interview given shortly before her unexpected death.
As soon as she completed high school, Marsha left New Jersey at just 17 years old and moved to New York City with “$15 and a bag of clothes”, starting her adult life as her true self. Marsha tried a few different names before settling on Marsha P Johnson. Throughout her life, she occasionally went by her birth name, Malcolm, especially in visits back home to her family. Despite their lack of support of her identity, Marsha stayed close with her relatives, visiting often and remaining in their lives until the end. After Malcolm came Black Marsha, and finally, the name that was hers: Marsha P Johnson. The P stands for “Pay it no mind”, a motto that Marsha lived by and one that she would offer when confronted about her identity or appearance. She took the surname of Johnson from a restaurant that she enjoyed. Like many trans people, Marsha built her identity from the pieces she had and forged a new path with a name and a life that was her own.
When Marsha moved to New York City in 1963, she landed in Greenwich Village. At the time of her arrival, “cross dressing” was still a crime, and one that she was arrested for frequently. New York was a violently transphobic place to live, and Marsha was a Black, trans, low income woman from New Jersey with no support system and no means to provide for herself. Marsha could not find employment due to discrimination, so she became a sex worker. Her work was one of the reasons that she was frequently arrested. When asked how often she’d been to jail, she answered, “I stopped counting once it reached 100.”
In addition to her arrests, Marsha (and many other sex workers) were beaten or abused by their clients. Once, in 1970, Marsha was shot by a client, and as a housing insecure person with few resources, she was unable to receive proper medical care. The bullet remained in her leg until the day she died. Despite the abuse she often suffered, Marsha wasn’t ashamed to be a sex worker, much as she wasn’t ashamed to be trans or gay or Black. She fought for the rights of sex workers and “street people,” as she referred to herself, equally as passionately as any other group.
New to the city, Marsha very quickly made one of the most important friendships of her life. At just 11 years old, Sylvia Rivera was already living on the streets of New York, a young trans girl also doing sex work and without any family or community to come home to. The two bonded quickly, and as Sylvia would later say, “Marsha was like a mother to me.” Marsha was like a mother to so many who lived on Christopher Street, to an entire local community and eventually to a movement. But before all of that, she had Sylvia to look after. They embodied found family in a way few people could ever hope to understand. Through decades of life on the streets of New York, years of activism and police brutality and rejection by their own community, the two of them remained family.
A few years later, in the summer of 1969, Marsha was 23 and in much the same situation as when she had arrived. A fixture in the community and a regular on Christopher Street, Marsha said, “I was known as a Stonewall Girl. One of the first girls to ever come in drag to the Stonewall.” At the time, most of the gay bars and clubs were owned by the mafia who had an under the table agreement with the police to allow them to operate. However, the New York Liquor Authority refused to authorise liquor licences for gay bars, giving the police a ready excuse for raids and violence against anyone they met inside. In 1950, New York downgraded sodomy from a felony to a misdemeanour. This meant that cross dressing, same sex dancing or contact, and anything else considered “deviant behaviour” was still within the realm of NYPD enforcement (and by extension the FBI and other federal agencies) in 1969 when the Stonewall riots occurred.
The night before the riot, “Police forced her [MPJ] and others onto the bar’s wall to line up and be frisked… And then the police returned the next day to set Stonewall on Fire.” If nothing else, this illustrates that the rebellion born from Stonewall was not a reaction to an isolated incident, but rather a reasonable and necessary response to a pattern of harassment and violence by the NYPD. Stonewall was not the first or only time that the queer community pushed back against the police surveillance and arrests in their spaces, but it has been one of the most remembered. And Marsha P Johnson was a central figure in the Stonewall uprising.
The accounts of the night of June 28, 1969 are understandably varied, but the narrative that Marsha threw the first brick (or shot glass or any other iteration) is false, according to Marsha herself and many other people present. Marsha was uptown when the riot started, and she didn’t make it to Stonewall until about 2 in the morning. She quickly joined, throwing a heavy object (identity debatable) onto a police car and encouraging those already present to keep fighting back. As Marsha said, she “wasn’t afraid of being arrested because I’d spent the last 10 years going to jail simply for wearing makeup on 42nd street. I had nothing to lose.”
The Stonewall rebellion lasted for six days. Police used tear gas and fire hoses on the protestors, abusing and arresting them. Marsha would always share the credit for Stonewall, saying it was “the Queens” who started it and kept the uprising going, counting herself among their number. The activism that came from those six days continues to echo into today and the queer rights that have been so hard won would not have been possible without the fight and courage of Marsha and other trans women, especially trans women of colour. Sylvia and Marsha were both arrested at Stonewall, and for them it was just one time of many. What we think of as unbelievable tenacity was their daily life.
The fact that trans women, especially sex workers and non-white individuals, were so prominent in media coverage of the event at the time, caused a deeper rift in the queer community than already existed. There was pushback from the middle-class, cisgender, white gay men who were pushing queer rights through the lens of assimilation. Look, we’re just like you. Because what Stonewall, and what Marsha and the others showed, was that they weren’t just like the suburbanites that those other queer community members wanted to sway. But they were the ones on the streets, fighting the establishment, putting their safety at risk. It was their faces being used like a caricature in the media, portraying the queer community as violent, dangerous, flamboyant, all the things the more mainstream gay men were trying to distance themselves from. Instead of amplifying their voices and proudly supporting their lead, the gay male leaders of queer organisations tried their best to put distance between themselves and those who truly lead the Stonewall uprising.
LGBTQ+ journalist Michael Musto emphasised, “She was somebody who put her life on the line. People think, ‘Oh the gay community just happened this way.’ It didn’t. There were people like Marsha literally in the street, not just celebrating but fighting for rights.” Marsha certainly thought that direct protest was the needed response. “As long as gay people don’t have their rights all across America, there’s no reason for celebration.”
Stonewall was truly just the beginning for Marsha’s activist work. While the Christopher Street Liberation Day parade (the precursor to the modern Pride parade) was taking place on the one year anniversary of Stonewall, Marsha and Sylvia were busy with another endeavour. Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (known as STAR) was their effort to house and feed young trans people (the word transgender was not a widely used term in 1970). STAR was originally an out of commission truck where 24 people slept, while Sylvia and Marsha provided for their needs to the best of their ability. At the time, Marsha was just 24 and Sylvia had just turned 18, and already they were dedicated leaders of a community.
Though she herself was referred to as “Queen Mother” by the residents of STAR, Marsha gave most of the credit for STAR to Sylvia. “I started STAR house but I didn’t actually start STAR house. Sylvia Rivera started the STAR house and I was one of the queens that was behind her like the Vice President of STAR.” Unfortunately, STAR only lasted about a year. After the truck, Marsha and Sylvia found an apartment to rent from the mafia (landlords would not rent to trans people). But after only 8 months, they were evicted and the STAR house was no more. However, it was truly the first of its kind, and other similar endeavours began to show up around the world, inspired by their idea.
STAR was more than a housing endeavour. The manifesto that Sylvia and Marsha put together contained the following items. The manifesto reads like something entirely contemporary, and it’s both shocking and horribly unsurprising that so little has changed despite the activism of Marsha and so many others.
- “We want the right to self-determination over the use of our bodies; the right to be gay, anytime, anyplace; the right to free physiological change and modification of sex on demand; the right to free dress and adornment.”
- “The end to all job discrimination against transvestites of both sexes and gay street people because of attire.”
- “The immediate end of all police harassment and arrest of transvestites and gay street people, and the release of transvestites and gay street people from all prisons and all other political prisoners.”
- “The end to all exploitative practices of doctors and psychiatrists who work in the field of transvestism.”
- “Transvestites who live as members of the opposite gender should be able to obtain identification of the opposite gender.”
- “Transvestites and gay street people and all oppressed people should have free education, health care, clothing, food, transportation, and housing.”
- “Transvestites and gay street people should be granted full and equal rights on all levels of society, and full voice in the struggle for liberation of all oppressed people.”
- “An end to exploitation and discrimination against transvestites within the homosexual world.”
- “We want a revolutionary peoples’ government, where transvestites, street people, women, homosexuals, Puerto Ricans, Indians, and all oppressed people are free, and not fucked over by this government who treat us like the scum of the earth and kills us off like flies, one by one, and throws us into jail to rot. This government who spends millions of dollars to go to the moon, and lets the poor Americans starve to death.”
In addition to STAR, Marsha was involved in multiple other queer rights organisations. She joined the Gay Liberation Front, the Gay Activist Alliance, and later, ACTUP. She was continually frustrated with the blatant transphobia of these organisations. Trans people, and specifically trans women, were excluded, and most of the violence and dismissal in the queer community came from white, gay men. She put it very succinctly when she said, “Gay sisters don’t think too bad of transvestites. Gay brothers do.”
The discrimination within the queer community was so intense that in 1973, drag queens (which, at the time, included trans women like Marsha) were banned from the Pride march. Marsha and Sylvia refused to be shoved to the side of a movement that they helped birth. They marched ahead of the parade. “Darling, I want my gay rights now. I think it’s about time the gay brothers and sisters got their rights…especially the women” was Marsha’s famous quote from this day.
She and Sylvia were such an invaluable foundation to the early years of queer rights that it’s hard to imagine the world today without their influence. Their bravery and fortitude and stubborn determination were indomitable, and by 1980, Marsha was invited to headline the Parade in the lead car. She refused because she felt it put her above the community rather than in it. If she was to be in the parade, she would walk with everyone else. Over the course of a decade, she went from being arrested at Stonewall, to being forcibly removed from the movement, to being invited to lead as a figurehead.
Marsha was an activist, but she was also so much more. She was dedicated to her Christian faith, casually telling people that she married Jesus when she was just 16. Marsha would attend church services of multiple denominations and could often be found deep in prayer, alone, at a church altar.
In 1972, Marsha started touring with the drag theatre company Hot Peaches. In an interview, Marsha joked, “I was no one, nobody, from nowheresville until I became a drag queen.”
In 1975, Marsha was photographed by Andy Warhol. She was already recogniseable to residents of Greenwich Village as a generous, warm, motherly figure, but Andy’s portrait series that included Marsha exposed her to a new audience. But in a true case of irony, when Marsha took friends to see her portrait on display, she and her friends were thrown out based on their appearance. She was part of the exhibit and she wasn’t deemed an acceptable viewer due to the bigotry, transphobia, and racism that she was forced to encounter every single moment of her life.
And in perhaps the most compassionate and earnest activism of her life, Marsha became “Saint Marsha” to the sick and dying during the AIDS crisis. This was potentially her most impactful work, visiting hospitals, holding hands of those who had been abandoned to die alone, spending hours in prayer for the souls of those she knew who had died. Marsha joined the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACTUP)* early on, a grassroots organisation working to end the AIDS epidemic, born out of the queer community of New York. Marsha herself was HIV positive, announcing in 1992 that she had been positive since 1990.
Marsha was essentially destitute for the entirety of her adult life. Housing insecure, unable to hold employment due to discrimination, lack of support from family, and dealing with a hostile society that arrested and abused her. And yet she offered kindness. Marsha was known for giving away her last bit of food, for giving the shirt off her back, for splitting her last dollar with a queer sibling in need.
In 1980, she did find a bit of stability. Marsha became caretaker for Randy Wicker’s partner, David Combs, who was very sick with AIDS. She moved into their apartment one day and stayed for almost a decade, nursing and caring and offering what she could in place of rent. David died in 1990, and Randy remained friends with Marsha until her death two years later.
A rare interview with Marsha was recorded on June 26, 1992, just days before the annual Pride march in New York City. Most of what we know about Marsha in her own words comes directly from this interview. If you have a chance, I recommend you take the time to listen to Marsha, to experience her story in her own voice, one that was so often dismissed or repressed. Marsha talks about her upbringing, her life in New York, and her role in the queer rights movement. After decades of activism, it was Marsha’s opportunity to have the focus on her.
Four days after the interview, Marsha was reported missing. Marsha attended Pride on Christopher Street, at this point a recognizable figure in the community and in the movement, and then she disappeared. There are some unconfirmed reports of some sightings of Marsha as near as two days before her body was discovered, but by most accounts she was missing for six days. On July 6, 1992, Marsha’s body was discovered floating in the Hudson river.
At the time of her death, it was ruled a suicide by NYPD. But immediately, those who knew her and even residents who were unfamiliar with her said this was unlikely. There were reports of her being followed just before her death by multiple credible sources, as well as reports of harassment from a specific individual who lived nearby. Marsha had mentioned to many people that she worried about the mob coming after her. And with her death so soon after the Pride celebrations, where she was a very public figure, it was very possible she was a victim of a hate crime. 1992 was the worst year on record for anti-LGBTQ violence according to the New York Anti Violence Project.
Marsha was 46 when she died. When her body was discovered, she was left on the sidewalk for hours before authorities arrived. Eye witnesses report a large hole in the back of her head. And despite all of this, NYPD dismissed her death as a suicide.
The community hosted a funeral for Marsha with hundreds in attendance. The street had to be shut down while Marsha’s ashes were walked from the church to the pier because the crowd was overwhelming. As one community member said, “Marsha P Johnson was the Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement.” In her lifetime she was never given the credit or resources she deserved, but in death she was highly respected and revered, as with so many other queer rights activists.
In 2002, the NYPD reclassified the cause of Marsha’s death as “undetermined.” After decades of research and ground work by trans activists, in 2012 the case of Marsha’s death was reopened as a homicide and is currently being handled by the cold case department of the NYPD.
There have been a few documentaries covering Marsha’s life. David France directed a film surrounding the case of Marsha’s death. He said, “In serious and significant ways, we all killed Marsha P Johnson. We did it by not beginning or continuing the revolution that she began in 1969, by not taking up her flag and marching forward to create the kind of utopian society that she imagined. The kind of freedom and liberty that she cried out for initially and fought for all her life. And until we do that we really haven’t honoured her or brought justice to her case.”
And that brings us to Marsha’s legacy. When she was gone, what was left? What do we learn from Marsha’s life and from the work she did?
In studying queer history, it becomes immediately apparent that 2024 is not very far removed from these events and these stories, if there’s any separation at all. Without the violence and the systemic damage forced on communities of colour, on transgender individuals, on the queer rights movement and numerous others, so many of these “legendary” figures we discuss would still be alive, posting on Twitter, sharing their selfies on Instagram, joining cringe dance trends on TikTok, and living for their own sake. Many of them were activists and heroes out of the necessity of their circumstance. In Marsha’s case, her activism was survival: to own her identity and advocate for her rights, and lean into community care.
In her 1992 interview, Marsha said, “They call me a legend in my own time because there’s so many queens gone that I’m one of the few queens still left from the 70’s…but I’m not the only one. There’s several legendary queens.” The names, identities, and importance of these legendary queens have largely been forgotten while Marsha’s legacy remains. Marsha wasn’t celebrated in her lifetime, and even now she’s often reduced to a caricature, to a hollow, vapid, frivolous woman, which is a significant disservice to the dedicated activist and community leader that she was. I hope that this article will leave you with a fuller picture of Marsha P Johnson and that she stays with you, inspiring kindness and courage and action.
If Marsha were still alive, there’s many things she’d be proud of. But she’d also still be out on the streets with her people, giving away her last dollar, creating headdresses out of any flowers she could find, fighting every day of her life for her rights and for the rights of her fellow trans people of colour. There’s a lot of progress still to be made on so much of what Marsha wished for. This world needs to make serious changes in how it treats the housing insecure, the way it polices queer identities, the violence against the Black community, the enormous income inequalities, and the harassment and disparaging of sex workers. These are all causes Marsha was incredibly dedicated to changing, all parts of her identity that she wore proudly along with her red heels and bright dresses.
Marsha embodied community work through solidarity, through walking with and living among those who had been most failed by society. At the end of her life, there was a monument placed in New York City to honour the queer civil rights movement, and Marsha cut right to the heart of it. “Now they got two little statues in Sheridan Square Park to remember the gay movement. How many people have died for these two little statues to be put in the park to recognise gay people?”
What good are the statues and the monuments and the parades if nothing has really changed? What’s there to celebrate when trans women of colour are still being murdered in the streets every year? Can we really shout about progress when the most vulnerable members of our community have no protections, no civil rights, often tossed aside as Marsha, and Sylvia, and so many others were? If Marsha hadn’t died in 1992, she likely would’ve died from her HIV infection, because someone in her position did not have access to the treatments that became available or the means to afford it. One way or another, the loss of Marsha would have been avoidable but inevitable without the change she consistently called for.
Honouring Marsha is absolutely important, but to do so requires advocacy for those living in her place today. The Marsha P Johnson institute was founded in her name and works for the rights of Black transgender people. They honour her legacy through policymaking, programming, and education.
Following in Marsha’s footsteps can be as simple as walking among the most vulnerable, the “street people” as Marsha would call herself, offering to share a meal or find a place to stay. She might inspire you to visit the sick, to write to your policymakers about accessible healthcare, to make it so people aren’t dying of preventable causes due to lack of insurance or discrimination from healthcare professionals. Remembering Marsha could mean supporting policies that decriminalise sex work or learning what it means to divest from the police and redistribute those funds into community services.
I’ve linked several sources, many of which share Marsha’s story through her own voice or through those who knew her. I encourage you to visit a few of the links and watch the documentaries about her life if you have the time. It’s a gift to be able to hear Marsha’s voice, to see even a fraction of her presence in video form. Let her inspire you through her own words.
*For more information about the AIDS epidemic and ACTUP, see my NS article from December: https://nostuntsmagazine.com/en/world-aids-day/
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson – film