Marsha Johnson, performer, self-proclaimed drag queen, and LGBTQ activist who stood at the front lines of the Stonewall riots in 1969. These riots – which are also referred to as the Stonewall uprising or the Stonewall rebellion, paved the way for LGBTQ activism in the United States.
The Stonewall rebellion was a series of unprompted demonstrations from members of the gay community in response to a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. The gay bar and recreational tavern served as a safe space for members of the gay community at a time where homosexual activity was illegal in every state except Illinois. Police raids on gay bars were widespread. In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, members of the city’s LGBTQ community decided to fight back.
Known as a welcoming presence throughout the streets of Greenwich Village, Johnson stood at the center of these demonstrations. She became known as the “Mayor of Christopher Street” – the street where Stonewall Inn still stands today. Some conspire that Johnson was responsible for throwing the first bottle at the cops; however, this theory was debunked in a 1987 podcast interview where Johnson said that she arrived at the demonstrations after they had already begun. What remains true is that Johnson was one of the first to resist arrest that night.
Johnson’s activism continued after Stonewall, where she and her close friend Sylvia Rivera founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), an organization designed to help transgender and homeless youth. STAR is the first organization in the United States that was created and led by trans women of color; it also helped substantiate the presence of transgender individuals within the gay liberation movement.
During the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, Johnson marsha led for the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). She attended marches, fundraisers and nursed several of her friends who had tested positive for the virus.
Marsha Johnson’s wit and personality gained her allies within her community. When a judge questioned what the “P” in her name stood for during a court appearance, Johnson explained that is was short for “Pay it no mind!” The judge was pleased with this response and dropped all charges against her.
Drag, a style Johnson made uniquely her own consisted of shiny dresses, flowy robes, red high heels, vibrant wigs and crowns made of fresh-cut flowers. Her performance work was comedic.
From 1972-1990, Marsha Johnson sang and performed as a member of the drag performance troupe, “Hot Peaches.” In 1975, renowned artist Andy Warhol selected Johnson to take part in a Polaroid series titled “Ladies and Gentlemen.” Her artistry, like her activism, has become a historical legacy and inspiration to present drag performers.
Like many transgender women of color, Marsha Johnson faced an untimely death that sparked controversy throughout the trans-community. Her death was ruled a suicide, but many believe she was murdered.
Marsha P. Johnson’s story unveils a life of activism that amplified the voices of the transgender community in a time where those voices were demanded to be silent.