August 24, 1945 – Marsha P. Johnson:
“I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville, until I became a drag queen.”
David France brought us How To Survive A Plague (2012), an amazing documentary film about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and the radical efforts of ACT UP. It was nominated for an Academy Award and a Directors Guild Award. France’s The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson (2017) uses decades-old interviews and never-before-seen video footage, plus commentary from current transgender activists to comb through the clues in search of justice for Johnson and Rivera, and discover a deeper connection to the movement’s first leaders. The film follows a new investigation into the mysterious death of Johnson, a courageous Black transgender activist who also help give birth to the modern Gay Rights Movement.
She was at the forefront of more than one pivotal moment in modern history. She established one of the country’s first safe spaces for transgender and homeless youth, and she was a tireless advocate for sex workers, prisoners, and people with HIV/AIDS.
It’s part of Johnson’s legend that she threw “the shot glass heard around the world”, which led to the start of the Stonewall Riots in 1969. The police forced over 200 people out of the bar and onto the streets, and then beat the shit out of them, before the crowd had had enough and fought back. But Johnson, in an interview, said that the riot was already happening before she even arrived at the Stonewall Inn:
“I was uptown, and I didn’t get downtown until about two o’clock. When I got downtown, the place was already on fire, and there was a raid already. The riots had already started.”
Marsha resisted arrest, and in the following days, she led a series of protests demanding equal rights for LGBTQ people.
Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels Jr. in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Malcolm Michaels crossed the Hudson River with $15 dollars and a bag full of clothing to become Marsha P. Johnson of Greenwich Village. Houseless, she turned tricks to survive. After she began hanging out with hustlers near the Howard Johnson’s at 6th Avenue and 8th Street, Johnson’s life changed. She came out and said: “my life has been built around sex and gay liberation, being a drag queen” (and sex work).
She found community within the nightlife of the Village. She remade herself as a self-proclaimed “drag queen” on Christopher Street, noted for her unique fashions. During her discovery of Marsha, she referred to herself as Black Marsha before choosing the moniker Marsha P. Johnson. She told a judge that the “P” stood for “Pay It No Mind.” The judge was amused and released her.
At this time, being gay or transgender was classified as a mental illness in the USA. Queer people were regularly threatened and beaten by police and were shunned by most of society. Johnson identified as gay, and sometime as a “transvestite”, or as a “queen”. In our own era, Johnson’s gender expression could perhaps be called gender non-conforming; Johnson never self-identified with the term transgender, because the term was not used often while Johnson was alive.
Johnson became a prominent fixture in the Greenwich Village LGBTQ community serving as a “mother” to homeless and struggling queer youth. She was successful as a drag artist and toured the world with the Hot Peaches drag revue.
Johnson on doing drag:
“That’s what made me in New York, that’s what made me in New Jersey, that’s what made me in the world.”
Johnson’s drag was not high drag. She was mostly too broke to afford purchasing clothing. She sometimes slept under tables used for the sorting of flowers in the Flower District and was known for wearing garlands of fresh flowers. She was tall and slender and liked dressing in ways that would show “the intersection between masculine and feminine”.
Johnson struggled with mental illness, yet she had a way of putting others’ needs before her own. She gained the nickname the “Saint of Christopher Street” because of the generosity she showed. She may have been “saintly” in her Marsha persona, but Johnson’s angry, violent side would show up when she was stressed. This would happen under Johnson’s male persona, “Malcolm”, when she could become short-tempered and speak in a deeper voice. This dual personality of Johnson might be diagnosed as schizophrenia today. When this Malcolm happened, Johnson would wind up with a long stay at Bellevue Hospital where she would be sedated. Her friends would have to organize and raise money for her release.
Tellingly, Johnson was devoutly religious, saying:
“I practice the Catholic religion because the Catholic religion is part of the Santería of the saints, which says that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.”
She made offerings to the saints and spirits, keeping altars whenever she was lucky enough to have a home.
Still, her fearless strength led her to speak out against injustices. In summer 1969, following the riots at the Stonewall Inn, Johnson and her friend Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). The duo became fixtures in Greenwich Village, helping transgender youth living on the streets. STAR provided services including shelter to homeless LGBTQ people in New York City, Chicago, California, and London in the early 1970s.
On July 6, 1992, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River off the West Village Piers. She had been missing for six days. The Police ruled she had committed suicide despite her friends and other people in the Village insisting that Johnson was not suicidal. They argued that attacks on gay and trans people were common. 20 years later, in 2012, advocate Mariah Lopez successfully got the NYPD to reopen Johnson’s case as a possible murder. The police reclassified Johnson’s cause of death from “suicide” to “undetermined”.
In 2017, Victoria Cruz, a crime victim advocate with the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP) also re-opened the case. Cruz gained access to previously unreleased documents and witness statements. She sought out new interviews with witnesses, friends, other activists, and police who had worked the case or had been on the force at the time of Johnson’s probable murder. Some of her work ended up in France’s documentary.
In our COVID era, Black Lives Matter protests around the globe found people shining a special light on the impact of Black gay and trans activists. The news about the Black Lives Matter marches in the USA in 2020 spread around the world, inspiring others to join protests and rights groups to fight for racial equality. Even without the internet, a month after Stonewall, the first openly Gay Liberation march took place in New York city, a pivotal moment for LGBTQ folks everywhere. Even though the Stonewall riots kick-started a wave of support for the LGBTQ community, there was still plenty of discrimination. It was common for young gay and trans people to be kicked out of their family homes by their parents. Johnson and Rivera gave support to those queer citizens.
Johnson’s legacy lives on with the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, which says it “protects and defends the human rights of BLACK transgender people”.
In 2019, the New York City Police Department apologized for their actions at the Stonewall Inn 50 years earlier, saying: “the actions taken by the NYPD were wrong”. That same year, Johnson was one of the inaugural 50 American “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes” inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument (SNM) in Greenwich Village. The SNM is the first U.S. national monument dedicated to LGBTQ rights and history, and the wall’s unveiling took place during the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
In February 2020, the very tall Mayor of New York City and the now disgraced New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo renamed the East River State Park in Brooklyn, The Marsha P. Johnson State Park and announced that there will be a statue created in honor of her, to be unveiled sometime in 2021. It is the first New York State Park named for a LGBTQ figure. She is honored as a Stonewall pioneer, a drag queen, an Andy Warhol model, and a revolutionary trans activist.
Earlier this summer, World of Wonder writer Trey Speegle, reported on the over 7,500 people who back a petition to replace Elizabeth, New Jersey’s Christopher Columbus statue with one of Johnson.
On a 2012 episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, RuPaul named Johnson as an inspiration, describing Johnson as “the true Drag Mother”. RuPaul told her contestants that Johnson “paved the way for all of them”.