TW: sexual assault, murder, prostitution, violence, mental illness.
Marsha P. Johnson was an American drag queen and transgender gay rights activist, whose presence was most felt within New York City during the late 1960’s and 70’s. Marsha told people that the P in their name stood for ‘pay it no mind’ – encouraging people to pay no attention or worry to their appearance. They did this in order to encourage a culture where it was not necessary to judge people for how they dressed, or to second guess their gender or sex. This of course is reflective of Marsha’s immense wisdom and willingness to push social boundaries and cultural norms in order to be their true authentic self. Marsha was an outspoken transgender rights activist and is known to be one of the central figures of the historic Stonewall Riots of 1969, which occurred when they were just 23 years old.
For the purpose of this article, I have chosen to use they/them pronouns to represent Marsha P. Johnson's identity, despite the fact that such pronouns were not used at the time of Marsha's life and fame. According to Susan Stryker, a professor of Human Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Arizona, Marsha's gender expression could perhaps most accurately be called gender non-conforming; Johnson never self-identified with the term transgender, but the term was also not in broad use while Johnson was alive. Johnson also liked dressing in ways that would display "the interstice between masculine and feminine", which to me shows that they revelled in existing outside of the gender binary and challenging others’ perceptions of them using their expression. Many articles refer to Marsha using the pronouns of she/her – this is not necessarily incorrect and is still a fair reflection of Marsha, I have just personally chosen to demonstrate Marsha in a more fluid light. Therefore, I have decided to use the singular gender-neutral pronoun of they in order to better represent this aspect of Marsha, and to tell their story in the most accurate way.
Marsha was born as Malcolm Michaels Jr. in August 1945, and grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the fifth of seven children to a working-class family. Marsha’s father, Malcolm Michaels Sr., worked on the assembly line at a General Motors factory in Linden, whilst their mother, the former Alberta Claiborne, was a housekeeper. Marsha began to wear dresses and to challenge gendered clothing from the young age of 5, but experienced teasing and aggressive behaviour from other children, so they stopped for their safety, keeping their identity a secret for much of their childhood and adolescence. As Marsha stated in an interview towards the end of their life, they experienced sexual assault when they were only 13 at the hands of another boy, impacting them severely.
Marsha attended the Mount Teman African Methodist Episcopal Church with their family as a child and practised Christianity for the duration of their life. Marsha was drawn to Catholicism in later life, but visited the houses of other faiths frequently, and worshiped singular deities within their home. Marsha Graduated from Thomas A. Edison (yes, the inventor guy) High School in their hometown of Elizabeth in 1963 before moving to Greenwich Village, New York City at just 17 years old, with only 15 dollars and a bag of clothes to their name, Marsha later revealed. It was here that Marsha began to become heavily involved in drag and sex work. Marsha was one of the first drag queens to frequent the Stonewall Inn, a bar that previously only admitted gay men - although even this was not legal at the time. On June 28th, 1969, the Stonewall Uprising occurred, which Marsha is alleged to be a key figure of, despite not starting the riots. While the first two nights of rioting were the most intense, the clashes with police would result in a series of spontaneous demonstrations and marches through the gay neighbourhoods of Greenwich Village for roughly a week afterwards, bringing prominence to the gay and trans civil rights movements and establishing Marsha as playing a central role in LGBTQIA+ activism.
Along with fellow trans activist and close friend Sylvia Rivera, Martha helped to form the Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a radical political organisation that provided housing and other forms of support to homeless queer youth and sex workers in Manhattan. Martha was a popular figure amongst New York’s art scene, modelling for Andy Warhol. She also performed with the drag performance troupe Hot Peaches from 1972 all the way through to the ‘90s and was an AIDS activist with AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Marsha was known colloquially as the ‘Mayor of Christopher Street’ as they were a welcoming presence within the streets of Greenwich Village throughout their life.
However, Marsha’s struggles with their mental health brought much pain to them and those around them. Marsha had the first in what they said were a series of breakdowns in 1970, and was in and out of psychiatric institutions after that. (“I may be crazy, but that don’t make me wrong,” they often said.) Marsha was generally known for her warmth and charisma, as stated above, but they also could get into physical scraps and be frightening to others, particularly when they were in her stage of being ‘Malcolm’ – as she dipped between the Malcolm and Marsha P. personas frequently.
“She would wander, start off talking about one thing and end up miles away; people would say that drugs had ruined her mind, that she was a permanent space cadet,” the historian and author Martin Duberman wrote in “Stonewall,” adding that Johnson’s mind had “concentrated wonderfully” when she was organizing STAR.
Marsha died tragically in 1992, at the young age of 46. Their. case was originally closed by the NYPD as an alleged suicide, but transgender activists fought for it to be reopened for investigation in 2012, as the circumstances under which it occurred were suspicious at best and even in the 90’s (and nowadays, might I add) violence against the trans and gay community was rife. Their friends and fellow trans activists at the time also protested the ruling, as they did not believe that Marsha was suicidal in nature, and that there was no note left. Their death has since been ruled as undetermined, but many take the assumption that Marsha was in fact murdered for living life the way they chose.
Marsha is now one of the most venerated icons in LGBTQIA+ history, and has been celebrated in a series of books, documentaries and films for their work and incredible strength, talent and dedication to the cause. Their actions and words continue to inspire trans activism and resistance, and will continue to do so well into the future.