Trans Trail Blazer: Marsha P. Johnson

Trans Trail Blazer: Marsha P. Johnson

This article is written to serve as a tribute to all those people before us who valiantly fought to ensure the freedoms that the LGBT+ community enjoys today. While a lot more remains to be done, their sacrifices cannot be ignored or swept under the carpet only because the sands of time seem to have gradually swept over their names and accomplishments.

One such ‘then famous’ personality was Marsha P. Johnson. Marsha was instrumental in sensitising even the ‘gay’ community to the existence and discrimination faced by Transvestites. In a way, she was instrumental in getting the ‘T’ included in ‘LGBT’.

With this article, we aim to keep her memory alive and make her struggle known to newer generations.

Early Life and The Metamorphosis

Marsha P. Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels Jr., one among six siblings, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He was born into a lower middle class family and raised a devout Christian, which he remained all his life. He began to first wear dresses at the age of 5 but soon gave up due to tremendous bullying and social pressure from boys who lived near his house.

A young Michael Malcolms Jr

After completing his high school education at the then Edison High School, he left home for New York at the age of 21 with just a bag of clothes and $15 in his pocket. He scraped through by waiting on tables at Greenwich Village.

Johnson initially called herself “Black Marsha” but later decided on “Marsha P. Johnson” as her drag queen name, getting Johnson from the restaurant Howard Johnson’s on 42nd Street. She said that the P stood for “pay it no mind” and used the phrase sarcastically when questioned about her gender, saying “it stands for pay it no mind”. She said the phrase once to a judge, who was humoured by it and released her. Johnson variably identified herself as gay, as a transvestite, and as a queen (referring to drag queen).

According to Susan Stryker, a professor of human gender and sexuality studies at the University of Arizona, Johnson’s gender expression may be called gender non-conforming in absence of Johnson’s use of transgender, which was not used broadly during her lifetime.

Johnson said her style of drag was not serious (or “high drag”) because she could not afford to purchase clothing from expensive stores.  She received leftover flowers after sleeping under tables used for sorting flowers in the Flower District of Manhattan, and was known for placing flowers in her hair.  Johnson was tall, slender and often dressed in flowing robes and shiny dresses, red plastic high heels, and bright wigs, which tended to draw attention.

Johnson sang and performed as a member of J. Camicias’ international, NYC-based, drag performance troupe, Hot Peaches in 1972 as well as in The Angels of Light, which was an offshoot of the similar drag troupe, the Cockettes, later formed by Hibiscus and other members of the collective. In 1973, Johnson performed the role of “The Gypsy Queen” in the Angels’ production, “The Enchanted Miracle”, about the Comet Kohoutek. In 1975, Johnson was photographed by famed artist Andy Warhol, as part of a “Ladies and Gentlemen” series of Polaroids.

Johnson and the Stonewall Uprising

Johnson claimed she was one of the first drag queens to go to the Stonewall Inn after they began allowing women and drag queens inside; it was previously a bar for only gay men. On the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, the Stonewall uprising occurred. Many identify Johnson as being one of the first to fight back in the clashes with the police during the uprising. Though Johnson is cited by some as having “started” the rebellion, Johnson herself disputed the account in 1987, stating she had arrived at around “2:00 [in the morning]”, stating “the riots had already started” when she arrived and that the Stonewall building “was on fire” after cops set it on fire.[25]The riots reportedly started at around 1:20 that morning.

Marsha being celebrated at a recent Gay Pride.

According to David Carter, in the book, Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Revolution, it was stated Johnson on the first night, “threw a shot glass at a mirror in the torched bar screaming, ‘I got my civil rights'”, while on the second night, Johnson “climbed on top of a lamppost” and dropped a heavy object into the windshield of a police car. Carter listed Johnson alongside Jackie Hormona and Zazu Nova as being the “three individuals known to have been in the vanguard” of the escalation of the Stonewall uprising.

Following the Stonewall uprising, Johnson joined the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and participated in the first Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally on the first anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion in June 1970.

One of Johnson’s most notable direct actions occurred when she and fellow GLF members staged a sit-in protest at Weinstein Hall at New York University in August 1970 where administrators had canceled a dance where they found that it was sponsored by gay organisations.

Shortly after that, she and close friend Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) organisation (initially titled Street Transvestites Actual Revolutionaries), and the two of them were a visible presence at gay liberation marches and other radical political actions.

Marsha protesting alongside Sylvia Rivera

In 1973, Johnson and Rivera were banned from participating in the gay pride parade by the gay and lesbian committee who were administering the event stating they “weren’t gonna allow drag queens” at their marches claiming they were “giving them a bad name”. Their response was to march defiantly ahead of the parade. During one LGBT rally in the early ’70s, a reporter asked her why she was there, Johnson shouted to the microphone, “Darling, I want my gay rights now!”

Johnson and the S.T.A.R House

With Rivera, Johnson established the S.T.A.R. house, the first shelter for gay and trans street kids in 1972, and paid the rent for it with money they made themselves as sex workers.[31] Marsha was a “drag mother” of STAR House, getting together food and clothing to help support the young drag queens, trans women, gender nonconformists and other gay street kids living on the Christopher Street docks or in their house on the Lower East Side of New York.[32] The S.T.A.R. House was short-lived but became a legendary model for future generations.

In the 1980s Johnson continued her street activism as a respected organiser and marshal with ACT UP. In 1992, when George Segal‘s Stonewall memorial was moved to Christopher Street from Ohio to recognise the gay liberation movement, Johnson commented, “How many people have died for these two little statues to be placed in the park to recognise gay people? How many years does it take for people to see that we’re all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race? I mean how many years does it take for people to see that? We’re all in this rat race together.”

Mental Health And Death

By 1966, Johnson lived on the streets and engaged in survival sex. In connection with her sex work, Johnson was arrested many times—by her count, over 100—and was also shot at once, in the late-1970s. Johnson spoke of first having a mental breakdown in 1970. Between 1980 and her death in 1992, Johnson lived with her friend Randy Wicker, who invited her to stay the night one time when it was “very cold out—about 10 degrees [Fahrenheit]” (−12 °C).

Marsha Johnson in happier times.

Shortly after the 1992 pride parade, Johnson’s body was discovered floating in the Hudson River. Police initially ruled the death a suicide, but Johnson’s friends and other members of the local community insisted Johnson was not suicidal and noted that the back of Johnson’s head had a massive wound. According to Sylvia Rivera, their friend Bob Kohler believed Johnson had committed suicide due to her ever-increasing fragile state, which Rivera herself disputed, claiming she and Johnson had “made a pact” to “cross the ‘river Jordan’ (aka Hudson River) together”. Randy Wicker later said that Johnson may have hallucinated and walked into the river, or that she may have jumped into the river to escape her harassers. In November 2012, activist Mariah Lopez succeeded in getting the New York police department to reopen the case as a possible homicide.

Although the cause of her death may remain undetermined, her life itself shall forever remain a beacon of struggle, hope and inspiration especially for Transvestites all over the world.

FSOG salutes this LGBT Legend.


Written by:- Delshad Master


Leave a Comment