In honouring LGBTQIA+ History Month I wanted to highlight one of the key figures of the 1960s and 1970s, Marsha P. Johnson, who was a black transgender-rights activist and who was also, one of the pioneers of the Stonewall Riots in 1969.
Johnson was born in New Jersey on 24th January 1945 but moved to New York after graduating high school. She changed her name, legally, to Marsha P. Johnson after moving, having previously been called Malcolm Michael Jr. The P in her name ‘stood for Pay It No Mind, which is how Johnson responded when people enquired about her gender’. Johnson became known as the ‘self-made drag queen of Christopher Street’ and was recognised for her individual style and costume design.
She became an activist for pioneering LGBT+ youth and along with her friend Sylvia Rivera, who was a Latina Trans-rights activist. They went on to found S.T.A.R (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), an organisation which supported and provided shelter for LGBT+ youth, in New York, Chicago, and California.
Furthermore, Johnson was a member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Johnson actively supported and helped those suffering from AIDS, whilst she herself was also HIV positive.
Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River on July 6, 1992, the police ruled her death as suicide, but her friends and the community felt that this was questionable, thus protests broke out after her death. During 1992 alone the New York City Anti-Violence Project received several reports of violence and attacks against transgender individuals, with some of these including attacks by the police. At this present time there has been no developments in her case.
In 2019 The City of New York announced that it plans to put up statues of Johnson and Rivera, in their memory and honour. In addition the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, which was founded by Elle Hearn, continues the work and activism that Johnson undertook and stood for. Their mission statement reads:
‘The Marsha P. Johnson Institute (MPJI) protects and defends the human rights of BLACK transgender people. We do this by organizing, advocating, creating an intentional community to heal, developing transformative leadership, and promoting our collective power.
We intend to reclaim Marsha P. Johnson and our relationship as BLACK trans people to her life and legacy. It is in our reclaiming of Marsha that we give ourselves permission to reclaim autonomy to our minds, to our bodies, and to our futures. We were founded both as a response to the murders of BLACK trans women and women of color and how that is connected to our exclusion from social justice issues, namely racial, gender, and reproductive justice, as well as gun violence’.
Marsha P. Johnson continues to be a symbol of inspiration for many people, and she remains one of the most pioneering individuals who fought for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson – documentary on Netflix