Marsha P. Johnson was born on August 24, 1945 (to July 6, 1992). She was a transgender activist, drag queen, comic, and performance artist who fought back against the police during the Stonewall Rebellion, and became a colorful and beloved figure in the gay life of New York’s Greenwich Village. She was dubbed “The Mayor of Christopher Street.”
Marsha P. Johnson was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and grew up in Hoboken. In 1966, she moved to Manhattan where she became a fixture of the city’s drag and arts scenes. In the early years, she often worked as a waitress, but also worked the streets.
Marsha was well known for helping other transvestites and street people, and was regarded as a “drag mother.” She became a mentor to the young activist Sylvia Rivera, with whom she became a lifelong friend. She panhandled and was often seen zipping through the narrow Village streets on roller skates. She was deeply religious and claimed to have visions.
In the early days, she was known around Greenwich Village as “Black Marsha,” but then dropped the ‘Black’ and became Marsha P. Johnson. The “P” as she loved to explain, including on one occasion while standing in front of a judge, stood for “pay it no mind.” The judge laughed and let her go.
Marsha played a prominent role in the Stonewall riots in 1969, where she was observed dropping a heavy weight onto a police car. She was co-founder with Sylvia Rivera of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and was active in STAR House, getting together food and clothing to help support the young drag queens and transwomen living in the house on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She befriended the homeless, and helped them find food and clean clothing, a place to shower, or a couch to crash on for the night.
Marsha was one of those characters who captured everyone’s attention, and she played it for all it was worth. She was not merely colorful; she was full-screen, high-def, technicolorful as she sashayed down Christopher Street in all her homemade splendor shouting “good morning” to everyone at two o’clock in the afternoon. Once while being interviewed, she told the reporter, “Darling, I want my gay rights now!”
She began performing stand-up comedy routines in gay clubs, often uninvited, but her raw comedy, laced with political and social activism, was a hit with audiences. In describing her routine, one critic wrote: “Her comedy—true, natural and startling—never missed.” Marsha embodied the early gay movement proudly and very loudly, delighting and empowering others along the way.
In 1974, Marsha was photographed by artist Andy Warhol, as part of a “ladies and gentlemen” series of Polaroids featuring drag queens. She became a performer and a member of “Hot Peaches,” a New York based, gay theater troupe and did a London tour with them. By 1979, Marsha acknowledged several attempts on her life by johns, eight nervous breakdowns and innumerable arrests; after one hundred she reportedly stopped counting.
Marsha continued to add her voice and beloved presence to protests against racism, homophobia and transphobia over the years. She became an AIDS activist in the mid-1980s, and an outspoken critic of New York’s Gay and Lesbian Community Center for its lack of diversity and programming.
In July of 1992, Marsha P. Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River off the West Village piers shortly after the 1992 Pride March. Police quickly ruled the death a suicide. Johnson’s friends and supporters said she was not suicidal, and a people’s postering campaign later declared that Johnson had earlier been harassed near the spot where her body was found. Attempts to get the police to investigate the cause of death were unsuccessful. However, in November 2012, the New York Police Department agreed to re-open the case.
New York City baroque pop band Antony and the Johnsons was named in Marsha’s honor, and their 1998 album features a song called “River of Sorrow,” was inspired by her death.
She was profiled in Leslie Feinberg’s “Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman” in 1996, and included in “A Gender Variance Who’s Who” published in 2009. RuPaul, the host of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” spoke of Johnson to the show’s contestants, saying the late trans activist paved the way for all of them.
An interview with Marsha by gay activist Allen Young can be found in the book “Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation,” originally published in 1972.
The documentary “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” directed by David France, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2017. It examines Marsha’s mysterious death and celebrates the contributions of Johnson and Sylvia Rivera to the LGBTQ rights movement.
We remember Marsha P. Johnson and thank her for her advocacy for the transgender and drag communities, for her indomitable spirit of generosity and compassion, and for her many contributions to our community.