Marsha P. Johnson: Trans-activist, Stonewall Revolutionary, Village Resident

In the wake of the Stonewall anniversary last month, it’s a good time to look back at some of the inspiring figures that were involved with the uprising that helped cement Greenwich Village as the birthplace of the modern Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) right’s movement.  Marsha P. Johnson, a black transwoman, is iconic not just for her role in the uprising, but also in her efforts to support and bring to light the struggles faced by gay and transgendered individuals and youth at the time.

Marsha P. Johnson. Photo courtesy of IFC.

Marsha P. Johnson. Photo courtesy of IFC.

Born Malcolm Michaels, Marsha legally changed her name after she moved from New Jersey to Greenwich Village in 1966.  The P in her middle name allegedly stood for “Pay it no mind,” a reference to her answer regarding public questioning on her gender identity.  Marsha was at the Stonewall on June 28, 1969, and helped start and took part in the uprising.  Sylvia Rivera, another trans-activist and a contemporary of Marsha, recalls that “this was started by the street queens of that era, which I was part of, Marsha P. Johnson, and many others that are not here.”

Marsha and Sylvia went on to form the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in 1970.  They organized homeless and/or runaway transgender individuals to build a community and live together.  STAR was a way that Marsha and Silvia were able to keep homeless gay and transgender youth off the street, where they might face the threat of violence.  Marsha referred to anyone brought into the house off the street as “children” or “youth,” while she bore the title “Queen Mother.” The responsibility of the youth was to go out and bring in food for the house; this was a relatively safe means for them and a way to keep them from prostitution, which Marsha resorted to in order to pay rent in her own youth.

Marsha in front of a work of her by Andy Warhol. Photo courtesy of Grizzlykiki.com.

Marsha in front of a work of her by Andy Warhol. Photo courtesy of Grizzlykiki.com.

Marsha died on July 6th, 1992, her body found floating in the Hudson River.  Though officials ruled it a suicide, many who knew Marsha and were close to her insist that she was not suicidal and had seen her being harassed on the street the day prior.  She is remembered for being an eclectic woman with exotic hats and jewelry, her support of those around her, and her activism within the LGBT community.  In many ways she is representative of the bohemian, tolerant, and radical qualities of Greenwich Village, though she was a sometimes controversial figure within it.

Queer Spaces Marsha P. Johnson plaque. Photo courtesy of REPOhistory.

Since her death, Marsha continues to serve as an influential role model in both LGBT rights movement and our collective cultural consciousness, and her legacy is still being explored in many media.  In 1994, the public art collective REPOhistory included Marsha as part of their project “Queer Spaces,” in which they hung signs around the Village highlighting different sites of LGBT history and the figures and institutions associated with them.  Marsha’s sign, which told the story of her untimely and unfortunate death, hung by the Hudson River in the Meatpacking District.  A documentary, “Pay It No Mind- The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson,” was made about her and can be seen here.  At the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, a new documentary titled “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” premiered, “celebrating the lasting political legacy of Marsha P. Johnson, while seeking to finally solve the mystery of her unexplained death.”

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Matthew Morowitz