Marsha P. Johnson was born on August 24, 1945, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She was born to parents, Malcolm Michaels Sr. and Alberta Michaels who also had six other children. It was during her early childhood when she began to wear dresses that she felt felt more comfortable in. However, her dressing up came to a halt when she was sexually assaulted by a neighborhood boy.
After graduating from high school, Marsha relocates to New York’s Greenwich Village with $15 and a bag of clothes. It is there where she fully embraces herself and begins to dress almost exclusively in women’s clothes. The village was heavily populated with the LGBTQ community, and it is there where she is able to live freely and adopts the full name, Marsha P. Johnson. The P stood for “Pay It No Mind”. It was her life motto that also served as a response to questions about her gender.
Though the nightlife was spectacular, Marsha soon learned that the fastest way to make money was to work as a sex worker. It was in that environment where she found a like-minded community and found joy in being a self-made drag queen.
In the early hours of June 26, 1969, Marsha’s life takes a dramatic turn when she finds herself near the Stonewall Inn. That night, police officers raid the acclaimed gay bar and begin to arrest people. Patrons of the village, that was predominately inhabited by the LGBTQ community, fought back when the police turned violent.
While there are some conflicting stories on what happened that night, it’s clear that Marsha was on the front line of the revolution. One report says that the uprising started right when Marsha threw a shot glass at a mirror inside the Inn. Another says that Marsha threw a brick. No matter what the story is, it’s clear that that night was a landmark for the LGBTQ movement because it awakened an entire generation of activists.
Darling, I want my gay rights now. I think it’s about time the gay brothers and sisters got their rights . . . especially the women.
Following the events from the Stonewall riots, Marsha and her friend Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). Both Marsha and Sylvia become fixtures in the community with their commitment to STAR. They provided food and shelter to homeless LGBTQ people in New York City, Chicago, California, and England in the early 1970s. The organization eventually disbanded.
On July 6, 1992, Johnson”s body was found in the Hudson River off the West Village Piers, shortly after that year’s pride parade. The New York Police Department ruled her death as a suicide despite claims from her closest friends saying that she was the exact opposite of being suicidal. They expressed to authorities that it was more likely that Marsha was a victim of a hate crime. A witness even came forward saying how he saw a male neighbor and Marsha fighting outside the residence on July 4, 1992. He recounts that during the fight the man used a homophobic slur, and later bragged to someone at a bar that he had killed a drag queen named Marsha.
The case surrounding Marsha’s death remained closed for two decades until Victoria Cruz, a crime victim advocate of the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP), succeeded in reopening it. A thorough look into Marsha’s life and Cruz’s work is chronicled in the Netflix documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017).
While her case is still unsolved, Marsha’s legacy remains to be an influence in the LGBTQ community. Her vivacious and upbeat spirit is what inspires Pride Month and the work many activists continue to do for the movement.