by Hermia Lyly
Marsha P. Johnson was a trans activist who was a fixture of the LGBT community in New York City in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. She was known for her generosity and her ability to make people feel welcome and loved–many people referred to her as Saint Marsha. Johnson often worked the streets in and around Christopher Street, and this meant that she frequently did not have enough money to pay for a place to live or food to eat. But if anything, these experiences made her even more willing to share what little she had: one of her friends remembers when Johnson spent her last two dollars on buying a box of cookies to eat, and then ended up giving away all of the cookies to other people. Johnson was likened to Jesus with the two loaves and five fishes in her ability to take what little she had and spread it around to help others.
Marsha P. Johnson–the “P” stands for “pay it no mind,” she said–was present at the Stonewall Riots in 1969. A number of eyewitnesses claimed that Johnson was one of the first people to resist the police, instead of submitting quietly to the police raid as had happened before. As a result of resisting the police’s homophobic raids, Johnson helped begin a social movement that would give birth to the Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activists Alliance, and Gay Pride.
Johnson also started Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Sylvia Rivera in 1970. STAR worked for the inclusion and acceptance of trans people, drag queens, and transvestites in the more mainstream gay rights movement. Johnson and Rivera opened the STAR House, which was a shelter for runaway LGBT youth, catering especially to transwomen and queens of color. At a time when the larger gay rights movement was often hostile to queer people who did not conform to a certain image, Johnson unapologetically dressed in her own style and encouraged others to do the same. When some members of the gay rights movement tried to ban transvestites from marching in Gay Pride, Johnson and Rivera marched ahead of the groups, leading the parade.
Johnson was an extremely popular performer, and was part of the iconic drag group Hot Peaches. She was able to connect with an audience in a way that few other performers could rival. As a result of her activism, her performances, and her presence on Christopher Street, Johnson was somewhat of a local celebrity. She was even photographed by Andy Warhol in his series, Ladies and Gentlemen.
In her later years, Johnson joined with ACT UP, advocating for legal and medical protections for people with AIDS. Johnson acted as a nurse to one of her friends who had AIDS, and sat in the room with him when he passed away. When asked about her friends who were diagnosed with AIDS, Johnson that it was important to “stand as close to them as you can, help them as much as you can.” She herself contracted AIDS in the last two years of her life.
Shortly after the 1992 Gay Pride Parade in New York City, Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River. The police ruled it a suicide and did not investigate, even though eyewitnesses said that earlier, they had seen her being harassed near the spot that her body was found. In 2012, the police reopened the case as a possible homicide.
Hundreds of people attended Johnson’s funeral. There were so many people, in fact, that the police gave the attendees a permit to hold a funeral procession down 7th Avenue.
In a society that was hostile to queer people and people of color, Marsha P. Johnson worked to create safe places for queer people, especially trans people and queer people of color who did not conform to society’s gendered expectations of them. Johnson was instrumental in promoting intersectionality at the beginning of the gay rights movement.
Thank you for all that you have done for us, Saint Marsha.
To learn more about Marsha P. Johnson, visit these links:
Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson