Marsha P. Johnson

#blackhistoryProfilesJanuary 23, 2023

Marsha P. Johnson was a beloved leader in the gay liberation movement for three decades. A self-identified drag queen (the term transgender didn’t exist yet), Johnson’s outspoken nature, charming demeanor and activist-heart propelled her to the forefront of driving change in an era where violence against the LGBTQIA community was at an all-time high. 

Raised in New Jersey along with her six siblings, Johnson grew up in a very religious,  heteronormative household. Immediately after graduating from highschool in 1963, she left for New York City where, despite facing housing insecurity and extreme hardship, she was able to more fully explore and develop her identity and build community.

Legends vary around Johnson’s involvement in the historic uprising at the Stonewall Inn in response to a police raid in the early morning of June 28, 1969. Though she denied being present at the onset of the riot, Johnson was said to have an important presence in helping combat police violence during the ongoing protest. 

Known as the Stonewall Riots, these rebellions were a critical turning point in the gay liberation movement, spawning our present-day pride activities

Heralded as a founding member of both the Gay Liberation Front and the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.) two organizations known in New York for providing safe spaces for the LGBTQIA community, Johnson continued to organize as the community was  under constant assault by law enforcement and the general public at large. 

Using the money they earned from sex work, Johnson and best friend Sylvia Rivera eventually started the STAR house which provided safe sleeping accommodations for members of the Trans community. Known throughout Greenwich village as “Saint Marsha,” despite her popularity among the local community her life was a balancing act of managing the experience of marginalization. 

She spoke publicly about being targeted by law enforcement with 100 or more arrests on her record as well as her experience being unhoused. After receiving an AIDS diagnosis in 1990, Johnson directed her energy toward providing comfort and community to those dying of the disease, of which little was known at the time. 

Sadly on July 6, 1992, Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River. Initially ruled a suicide by police, those close to her believe there was foul play at work. Through years of public pressure and activism, her case was reopened in 2012 and the cause of death was changed to “undetermined.” 

Johnson’s untimely death was a shock to the LGBTQIA community. Her decades of relentless care and activism for her community jumpstarted a gay liberation revolution. Johnson’s life and activism had an indelible impact on the entire liberation movement.

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