Marsha P. Johnson was a 23-year-old New Jersey native who emerged as a key figure in the Stonewall uprising, specifically fighting for trans rights and visibility as part of the gay liberation movement, earning a legacy as the “Rosa Parks of the LGBTQ rights movement.”
In response to a violent police raid that began in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, patrons of the lesbian and gay bars, joined by other neighborhood people, fought back.
The ensuing riots are widely considered the watershed event that transformed the gay liberation movement and the twentieth-century fight for LGBT rights in the United States.
In 2020—on what would have been the Stonewall veteran’s 75th birthday—East River State Park on the Brooklyn waterfront was renamed Marsha P. Johnson State Park in her honor.
This park, in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, is located along the East River near North 7th, 8th, and 9th Streets.
The seven-acre park was opened in 2007 as the East River State Park and was renamed Marsha P. Johnson State Park on August 24, 2020, in memory of Johnson on what would have been her 75th birthday.
It is the first state park in New York known to be named after an LGBT person.
Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Johnson relocated to Greenwich Village after high school and, for nearly three decades, became a known presence as an activist, sex worker, drag performer, and friend in Christopher Park (Stonewall National Monument) and along Christopher Street from Greenwich Avenue to the waterfront.
The fifth of seven children, Marsha was born Malcolm Michaels Jr. to Malcolm Michaels Sr. and Alberta (Claiborne) Michaels on August 24, 1945, in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Although forced to leave home by a disapproving mother, Johnson remained in constant communication with her family and often returned home to Elizabeth in observance of the holidays.
When she returned, Marsha would often invite wayward people to join her for a hot meal with her family and never visited home empty-handed, she would bring her nieces and nephews trinkets and flowers for her mother. Contrary to the belief, the family was very dear to Marsha’s heart.
Marsha was educated in the Elizabeth Public School System and graduated from Thomas A. Edison High School in 1963. After graduating high school, she enrolled in the United States Navy for a brief stint.
Marsha relocated to New York’s Greenwich Village to discover herself. As a transient, she turned to prostitution to survive and soon found a like-minded community within the nightlife of the village.
She found joy as a self-made drag queen of Christopher Street, infamous for her unique design and costume creation.
Throughout her discovery phase, she was referred to as Malcolm, and Black Marsha before settling on Marsha P. Johnson. The “P” stands for “Pay It No Mind.” Johnson quickly became a prominent fixture in the LGBTQ community serving as a “drag mother” helping homeless and struggling LGBTQ youth.
Johnson once said the phrase “pay it no mind” to a judge, who was amused by it, leading to Johnson’s release. Johnson variably identified as gay, as a transvestite, and as a queen (referring to drag queen or “street queen”)
Marsha was extremely successful and toured the world as a successful drag queen with the Hot Peaches.
Over 75,000 people signed a petition to have a statue of Marsha P. Johnson replace the Christopher Columbus monument that once stood there.
The Black trans activist, who was found dead in 1992, is best known for her role in the 1969 Stonewall uprising and for co-founding the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.
Johnson became a key figure in the gay liberation movement after the Stonewall uprising, specifically fighting for trans rights and visibility.
On the first night of the Stonewall uprising, Johnson became an active participant.
Johnson was also a participant at early activist events organized by the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance.
In the fall of 1970, Johnson co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), with friend and trans activist Sylvia Rivera. The group had several locations, including its first permanent home, called STAR House, located in a dilapidated tenement (demolished) at 213 East 2nd Street in the East Village.
STAR House was a refuge for homeless transgender youth, and it operated from November 1970 to July 1971. In December 1970, STAR and the Gay Liberation Front started the Gay Community Center that served as a LGBT social center through 1971.
Johnson joined the Gay Liberation Front in 1970 and later linked up with close friend Sylvia Ramirez, another trans woman of color, to create the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), a gay, gender non-conforming and transgender activist organization.
The two also founded S.T.A.R. House, the first shelter for gay and trans youth in 1972, providing food, clothing, housing and advice to the kids who came through their doors. They were a visible presence at liberation marches and pride rallies, fighting for the inclusion of trans people and draq queens in the movement and battling the respectability politics of the emerging gay mainstream.
More than simply an activist, Johnson was a cultural icon. She was photographed by Andy Warhol in 1974 for a series on draq queens, was a member of J. Camicias’ performance troupe Hot Peaches.
Johnson continued her activism into the 1980s as a respected organizer with ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. Ten days before her body was found in 1992, Johnson revealed in an interview that she was HIV positive.
Johnson used female and male pronouns and also alternated between female drag and, at times, male attire.
In 1980, Johnson moved into her friend Randolfe ‘Randy’ Wicker‘s apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, where she lived for the rest of her life.
Wicker was born Charles Gervin Hayden Jr. on February 3, 1938, in Plainfield, New Jersey, and was raised in Florida by his grandparents. His first exposure to the gay movement came while he was a student at the University of Texas at Austin in the mid-1950s, when he discovered a copy of the magazine One, which was published around the time President Dwight Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450, which said gays and lesbians were perverts, criminals, mentally ill, and must be blocked from any kind of federal employment.
Wicker, an early gay rights activist, reported that Johnson would stop by his lamp store, Uplift Lighting, at 506 Hudson Street, at Christopher Street, and use the kitchen and bathroom to turn flower purchases into floral crowns that she wore when panhandling.
Tragically, on July 6, 1992, Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River near the Christopher Street pier. Although the police called it a suicide, friends of Johnson and others in the community insisted that this was not possible, and several people had seen a group harass Johnson before her death.
By December that year, the medical examiner reclassified the cause of death as “Cause Unknown.” In 2012, after pressure from activists, the New York City Police Department reopened the investigation, but the case remains officially unsolved.
In 2014, after the murders of Cemia Dove, Brittney Nicole Kidd-Stergis, Tiffany Edwards, and Betty Skinner, Elle Moxley turned pain into action by organizing people most affected by white supremacy and systemic racism by founding the Marsha P. Johnson Institute.