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Marsha P. Johnson, also known as Marsha "Pay It No Mind" Johnson (August 24, 1945 – July 6, 1992), was an American gay liberation activist and drag queen. Johnson was a well-known figure within New York City's queer community during her lifetime and is perhaps best known for her involvement in the Stonewall uprising. Although many incorrectly claim Johnson started the Stonewall riots herself, she publicly denied being present when the uprising began on the night of June 28, 1969.
Johnson was one of the founding members of the Gay Liberation Front and co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), a radical activism group based in New York City, alongside Sylvia Rivera. From 1987 through 1992, Johnson was an AIDS activist with ACT UP.
It is unclear how Marsha identified. Contemporary historians and former friends of Marsha describe her as a trans woman; during Marsha's lifetime, the term transgender was not commonly used, but Marsha described herself as a gay person, a transvestite, and a drag queen, along with using she/her pronouns.
Marsha P. Johnson was born on August 24, 1945, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Her father, Malcolm Michaels Sr, was an assembly line worker at General Motors. Marsha's mother, Alberta Claiborne, was a housekeeper. Though Claiborne reportedly held homophobic values, she was said to have shown support for her child. Marsha was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church; when asked about how religion played a factor in her upbringing, Johnson stated: "I got married to Jesus Christ when I was sixteen years old, still in high school."
Marsha started wearing dresses when she was five years old, but regularly got harassed by neighboring kids. This caused Marsha to stop crossdressing temporarily. After a thirteen-year-old boy raped her, Johnson considered being gay "some sort of dream", rather than something that actually seemed possible. Because of this, Johnson chose to remain sexually inactive until moving to New York City at the age of 17.
After graduating from Edison High School in 1963, Johnson moved to New York City with $15 and a bag of clothes. Johnson waited tables after moving to Greenwich Village in 1966. During this time, Johnson started hanging out with local sex workers near the Howard Johnson's at 6th Avenue and 8th Street. After this, Johnson came out, stating: "My life has been built around sex and gay liberation, being a drag queen and sex work." By 1966, Johnson lived on the street and engaged in survival sex.
After the Stonewall Inn began allowing women and drag queens inside, Marsha was one of the first drag performers who attended; the bar previously only allowed gay men. The riots began in the very early hours of June 28, 1969. While the first two nights saw the most extreme clashes, encounters with the police eventually resulted in a series of demonstrations and marches through the gay neighborhoods of Greenwich Village for roughly a week afterwards.
Though several witnesses claimed Johnson to have been present when the riots began, and even initiating the fight with the local police, she herself denied these statements in 1987. According to Johnson, she arrived at the scene "around 02:00" [that morning], after the riots had started. By that time, Johnson stated the Stonewall building had already been set on fire by the police after a woman (believed to be Stormé DeLarverie) fought back against a police officer who attempted to arrest her. Some accounts claim that Johnson, upon arriving at the scene, either threw a shot glass at police or threw the first brick that sparked the uprising. These claims have been heavily disputed since. However, on the second night of the riots, Marsha climbed up a lamppost and dropped a bag with a brick in it at a police car, shattering the car's windshield in the process.
Following the Stonewall uprising, Johnson joined the Gay Liberation Front and became a very active member. On the first anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, on June 28, 1970, Johnson marched in the first Gay Pride rally, then called the Christopher Street Liberation Day. Shortly after, Johnson and Sylvia Rivera founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.). In 1970, Marsha and Sylvia founded STAR House, a shelter for homeless gay and trans youth. Marsha functioned as a maternal figure to the house's members and assumed the role of the 'House Mother', a longstanding tradition of chosen family in the Black and Latino LGBT community. However, the building where the House resided was evicted and demolished in 1971. Johnson and Rivera became a visible presence in the gay liberation movement. However, in 1973, the two were banned from participating in the Gay Pride Parade after the gay and lesbian committee decided to not allow drag queens to attend, stating they gave the movement a "bad name". Johnson and Rivera responded by defiantly marching ahead of the parade.
During another incident around this time, Johnson was confronted by police officers for hustling in New York. When the officers attempted to perform an arrest, Johnson hit them with a handbag, which contained two bricks. When asked by the judge for an explanation for hustling, Johnson claimed to be trying to secure enough money for a tombstone for Johnson's husband. At that time, same-sex marriage was illegal in the United States, and the judge asked what "happened to this alleged husband"; Johnson responded, "Pig shot him". Initially sentenced to 90 days in prison for the assault, Johnson's lawyer eventually convinced the judge that psychiatric treatment at Bellevue Hospital would be more suitable.
Between 1980 and Johnson's death in 1992, Johnson lived with her close friend Randolfe 'Randy' Wicker. When Wicker's lover, David, became terminally ill with AIDS, Johnson became his caregiver. After visiting David and other friends with the virus in the hospital during the pandemic, Johnson, who was also HIV-positive, became committed to sitting with the sick and dying, as well as doing street activism with AIDS activist groups including ACT UP.
Later life and death
Marsha remained religious in her later life, often lighting candles and praying at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Hoboken. Johnson would also make offerings to the saints and spirits in a more personal manner, keeping a private altar at home when possible. A friend of Marsha once noted: "Marsha would always say she went to the Greek Church, she went to the Catholic Church, she went to the Baptist Church, she went to the Jewish Temple - she said she was covering all angles."
Shortly after the 1992 gay pride parade, Johnson's body was discovered floating in the Hudson River. Police initially ruled the death a suicide, but Johnson's friends and other members of the local community insisted Johnson was not suicidal and noted that the back of Johnson's head had a massive wound.
Johnson's suspicious death occurred during a time when anti-LGBT violence was at a peak in New York City, including bias crime by police. Johnson was one of the activists who had been drawing attention to this epidemic of violence against the community, participating in marches and other activism to demand justice for victims, and an inquiry into how to stop the violence. Johnson had been speaking out against the "dirty cops" and elements of organized crime that many believed responsible for some of these assaults and murders. She had even voiced the concern that some of what Randy Wicker was stirring up, and pulling Johnson into, "could get you murdered." This added to the suspicions of foul play and possible murder.
Johnson's body was cremated and, following a funeral at a local church, and a march down Seventh Avenue, friends released Johnson's ashes over the Hudson River, off the Christopher Street Piers. Police allowed Seventh Avenue to be closed while Johnson's ashes were carried to the river. After the funeral, a series of demonstrations and marches to the police precinct took place, to demand justice for Johnson.
According to Sylvia Rivera, their friend Bob Kohler believed Johnson had committed suicide due to an ever-increasing fragile state, which Rivera herself disputed, claiming she and Johnson had "made a pact" to "cross the 'River Jordan' (aka Hudson River) together". Those who were close to Johnson considered the death suspicious; many claimed that while Johnson did struggle mentally, this did not manifest itself as suicidal ideation. Randy Wicker later said that Johnson may have hallucinated and walked into the river or may have jumped into the river to escape harassers, but stated that Johnson was never suicidal.
In 2016, Victoria Cruz of the Anti-Violence Project also tried to get Johnson's case reopened and succeeded in gaining access to previously unreleased documents and witness statements. She sought out new interviews with witnesses, friends, other activists, and police who had worked the case or had been on the force at the time of Johnson's probable murder. Some of her work to find justice for Johnson was filmed by David France for the 2017 documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.
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- Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution by David Carter
- The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson on Netflix
- "Marsha P. Johnson Sparks the Stonewall Riots" from Drunk History