Welcome the Evolving Man Project’s “Pride Month” edition of the O. G. profiles. The O.G. profiles will highlight women from diverse backgrounds and embody the values of what it means to be an evolved person. While uplifting their contributions to making a fairer and more just society. Today we will profile Marsha P. Johnson.
Marsha P. Johnson was born on August 24, 1945, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She was identified as male at birth. However, young Marsha enjoyed wearing clothing made for girls. After a boy sexually assaulted her, she stopped wearing the clothes she loved and felt most comfortable in.
After graduating high school, Marsha moved to New York City with only $15 and a bag of clothes. She began dressing almost exclusively in women’s clothes and adopted the full name, Marsha P. Johnson. The “P” stood for “Pay It No Mind.” To her, this was a life motto and a response to questions about her gender.
Today, historians and former friends of Marsha describe her as a transwoman. During Marsha’s lifetime, the term transgender was not commonly used. Marsha described herself as a gay person, a transvestite, and a drag queen. She used she/her pronouns.
Marsha is often credited with throwing the first brick at Stonewall. In reality, she didn’t arrive at Stonewall until about 2 a.m., long after the uprising began. That night, she had invited a bunch of her friends, including Rivera, to a party. She waited and waited, but no one showed up. Finally, she decided she’d make her own fun and started checking out the local scene. When she got to Stonewall, she encountered shouting, fire and chaos. She was seen dropping a weighty object on top of a police car, among other actions. Marsha said she wasn’t afraid of being arrested because she’d spent the last 10 years going to jail simply for wearing makeup on 42nd street. She had nothing to lose.
While she may not have started the riots, she was a major player in the LGBTQ rights movement and community during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Following the events at Stonewall, Johnson and her friend Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), and they became fixtures in the community, helping homeless transgender youth. STAR provided services, including shelter to homeless LGBTQ people in New York City, Chicago, California, and England for a few years in the early 1970s but eventually disbanded.
Even without lodgings, STAR provided a safe haven for people who had never had a place to call home. As the gay liberation movement became increasingly white, middle class, and cisgender, STAR reminded everyone that transgender and gender non-conforming people deserved equal rights too. When the organizers of the gay pride parade tried to ban STAR, they showed up anyway.
In 1975, artist Andy Warhol crossed paths with Marsha and photographed her for his Ladies and Gentleman series. When a Warhol screen-print of Marsha went on display in a Greenwich Village store, Marsha took some friends to see it. The store owners called her riffraff and threw her out.
Marsha’s whole life seemed to be a balance between popularity and exclusion. Throughout Greenwich Village, she was known as “Saint Marsha.” Locals admired her ability to truly be herself. Marsha had a reputation for being generous and kind. She gave people clothes and food, even though she had little of her own.
Despite her popularity, Marsha also lived a life of poverty and danger. She was arrested over 100 times. She believed no one should hustle or live on the streets, but she knew no other way to survive. In 1990, Marsha contracted AIDS. She spoke publicly about it and told people she hoped they would not be afraid of those who had the disease.
July 6, 1992, Marsha’s body was found in the Hudson River off the West Village Piers. The police ruled she had committed suicide despite claims from her friends and other local community members that she was not suicidal. They thought it was more likely that Marsha was a victim of an attack. Transwomen, particularly women of color, were regular targets of hate crimes. The LGBTQ community was furious the police did not investigate her death. At Marsha’s funeral, hundreds of people showed up. The church was so full that the crowd spilled into the street. Twenty-five years later, Victoria Cruz, a crime victim advocate of the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP), re-opened the case.
Johnson’s story is featured in Pay It No Mind: Marsha P. Johnson (2012) and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017) and Happy Birthday, Marsha! (2017). Marsha is honored as a Stonewall pioneer, a drag queen, Andy Warhol model, an actress, and a revolutionary trans activist. In 2019, New York City announced that a statue of Marsha and Sylvia would be the first monument to honor transwomen in the city. In 2020, New York State named a waterfront park in Brooklyn after Marsha.
Here is Marsha P. Johnson in her own words:
“I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville until I became a drag queen. That’s what made me in New York, that’s what made me in New Jersey, that’s what made me in the world.”