Marsha P. Johnson (August 24, 1945 – July 6, 1992) was an American gay liberation activist and self-identified drag queen. Known as an outspoken advocate for gay rights, Johnson was one of the prominent figures in the Stonewall uprising of 1969. A founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, Johnson co-founded the gay and transvestite advocacy organization S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), alongside close friend Sylvia Rivera. A popular figure in New York City's gay and art scene, Johnson modeled for Andy Warhol, and performed onstage with the drag performance troupe Hot Peaches. Known for decades as a welcoming presence in the streets of Greenwich Village, Johnson was known as the "mayor of Christopher Street". From 1987 through 1992, Johnson was an AIDS activist with ACT UP.
Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels Jr. on August 24, 1945, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, with six siblings and a father, Malcolm Michaels Sr., who was an assembly line worker at General Motors. Johnson's mother, Alberta Claiborne, was a housekeeper. Johnson attended an African Methodist Episcopal Church as a child and remained devoutly religious in later life, often taking an interest in Catholicism, but also making offerings to the saints in a personal manner, keeping a private altar at home. Johnson first began wearing dresses at the age of five but stopped temporarily due to harassment by boys who lived nearby. In a 1992 interview, Johnson described being the young victim of sexual assault by an adolescent boy. After this, Johnson described the idea of being gay as "some sort of dream", rather than something that seemed possible, and so chose to remain asexual until leaving for New York City at 17. Johnson's mother reportedly said that being homosexual is like being "lower than a dog", but Johnson said that Alberta was unaware of the LGBT community. After graduating from the former Edison High School (now the Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Academy) in Elizabeth in 1963, Johnson left home for New York City with $15 and a bag of clothes. Johnson waited on tables after moving to Greenwich Village in 1966. After meeting gay people in the city, Johnson finally felt it was possible to be gay and was able to come out.
Performance work and identity
Johnson initially used the moniker "Black Marsha" but later decided on the drag queen name "Marsha P. Johnson", getting Johnson from the restaurant Howard Johnson's on 42nd Street, stating that the P stood for "pay it no mind" and used the phrase sarcastically when questioned about gender, saying "it stands for pay it no mind". Johnson said the phrase once to a judge, who was humored by it, leading to Johnson's release. Johnson variably identified as gay, as a transvestite, and as a queen (referring to drag queen). According to Susan Stryker, a professor of human gender and sexuality studies at the University of Arizona, Johnson's gender expression could perhaps most accurately be called gender non-conforming; Johnson never self-identified with the term transgender, but the term was also not in broad use while Johnson was alive.
Johnson's style of drag was not serious ("high drag" or "show drag") due to being unable to afford to purchase clothing from expensive stores. Johnson received leftover flowers after sleeping under tables used for sorting flowers in the Flower District of Manhattan, and was known for wearing crowns of fresh flowers. Johnson was tall, slender and often dressed in flowing robes and shiny dresses, red plastic high heels and bright wigs, which tended to draw attention. As Edmund White writes in his 1979 Village Voice article, "The Politics of Drag" Johnson also liked dressing in ways that would display "the interstice between masculine and feminine". A feature photo of Johnson in this article shows Johnson in a flowing wig and makeup, and a translucent shirt, pants and parka - highlighting the ways that, quoting Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, White says, "she is both masculine and feminine at once."
There is some existing footage of Johnson doing full, glamorous, "high drag" on stage, but most of Johnson's performance work was with groups that were more grassroots, comedic, and political. Johnson sang and performed as a member of J. Camicias' international, NYC-based, drag performance troupe, Hot Peaches, from 1972 through to shows in the 1990s. When The Cockettes, a similar drag troupe from San Francisco, formed an East Coast troupe, The Angels of Light, Johnson was also asked to perform with them. In 1973, Johnson performed the role of "The Gypsy Queen" in the Angels' production, "The Enchanted Miracle", about the Comet Kohoutek. In 1975, Johnson was photographed by famed artist Andy Warhol, as part of a "Ladies and Gentlemen" series of Polaroids. In 1990, Johnson performed with The Hot Peaches in London. Now an AIDS activist, Johnson also appears in The Hot Peaches production The Heat in 1990, singing the song "Love" while wearing an ACT UP, "Silence = Death" button.
Stonewall uprising and other activism
Johnson was one of the first drag queens to go to the Stonewall Inn, after they began allowing women and drag queens inside; it was previously a bar for only gay men. On the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, the Stonewall uprising occurred. While the first two nights of rioting were the most intense, the clashes with police would result in a series of spontaneous demonstrations and marches through the gay neighborhoods of Greenwich Village for roughly a week afterwards.
Johnson has been named, along with Zazu Nova and Jackie Hormona, by a number of the Stonewall veterans interviewed by David Carter in his book, Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, as being "three individuals known to have been in the vanguard" of the pushback against the police at the uprising. Johnson denied starting the uprising. In 1987, Johnson recalled arriving at around "2:00 [that morning]", that "the riots had already started" by that time and that the Stonewall building "was on fire" after cops set it on fire. The riots reportedly started at around 1:20 that morning after Stormé DeLarverie fought back against the police officer who attempted to arrest her that night.
Carter writes that Robin Souza had reported that fellow Stonewall veterans and gay activists such as Morty Manford and Marty Robinson had told Souza that on the first night, Johnson "threw a shot glass at a mirror in the torched bar screaming, 'I got my civil rights'". Souza told the Gay Activists Alliance shortly afterwards that it "was the shot glass that was heard around the world". Carter, however, concluded that Robinson had given several different accounts of the night and in none of the accounts were Johnson's name brought up, possibly in fear that if he publicly credited the uprising to Johnson, then Johnson's well-known mental state and gender nonconforming, "could have been used effectively by the movement's opponents". The alleged "shot glass" incident has also been heavily disputed. Prior to Carter's book, it was claimed Johnson had "thrown a brick" at a police officer, an account that was never verified. Johnson also confirmed not being present at the Stonewall Inn when the rioting broke out, but instead had heard about it and went to get Sylvia Rivera who was at a park uptown sleeping on a bench to tell her about it. However, many have corroborated that on the second night, Johnson climbed up a lamppost and dropped a bag with a brick in it down on a cop car, shattering the windshield.
Following the Stonewall uprising, Johnson joined the Gay Liberation Front and participated in the first Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally on the first anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion in June 1970. One of Johnson's most notable direct actions occurred in August 1970, staging a sit-in protest at Weinstein Hall at New York University alongside fellow GLF members after administrators canceled a dance when they found out was sponsored by gay organizations. Shortly after that, Johnson and close friend Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) organization (initially titled Street Transvestites Actual Revolutionaries). The two of them became a visible presence at gay liberation marches and other radical political actions. In 1973, Johnson and Rivera were banned from participating in the gay pride parade by the gay and lesbian committee who were administering the event stating they "weren't gonna allow drag queens" at their marches claiming they were "giving them a bad name". Their response was to march defiantly ahead of the parade. During a gay rights rally at New York City Hall in the early '70s, photographed by Diana Davies, a reporter asked Johnson why the group was demonstrating, Johnson shouted into the microphone, "Darling, I want my gay rights now!"
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. During a time when same-sex marriage was illegal in the United States, the judge asked what "happened to this alleged husband", Johnson responded, "Pigs killed him". Initially sentenced to 90 days in prison for the assault, Johnson's lawyer eventually convinced the judge to that Bellevue would be more suitable.
With Rivera, Johnson established the STAR House, a shelter for gay and trans street kids in 1972, and paid the rent for it with money they made themselves as sex workers. While the House was not focused on performance, Johnson was a "drag mother" of STAR House, in the longstanding tradition of chosen family in the Black and Latino LGBT community. Johnson worked to provide food, clothing, emotional support and a sense of family for the young drag queens, trans women, gender nonconformists and other gay street kids living on the Christopher Street docks or in their house on the Lower East Side of New York.
In the 1980s Johnson continued to play an active part in street activism as a respected organizer and marshal with ACT UP. In 1992, when George Segal's Stonewall memorial was moved to Christopher Street from Ohio to recognize the gay liberation movement, Johnson commented, "How many people have died for these two little statues to be put in the park to recognize gay people? How many years does it take for people to see that we're all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race? I mean how many years does it take for people to see that we're all in this rat race together."
Mental health and death
By 1966, Johnson lived on the streets and engaged in survival sex. In connection with sex work, Johnson claimed to have been arrested over 100 times, and was also shot once, in the late-1970s. Johnson spoke of first having a mental breakdown in 1970. According to Bob Kohler, Johnson would walk naked up Christopher Street and be taken away for two or three months to be treated with chlorpromazine, an antipsychotic medication. Upon returning, the medication would wear off over the course of one month and Johnson would then return to normal. Between 1980 and Johnson's death in 1992, Johnson lived with a friend Randy Wicker, who invited Johnson to stay the night one time when it was "very cold out—about 10 degrees [Fahrenheit]" (−12 °C).
Though generally regarded as "generous and warmhearted" and "saintly" under the Marsha persona, Johnson's angry, violent side could sometimes emerge when Johnson was depressed or under severe stress. Some felt that it was more common for this to happen under Johnson's "male persona as Malcolm". During those moments when Johnson's violent side emerged, according to an acquaintance Robert Heide, Johnson could be aggressive and short-tempered and speak in a deeper voice and, as Malcolm, would "become a very nasty, vicious man, looking for fights". This dual personality of Johnson's has been described as "a schizophrenic personality at work". When this happened, Johnson would often get in fights and wind up hospitalized and sedated, and friends would have to organize and raise money to bail Johnson out of jail or try to secure release from places like Bellevue. In the 1979 Village Voice article, "The Drag of Politics," by Steven Watson, and further elaborated upon by Stonewall historian Carter, it had perhaps been for this reason that other activists had been reluctant at first to credit Johnson for helping to spark the gay liberation movement of the early 1970s. Watson also reported that Johnson's saintly personality was "volatile" and listed a roster of gay bars from which Johnson had been banned. At the time of Johnson's death in 1992, Johnson was said to be increasingly sick and in a fragile state, according to Randy Wicker.
Shortly after the 1992 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. 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 whilst Johnson did struggle mentally, this did not manifest itself as suicidal. 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.
Several people came forward to say they had seen Johnson harassed by a group of "thugs" who had also robbed people. According to Wicker, a witness saw a neighborhood resident fighting with Johnson on July 4, 1992. During the fight he used a homophobic slur, and later bragged to someone at a bar that he had killed a drag queen named Marsha. The witness was not successful in relaying this information to the police. Other locals stated later that law enforcement was not interested in investigating Johnson's death, stating that the case was about a "gay black man" and wanting little to do with at the time. Johnson was cremated and following a funeral at a local church, friends released Johnson's ashes over the river. Police allowed Seventh Avenue to be closed while Johnson's ashes were carried to the river.
Former New York politician Tom Duane fought to reopen the case, because "Usually when there is a death by suicide the person usually leaves a note. She didn’t leave a note.” In November 2012, activist Mariah Lopez succeeded in getting the New York police department to reopen the case as a possible homicide. After the NYPD reopened the case, the police reclassified Johnson's cause of death from "suicide" to undetermined.
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 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.
The 2012 documentary Pay It No Mind – The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson heavily features segments from a 1992 interview with Johnson, which was filmed shortly before Johnson's death. Many friends of Johnson's from Greenwich Village are interviewed for the documentary.
Johnson appears as a character in two fictional film dramas that are based on real events, including Stonewall (2015), played by Otoja Abit, and Happy Birthday, Marsha! (2016), played by Mya Taylor. Both movies are creative interpretations, inspired by the Stonewall uprising.
The 2017 documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, follows trans woman Victoria Cruz of the Anti-Violence Project as she investigates Johnson's murder. Like Pay It No Mind, it relies on archival footage and interviews.
New York City artist Anohni produced multiple tributes to Johnson, including baroque pop band Antony and the Johnsons (named in Johnson's honor), and a 1995 play about Johnson, The Ascension of Marsha P. Johnson.
American drag queen and TV personality RuPaul has called Johnson an inspiration, describing Johnson as "the true Drag Mother." During an episode of his show RuPaul's Drag Race in 2012, RuPaul told her contestants that Johnson "paved the way for all of [them]".
In 2018 the New York Times published a belated obituary for Johnson.
A large, painted mural depicting Johnson and Sylvia Rivera went on display in Dallas, Texas in 2019 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The painting of the "two pioneers of the gay rights movement" in front of a transgender flag claims to be the world's largest mural honoring the trans community.
On May 30, 2019, it was announced that Johnson and Sylvia Rivera would be honored with monuments at Greenwich Village, near the site of the Stonewall club. Construction is rumoured to be completed by 2021. These momuments of Johnson and Rivera will be the world's first to honor transgender activists.
On May 31, 2019, queer street artists Homo Riot and Suriani created a mural, as part of the WorldPride Mural Project and Stonewall 50 – WorldPride NYC 2019, and dedicated to Queer Liberation, featuring multiple images of Johnson. The mural, located at 2nd Avenue and Houston Street in New York City, was curated by photographer and filmmaker Daniel “Dusty” Albanese.
In June 2019, Johnson was one of the inaugural fifty American “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes” inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument (SNM) in New York City’s Stonewall Inn. The SNM is the first U.S. national monument dedicated to LGBTQ rights and history, and the wall's unveiling was timed to take place during the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
On February 1, 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York announced that the East River Park in Brooklyn will be renamed in Johnson's honor. It will be the first New York state park named after an LGBT person.
- Carter, David (May 25, 2010). Stonewall: the riots that sparked the gay revolution. New York, New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 9780312671938. OCLC 659681252.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Chan, Sewell (March 8, 2018). "Marsha P. Johnson: A transgender pioneer and activist who was a fixture of Greenwich Village street life". The New York Times.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Kasino, Michael (2012). Pay It No Mind – The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson (Documentary film).CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)