Here’s What You Need To Know About Marsha P. Johnson


This week on The More You Know, and in light of Black History Month, we’ll be talking about a central figure in the gay liberation movement, Marsha P. Johnson.

A rather unknown figure when she died an unsolved death in 1992, Marsha P. Johnson is now best known for her activism for social and economic reforms. She was also among the few who kickstarted the gay liberation movement after the uprising at Stonewall Inn.

As a black, transgender woman, Johnson faced many problems in her life, but came out as the strong, face of the gay liberation movement. She was only 24 when she joined forces with other activists at Stonewall, and worked together with others to bring a more assertive gay liberation movement to New York City.

Marsha P. Johnson (left) and Sylvia Rivera (right)

Johnson is often recognized as the face of most marginalized people – she was black, queer, gender-nonconforming, and poor. She was homeless for most of her life, and had to turn to prostitution at times. She stated in an interview that she “stopped counting” after her 100th time being arrested.

In 1970, the same year that pride parades started, Johnson and her friend, Sylvia Rivera, a Latinx American transgender activist, founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR, to advocate for young transgender people. For a time, the movement even housed, clothed, and fed young queer people at 213 East Street. STAR’s main purpose, aside from helping trans men and women, was to advocate for sexual liberation and to push to align gay rights with other social movements.

“Her goal, she declared in an interview for a 1972 book, was ‘to see gay people liberated and free and to have equal rights that other people have in America,’ with her ‘gay brothers and sisters out of jail and on the streets again.’ She added, in a reference to the radical politics of the time, ‘We believe in picking up the gun, starting a revolution if necessary.’

In the ’70s, Johnson became a drag queen, which was when she was noticed by Andy Warhol, who included polaroids of her in his 1975 portfolio, “Ladies and Gentlemen.”

In the 1970’s, Johnson had a series of mental breakdowns and was in and out of psychiatric hospitals for a time. According to historian Martin Duberman, drugs had “ruined her mind.” In the 1980’s Johnson became an AIDS activist, attending meetings and protests of ACT UP, an AIDS advocacy organization.

In a 1992 interview, Johnson said she had been HIV positive for two years. On July 6th, 1992, her body was pulled from the Hudson River. It was quickly ruled as a suicide, but many of her friends believe otherwise. In 2012, the case was reopened, and as of 2018, it still is.

As trans men and women continue to be erased from history, we owe Marsha P. Johnson the credit she deserves for her continuous activism until her death in 1992. Her immense happiness and joy, even in an unforgiving and violent world, was a breath of fresh air for the gay liberation movement. Remembering Marsha P. Johnson is honoring all marginalized, erased, and forgotten activists of the 20th century.