Marsha P Johnson (1945 – 1992)* was a drag performer, sex worker, community organiser and activist. Co-founder with fellow Trans woman of colour, Sylvia Rivera, of STAR – Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries – in 1970, she was a fixture of the street life of New York’s Greenwich Village and instrumental in the 1969 Stonewall Inn uprising that marked a sea-change in the fight for LGBT rights in the US and beyond.
Marsha’s political organising included demonstrating against injustice but also taking practical steps to support queer homeless youth, often funding STAR shelters through sex work. Arriving in New York after graduating high school, penniless and homeless from a strict Christian household in New Jersey, Marsha P never had an easy life. She experienced poor mental health and was often hospitalised as a result of psychiatric breakdowns.
Visible when so many other LGBTQ people led hidden lives, Marsha P Johnson’s trademark style was feted by high society New York, including becoming the subject for an Andy Warhol portrait, she toured the US and Europe with trans political theatre group Hot Peaches. In 1980 she rode in the lead car of the New York Pride parade – in recognition of her contribution to the movement for LGBTQ rights.
Marsha’s death is shrouded in mystery – her body was found in the Hudson River in July 1992 and assumed at the time to be suicide. After intervention from her friends and colleagues the case was re-classified; the investigation into her death was re-opened in 2012.
Marsha’s activism highlights for us the ‘heavy-lifting’ in our movement by those who are ‘never straight’, “those queer pioneers who were unable or unwilling to hide their differences, and thus forced queerness to be publicly acknowledged wherever they went” (Alexis Pauline Gumbs). Despite their leadership, Trans women of colour, remain highly marginalised, excluded and disproportionately victim to serious violence in the US and the UK.
“Marsha P. Johnson could be perceived as the most marginalized of people — black, queer, gender-nonconforming, poor. You might expect a person in such a position to be fragile, brutalized, beaten down. Instead, Marsha had this joie de vivre, a capacity to find joy in a world of suffering. She channeled it into political action, and did it with a kind of fierceness, grace and whimsy, with a loopy, absurdist reaction to it all.” Susan Stryker, Assoc Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Arizona
*Marsha would declare that the P stood for ‘Pay it no mind!’
Fight like Marsha P
BlackOutUK is working to build a resilient community among Black queer men in the UK. We work to support each other and to represent Black gay voices to power – whether through sharing information about campaigns on issues that effect black queer men in the UK and beyond, or raising our collective voices to challenge injustices.
Read more about Marsha P Johnson and her legacy
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