Marsha P. Johnson & Her Impact
By: The Archive of the EIE Blog Committee
Many aspects of Black history have actively been watered down. The American Education System is known for suppressing the voices of Black people as well as the history attached to them. One woman who played a large role in not only Black History, but LGBTQ history as well, deserves to be recognized and applauded for her desire to help others & liberate them from the restraints of society. Marsha P. Johnson was her name. She was a young Black transgender woman that changed the lives of millions of people.
In order to truly absorb her impact on the world, it is important to examine her early life. Marsha was born to Malcolm Michaels & Alberta (Claiborne) Michaels on the 24th of August in 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Johnson received her education within the Elizabeth School System, and graduated from Thomas A. Edison High School in 1963. After graduating from high school, Marsha left her home town for New York City, with a few dollars and a bag of clothes. Her life changed drastically in Greenwich Village, as she was exposed to more gay people living in the city.
Just a decade earlier, when Marsha had begun wearing dresses, she stopped her self expression because of harassment from nearby boys. Johnson acknowledged in a 1992 interview that she had been a victim of sexual assault at a young age which caused her to view being gay as more of a dream instead of a reality. She remained sexually inactive until she finally moved to New York and began to feel at home.
Soon after, Marsha turned to prostitution as a means of income and survival. She became accustomed to the environment of night clubs and nightlife within the village. This environment allowed Marsha to discover her passion for being a drag queen. Self made, she began experimenting with names like “Black Marsha” before she settled on “Marsha P. Johnson”. She left her old life behind, using the “P’ in her name to stand for “Pay it no mind”.
She later came to be known as a ‘drag mother’ since she helped young, struggling LGBTQ youth that were homeless around her. Her leadership skills led her to be vocal in other settings, such as using her voice in the Stonewall Riots. On June 28th,1969 she noticed injustices happening around her as her fellow LGBTQ members had been harassed and treated violently by the NYPD. At this time, Marsha was recognized as one of the key players behind the uprising of Stonewall, and many have applauded her and given her credit as being the vanguard of the Gay Liberation Movement, as well as Sylvia Rivera.
After showing her determination and care for the movement and for the liberation and freedom of LGBTQ people, she and Sylvia soon founded their own organization referred to as the Street Transvestite Action Revolutions (STAR). With this group Rivera & Johnson helped homeless LGBTQ citizens by providing shelter. They did this in New York City, Chicago, California, and England. Unfortunately, it was eventually disbanded because gay rights were not prioritized by the government and the general citizens and public.
Marsha’s gender identity has been hypothesized by many people, as she referred to herself as a drag queen or a “transvestite (however this term is not inclusive and is now currently transphobic, using transgender is far better), these gender identities were the some of the only commonly used words that fit her identity, however LGBTQ historians have theorized that she could have been a transgender woman or possibly a femme presenting gender fluid person. Either way, she was not cisgender and she was not white, and it’s harmful to water down Black and LGBTQ history by not acknowledging so.
In 1992, Marsha P. Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River. The NYPD had presumed she had committed suicide, and ruled it as so. However, her family and friends insisted that she was not suicidal and was in fact murdered. Being an openly Gay, Black transgender woman, it was not unheard of of her to be harassed to attacked for existing, especially within the city. The likelihood that she was murdered increases seeing as NYPD did not like her, implying that her death was ruled a suicide simply because they did not care to entertain the case.
Overall, Marsha P. Johnson changed the lives of millions of people during the Stonewall Movement as well as many others via her STAR organization. She deserves to be recognized and her legacy continued through bolstering not only the African American community, but the LGBTQ community as well.