Aimee, Melissa and Kate spoke briefly about the history of Pride on our latest episode. We mentioned a few times that the history would be brief, because although two of us identify as LGBTQIA+ members, we know that we aren’t the best people to tell this story. Why? Well, because our perspective is informed by lives of privilege in this arena. That privilege (and a bit of booze) led us to neglect a very important piece of the history of Pride–Marsha P. Johnson.
Marsha P. Johnson was there on June 28, 1969 at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street. Many eye witnesses identify her as one of the first to fight back. Many recognize her as spearheading the uprising that we now commemorate with Pride celebrations across the country.
Before Stonewall, Johnson moved to Greenwich Village in New York City at the cusp of adulthood. Like many LGBTQIA+ youths, life was rough. Her childhood was marred with reprimands for how she dressed and behaved. Once out on her own, she found herself homeless and worked as a sex worker to make ends meet. Soon after she found ballroom culture and drag. Making her own costumes, she founded her own house, becoming a drag mother, and helping homeless and struggling youth. She even toured the world with a drag group called Hot Peaches.
Marsha P. Johnson also founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) to further help LGBTQIA+ youth. Melissa mentioned briefly during our episode how even within the queer community trans people (and especially trans people of color) were forced into the fringes of the movement. As Gay and Lesbian rights started to gain traction, cis and white people took control of leadership. After Stonewall, Johnson (along with Sylvia Rivera) founded STAR to help provide services and empower homeless LGBTQIA people in New York, Chicago, California, and even in England.
In addition to founding STAR, she also joined the Gay Liberation Front and worked with ACT UP an AIDS-focused charity.
In addition to all of the amazing work she did to empower her community, she also acted as a muse for artist Andy Warhol. As a drag performer, her career lasted for over twenty years. She toured with Hot Peaches from 1972 on. She also performed with numerous other drag troupes from the 1970s on.
Marsha P. Johnson’s life was one of her own making. In her short time on this planet she spearheaded a civil rights movement, founded a non-profit, helped countless young people. Her life came to an end in 1992. Although the police officially ruled the death a suicide at the time, many in her community believed she was murdered. Her body was found in the Hudson River off the West Village Piers on July 6. Marsha was only 46. Twenty-five years after her death, Victoria Cruz re-opened the case, which remains unsolved.
The year in which Marsha died was the worst at the time for anti-LGBT violence. Violence against trans women of color is on the rise again.
Her legacy lives on with the Marsha P. Johnson Institute. Read more about them here. Marsha often said that the “P” in her name stood for “Pay It No Mind.” There is no better way to pay tribute to this amazing woman than to donate to an organization that aims to “elevate, support, and nourish the voices of black trans people.”
Want to learn more?
In 2018 The NY Times published a obituary of Marsha P. Johnson and her impact on the LGBTQIA+ movement. You can read it here.
Out Magazine has a wonderful retrospective on her life and legacy. You can read it here.
Netflix released a documentary about this revolutionary lady. Check out the trailer below.