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Anniversary of the Birth of Marsha P. Johnson

Authored by Nathaniel Andrews
Published on 24th August, 2022 4 min read

Anniversary of the Birth of Marsha P. Johnson

An image of Marsha P Johnson

Today (24/08/2022) is the birthday of Marsha P. Johnson, an African-American performer and activist who played a major role in the movement for LGBTQ+ rights, both in the United States and abroad. Marsha was born in New Jersey in 1945, and was assigned male at birth. In 1963, at the age of 17, Marsha moved to New York City, where she became a well-known drag artist, going on to perform both individually and as part of several performance groups, including ‘Hot Peaches’.  

In the 1960s, LGBTQ+ people in America were subject to continual harassment, facing frequent abuse from the police, members of the public, and the press. In the face of this hostility, Marsha challenged prevailing attitudes towards both gender and sexuality, famously stating that the ‘P.’ in her name stood for ‘Pay it no Mind’. At that time, terms such as ‘trans’, ‘transgender’, ‘non-binary’, and ‘genderqueer’ were not yet widely used and, though Marsha herself employed the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’, she identified variously as gay, a transvestite, and a drag queen. In subsequent years, historians have come to regard Marsha as both a transgender and gender non-conforming activist; above all, as someone who left an indelible mark on the fight for equal rights. 

Marsha endured severe hardship throughout her life, including homelessness, assault, intimidation, and mental health issues. In New York, she was forced to engage in sex work to make ends meet, and she claimed that, as a result, she had been arrested more than 100 times. Despite this, Marsha dedicated herself to supporting others. She was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and, with her friend and comrade Sylvia Rivera (another pioneering LGBTQ+ activist) she co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), an organisation that provided shelter to young LGBTQ+ people in need. Following the outbreak of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the 1980s, Marsha became heavily involved with activist groups such as ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), helping those who, like herself, were HIV-positive. 

Whilst Marsha was involved in many struggles and protests over the years, she is often associated most with the Stonewall Uprising of 1969. That year, on the 28th of June, the New York police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village: a prominent meeting-place for the city’s LGBTQ+ community. Police victimization of this community was a regular feature of everyday life but, on this occasion, the police met with particularly fierce resistance, triggering an uprising that lasted for days. Marsha is believed to have been at the forefront of these protests, which marked a turning point in the movement for LGBTQ+ rights. 

In 1992, Marsha’s body was found in the Hudson River, and the New York police attributed her death to suicide. However, many of Marsha’s friends and acquaintances contested this, and witnesses claimed to have seen a group of people harassing Marsha shortly before she disappeared. In the early 1990s, attacks on the LGBTQ+ community (especially on transgender women) were becoming more and more common in the city, including from the police. For this reason, many doubted the police’s findings, and suspected that the authorities were simply not interested in investigating Marsha’s death properly. Following years of determined organising (by a wide range of activists such as Sylvia Rivera, Mariah Lopez, and Victoria Cruz), the NYPD reopened the case in 2012 but, unfortunately, closed it again in 2013.  

Due to her tireless efforts to fight injustice, and her personal reputation for generosity and kindness, Marsha P. Johnson remains an iconic figure in LGBTQ+ history and, more generally, in the history of social justice movements. She continues to inspire many people today, whilst her experiences highlight the intersectional nature of the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights. As an African-American person who did not conform to traditional notions of gender and sexuality, she faced particular hostility; even, at times, from fellow activists.    

The struggle for gay rights and against transphobia is still far from over and, in the UK, recent years have seen a considerable increase in crimes committed against LGBTQ+ people, especially trans people. For this reason, it is vital that we recognise and celebrate the contributions of activists like Marsha P. Johnson, who have often been overlooked by historians, and unacknowledged in contemporary popular culture. 

Authored by Nathaniel Andrews

Nathaniel Andrews

Nathaniel Andrews is Senior Editor at British Online Archives, and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Leeds Arts and Humanities Research Institute. Between October 2018 and September 2021, he taught in the Schools of History and Languages at the University of Leeds, and between September 2021 and June 2022, he was a Lecturer in Spanish and Latin American Cultural Studies at the University of Manchester. His research centres primarily on the history of anarchism in the Hispanic World and North America, and he has several publications on the Spanish and Argentinian labour movements. He is currently working on his first monograph.

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The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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