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Anniversary of the Birth of Marsha P. Johnson - 2023

Authored by Alice Broome
Published on 24th August, 2023 5 min read

Anniversary of the Birth of Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson wearing a floral headpiece.

Today (24/08/2023) marks the birthday of Marsha P. Johnson. Born Malcolm Michaels Jr., Marsha was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1945 to working class African-American parents. Although assigned male at birth, Marsha began questioning her gender from a young age and is said to have worn dresses from the age of five. Growing up questioning gender was difficult for Marsha. Indeed, she suppressed these feelings after being sexually assaulted by another child. It was not until Marsha turned seventeen and moved to New York City, where she felt safer, that she began to explore and to express her gender.

It was in New York where Marsha adopted the full name “Marsha P. Johnson”, with the “P” standing for “Pay It No Mind”. This was her standard response to questions about her gender and later became her life motto. The terms “transgender” and “gender nonconforming” have only become commonly used in recent years. Instead, Marsha identified as a gay person, a transvestite, and a drag queen.

Being a member of the LGBTQ+ community in New York during the 1960s was difficult and often dangerous. Being gay was still classed as a mental illness in the United States and LGBTQ+ people were subjected to continuous discrimination and violence. Marsha was no exception to this and struggled to find permanent work and housing. Sex work became a financial lifeline for Marsha and countless others in her community. It came with its risks, however. Abusive clients and being arrested became the norm for Marsha — she was arrested over 100 times. Marsha was also homeless and spent her nights bouncing between friends, hotels, restaurants, and cinemas. She also worked as a waitress and performed in a drag show as part of the group “Hot Peaches”.

"I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville until I became a drag queen.”[1] Marsha P. Johnson, 1992

Intersectionality, a term coined by scholar and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw, refers to the multiple oppressions people face based on their various identities, such as race, gender, sexuality, social class, etc. Marsha was all too familiar with the intersectional nature of marginalisation, being black, poor, gay, and gender nonconforming. Political and social activism became a central part of Marsha’s life, establishing her legacy as one of the most prominent gay rights activists in 1960s/70s New York. She is perhaps most well-known for her involvement in the Stonewall Riots, which began on 28 June 1969, when police raided The Stonewall Inn. Tired of the discrimination they faced, the LGBTQ+ community fought back and Johnson led many protests following the raid. The Stonewall Riots were significant not least due to the involvement of transgender people. Many members of this community felt as though they had nothing to lose. Thus, they committed to the riots and were at the forefront of the protests.

The Stonewall Riots represent a turning point in terms of LGBTQ+ activism: the movement was galvanised by the protests. Shortly after, the Gay Liberation Front (GLA) was founded and Marsha became involved in their rallies and sit-ins. The first Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally took place in March 1970 with Marsha in attendance. It marked the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and paved the way for the subsequent creation of Pride Month.

Despite her involvement, Marsha nevertheless felt as though the GLA and other similar organisations at the time catered largely for white gay men and lesbians, disregarding black and transgender people. To counter this, Marsha and her friend Sylvia Rivera (a fellow transgender woman) founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in 1970. The aim of the organisation was to shelter and to protect young transgender people and people of colour who had been rejected by their families. To this end, Marsha and Sylvia set up STAR House in 1972, a shelter which acted as a safe space and accommodation for young LGBTQ+ homeless people. Far from just providing accommodation, the STAR House provided friendship, a support system, and figures to aspire to in the forms of Marsha and Sylvia. The pair continued to speak out against transphobia and were banned from attending the Pride parade in 1973 which had been organised by the gay and lesbian administrative committee. They ignored the ban and instead marched in front of the parade.

Marsha continued her activism throughout her life and attracted the attention of many well-known people. Andy Warhol included her in a series of prints called “Ladies and Gentlemen” (1975) and in 1980 she rode in the lead car of the Gay Pride Parade in New York City. 1980s New York became an even more difficult environment for LGBTQ+ people owing to the widespread panic occasioned by the outbreak of the AIDS/HIV pandemic. Marsha was diagnosed with HIV in 1990 and volunteered as an organiser and marshal for the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).

Marsha P. Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River. She was 46. The police classed it as suicide. Many friends disputed this. Some said they had seen her being assaulted days earlier by a group of people. This would not have been unusual for the time, with 1992 being the worst year on record at the time for anti-LGBTQ+ violence according to the New York Anti-Violence Project. After years of lobbying, her case was reopened in 2012 but closed again in 2013. Many people remain furious that the case was never, in their view, properly investigated and that Marsha’s death was ignored by the majority of news outlets.

The life of Marsha P. Johnson serves as a reminder of the intersectionality of marginalisation. Her passion and tenacity left a mark on the LGBTQ+ community. Yet many of her concerns unfortunately remain unresolved. Transgender people and people of colour are still subject to discrimination, violence, and homelessness. Marsha remains an inspiration for activists around the world. They take inspiration from her bravery and dedication and look to her career to find blueprints for activism and protest.

[1] Emma Rothberg, “Marsha P. Johnson.”, National Women’s History Museum, 2022,

Authored by Alice Broome

Alice Broome

Alice Broome is an Editorial Assistant at British Online Archives. She is a Philosophy, Politics, and Economics graduate from the University of York.

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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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