After high school in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Marsha P. Johnson, born Malcolm Michaels, Jr. in 1945, moved to New York City with $15 in his pocket. He couldn’t wait to leave New Jersey. Wearing dresses at age six, he was ridiculed. He identified as gay, but back then in 1951, “gay” was not a common term. In a large Episcopal family, he wasn’t a good fit.
Marsha P. (who said the “P” stood for “Pay It No Mind.”), would become known as “The Mayor of Christopher Street” in Greenwich Village, be silk screened by Andy Warhol, and become an icon of the Stonewall Uprising in 1968. She was a black transvestite who identified as gay, used she/her pronouns and became a member of two drag queen troupes, The Angels of Light, on the East Coast and Hot Peaches, founded in 1970 in New York City, that was known for its gay political commentary, farcical romps, and costumes.
Often seen with flowers in her hair because she often slept on a florist’s table, Marsha founded S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) in 1970 with Sylvia Rivera. Sylvia was a Latina American gay liberation and transgender rights activist who died in 2002. Like Marsha, Rivera identified as a drag queen and participated in demonstrations with the Gay Liberation Front from 1969 through the mid-1980’s, and resisted the police at the Stonewall Uprising.
Together, Johnson and Rivera helped provide one of this country’s first shelter, a safe space for homeless LGBT youth at the S.T.A.R. home. They advocated for the homeless and those with H.I.V. Marsha had H.I.V. and was an ardent activist for the Gay organization, Act Up (Coalition to Unleash Power), organized to end the AIDS pandemic.
They both worked hard for the inclusion of queer people of color and gender non-conforming in the mainstream civil rights movement. On forty-second Street, they found a tribe of sex workers, drag queens, and members of the gay community. They were often arrested.
In 1992, Marsha Johnson was found dead in the Hudson River. It was not determined if it were a suicide. Some thought Marsha was schizophrenic. Still others thought she was murdered. (Today, in 2020, transgender adults of color have a higher incidence of murder than white transsexuals).
In any case, Marsha is finally getting her due. The newly-launched Marsha P. Johnson Institute will continue her work to protect and defend the human rights of black transgender people. Last month, Governor Cuomo announced that the city of New York will build a monument to honor Rivera and Johnson for their roles in the Stonewall Uprising and advocacy for the LGBTQ, homeless and HIV positive. It will be the first permanent public artwork recognizing transgender women in the world.
This is an eleven-acre East River State Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with views of the Williamsburg Bridge and Midtown Manhattan. In the future, there will be a public art installation along side of interpretive materials on Johnson’s life as well as information on the larger LGBTQ movement.
In a 1992 interview, Marsha called herself “the nobody from nowheresville” until she became a drag queen.” “Be who you want to be” was her motto.
When Your Child Is Gay: What You Need To Know
For more detailed advice, see book, co-authored with a mother of a gay son and a psychiatrist, Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D.