Marsha P Johnson was a fucking badass. A badass with a big heart, a creative sense of style and a fearless attitude. She was a veteran of the Stonewall riots in the late 60’s, she campaigned for Queer rights and set up a charity to help disadvantaged Queer youth.
The influence Marsha and other trans women of colour had on bringing Queer rights into the mainstream as well as the creation of Pride, protests and change in laws is often ignored or whitewashed by mainstream culture.
Marsha was a child of poverty, she grew up in a rough neighbourhood and moved to New York City from New Jersey when she was 18. Once in New York she legally changed her name to Marsha and started getting the reputation as being the Queen with a big heart.
She was often homeless, hustled to make money (as many trans women had to) and was always getting picked up by police.
The thing I love most about Marsha is her creativity. She was a street queen who could turn any junk into treasure, she was known to put christmas tree lights in her hair and use bits and pieces she found in the trash to make her outfits.
If someone complimented her outfit she was inclined to give it to them. That’s just how she was.
Marsha was at the Stonewall Inn Celebrating her birthday with friends when police raided the bar at 1.40am. The police treated the Queer community like shit and were constantly raiding and arresting people in some of the only available safe spaces they had. So tensions were already high.
Marsha fought back against the police that night and threw a shot glass into a mirror stating she knew her rights thus instigating the riots and protests against their treatment by police that lasted THREE FUCKING DAYS! This became known as the:
‘Shotglass heard around the world’
You don’t come to fuck up Marsha’s party and leave without an ass kicking.
After the riots Marsha and her friend Sylvia Rivera (another trans activist) founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and they used every penny they had to set up a halfway house for runaway LGBT youth.
Seriously EVERYTHING they made went on clothing and food for the ‘children’ they supported. They were utterly selfless.
They were still often homeless and went without themselves to help their kids. Marsha became known as the ‘Queen Mother’ of the house.
Marsha and Sylvia are heroes and should be lauded as such right? But during one of the first gay pride marches in New York, Sylvia took to the stage to make a speech AND THE AUDIENCE TRIED TO BOO HER OFF THE STAGE!
No, I don’t see the logic her either… but Sylvia wasn’t going to just walk off stage. Bitch turned that crowd around and by the end was leading a mammoth chant of
Marsha was also often dismissed by other gay rights activists at the time because of her appearance and ‘kooky’ demeanor. She struggled with mental health issues and was in and out of prisons and mental health facilities throughout her life.
Once when she was in court a judge asked her what the P stood for and she replied
‘Pay it no mind.’
LEGEND! The judge totally let her off.
Marsha had a varied and incredible life despite her shitty living conditions.
In 1975 Marsha was photographed by Andy Warhol for his Ladies and Gentlemen series. He painted a beautiful picture of Marsha that captured her essence perfectly, our girl looks fucking radiant!
As if that wasn’t cool enough she started performing in the mid 70’s with Hot Peaches an experimental queer cabaret group.
She was super popular with the audiences and loved being on the stage. She played up to being tone deaf so screamed rather than sang her numbers, AND EVERYONE LOVED IT!
Now, guys I’m really sorry but… Marsha’s story has a really shitty ending.
She was found dead in the Hudson River not long after the 1992 New York Pride march. The death was dismissed as a suicide by the police, but her friends were adamant that there had been foul play.
There’d been sightings of Marsha being harassed in the street the night she went missing. But hey, she was black, gay and trans so they didn’t give a toss.
Marsha’s case was finally reopened in 2012 which was 20 WHOLE YEARS after her death thanks to a campaign by transgender activist Mariah Lopez (another total badass, who opened the first transgender housing unit for Rikers Island, the largest American Prison in 2014.)
Marsha’s funeral had hundreds of mourners and they threw her ashes in the river along with bunches of bright flowers. She was known for having flowers in her hair, so this gesture gets us right in the feels.
Her friend Sylvia was bereft without Marsha, but this bitch was tough. She carried on campaigning and helping disadvantaged LGBT youth until her death from liver cancer in 2002.
We love Marsha, she was an incredible woman who was full of life and love for everyone. We could all do with being a bit more like her tbh.
This was really interesting! Where can I find out more? The documentary Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P Johnson is on Youtube and it is much watch stuff!!
But please, we beg you… DO NOT USE THE HOLLYWOOD FILM, AS A REFERENCE! The film, Stonewall, is a whitewashed steaming turd of a mess (obvs our opinion, but…)
Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.