About Marsha P Johnson
Marsha an African-American, a New Jersey native was born on 24th August 1945 as Malcolm Michaels Jr. She had four brothers and two sisters. Marsha was an American activist and drag queen. Marsha was known as a force within the liberation movement and was outspoken about gay rights and was one of the most prominent figures in the Stonewall uprising that took place in 1969. A founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and also a co-founder of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, also known as S.T.A.R, she founded this alongside her friend, Sylvia Rivera.
The P in Marsha’s name stood for
“Pay it no Mind”
This was a phrase when people would comment negatively on Marsha’s appearance or life choices.
Marsha modelled for artists like Andy Warhol, performed on stage in drag with her group Hot Peaches. She was popular in the gay community within New York and was known as the Mayor of Christopher Street. She was also an activist within the ACT UP movement and spoke out about AIDS.
Marsha moved to New York in 1963 with just a bag of clothes and $15 in her pocket.
In 1969 when Marsha was just 23 years old, the authorities raided a gay bar in New York called The Stonewall Inn. The authorities forced over 200 people out of the bar and onto the streets where they were brutally beaten (once known as gay bashing, and now known as a hate crime against a member of the LGBTQ community). Marsha was one of the key figures in the movement. She stood up to the police during the raids, would resist arrest, and led a series of protests and riots demanding rights for LGBTQ people in New York. She was a force to be reckoned with and is one of the key historical figures in the LGBTQ community. It was her bravery, strength and courage that helped shape equal rights for all LGBTQ people in the US and arguably around the world.
Homelessness and Mental Health
In 1966 Marsha was living on the streets of New York and engaged in what is now known as survival sex. Survival sex is a form of sex work whereby a person is in engaged in sexual acts due to extreme needs. It’s common amongst people who are homeless, or disadvantaged within society. Sex acts are traded for food, a place to sleep or other basic needs. Some individuals also trade sex for drugs or alcohol.
Marsha was arrested over 100 times, had been shot and described her first mental health breakdown all occurring in the 1970s. She would walk naked up and down Christopher Street, when authorities arrived she would be taken away for mental health treatment for several months at a time.
She would be treated with antipsychotic medication, but the medication would wear off and she would then return to normal. In the early 1990s being gay, trans, lesbian, or LGBTQ+ was still considered a mental illness.
Marsha, when Malcolm, could become vicious at times she was under severe stress, she would look for fights, and would become quite nasty. She would end up sedated, or in hospital, or in jail. Friends would have to rally together to get enough money to bail Marsha out, or try and help have Marsha released from Bellevue Hospital and other mental health facilities.
Marsha’s activism and contribution to the LGBTQ society didn’t just end with Stonewall. Now, 29 years after Marsha passed away, her contribution to the LGBTQ community is widely shared on social media. Marsha was known for her work with homeless young LGBTQ people who were ostracised (like her) from their families due to their sexuality. She advocated for AIDs patients after being diagnosed with HIV in 1990.
In 1970 the first Gay Pride parades followed the Stonewall Uprising. Marsha was a prominent figure in the Gay Pride events. It wasn’t long after the first Pride event that S.T.A.R. was created.
When she was interviewed as part of a book in 1972, Marsha stated her ambition was to see
“I want to see gay people liberated, free, and to have equal rights that other people have in America. I want to see my gay brothers and sister’s out of jail and on the streets, again.”
It’s heartbreaking that Marsha didn’t live to see her ambitions come to fruition. However, there are multiple documentaries that were inspired by her life, including the 2017 documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.
Marsha would perform with Hot Peaches in the New York’s drag performance circuits and arts scenes. Marsha was a model for Andy Warhol and joined the Angels of Light, an Avant-Garde theatre group.
In 1992 after a pride parade, Marsha went missing. Marsha’s body was found floating in the Hudson River six days after she went missing at 5:23 p.m. on the 6th July 1992. According to the 2017 documentary based on Marsha, aptly named The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, it was the “street people” that pulled Marsha’s body from the river. At the time of her death, Marsha was living with her friend, Randy Wicker.
Authorities initially ruled Marsha’s death as a suicide, but friends and other community members stated that whilst Marsha did struggle with her mental health, she was not suicidal.
Randy Wicker, a good friend of Marsha and her roommate, confronted the authorities after Marsha’s death to ask them to complete an investigation in a fair and thorough manner. The authorities responded that they didn’t think it would be possible for the investigation to be concluded to Randy and the others’ satisfaction. This footage was captured and can be found in the documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.
There were several eyewitnesses that came forward to claim that Marsha had been seen being harassed by a group of “thugs” that had also ended up robbing her.
There were other claims that another witness saw a neighbourhood resident fighting with Marsha on the 4th July 1992 and during this altercation, the individual shouted a homophobic slur at Marsha. They later bragged to others in a bar that they had killed a drag queen named Marsha.
The eye witness reported this to the authorities (the NYPD 6th Precinct), but they ignored their claims and didn’t investigate. Other members of the community claimed that the authorities weren’t interested in helping to investigate Marsha’s death because of who she was. She was a gay black man/a transvestite/a drag queen.
Marsha had a large wound on the back of her head when she was found floating in the Hudson, but there was no indication of whether this was a result of blunt force trauma, or how the injury may have occurred. The autopsy concluded that her cause of death was drowning.
The authorities reopened Marsha’s case and reclassified her death from “suicide” to “undetermined“. They couldn’t undertake another autopsy, as Marsha had been cremated following her death in 1992. Her ashes had been scattered in the Hudson River.
It was former New York politician, Tom Duane who had fought to have Marsha’s case reopened. He said the reason behind this was because
“Usually when there is a death by suicide the person usually leaves a note. She didn’t leave a note.”
Mariah and Victoria
Mariah Lopez, an American transgender activist, fought to have Marsha’s cases reopened as a homicide investigation.
In 2016 Victoria Cruz, an American LGBT rights activist and retired domestic violence counsellor from the Anti-Violence Project succeeded in having previously-unreleased documents and witness statements released to the public domain. Victoria had new interviews conducted with witnesses, friends, activists, and the authorities that had worked the case, or been on the force at the time Marsha was murdered.
Marsha’s life may have been cut tragically short at the age of 46, but her memory lives on within the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, that protects and defends the human rights of black transgender people.
In February 2020, the Mayor of New York renamed East River State Park in Brooklyn to the Marsha P. John State Park and a statue will be erected in honour of Marsha in 2021.