The Mother Of Pride, Marsha P. Johnson
CONTENT WARNING: This article references sexual assault, forced sex work, and death/murder. Since it was used as a self-identifier, it also uses the term transvestite.
Most people in the LGBTQ+ community are familiar with the phrase “the first pride was a riot” and with the name Marsha P. Johnson, but the extent of her influence and revolutionary contributions to the queer community goes largely unnoticed and unrecognized, even today. Learning about the incredible life of love and hardship, of generosity and joy and sorrow unveils so much about the lives of queer people, specifically transwomen, during a time before any kind of protection against discrimination or hate crimes targeted at the LGBTQ+ community in the United States.
Johnson was born in 1945, the fifth child of seven, and always felt most comfortable in girls’ clothing. She started wearing girl’s clothes from the time she was only five, despite growing up with a very religious family. Even as a child, Johnson faced horrifying treatment for her gender—she was sexually assaulted by a thirteen-year-old boy as a child, and began hiding her identity again until graduating high school. After high school, she took herself, a bag of clothes and fifteen dollars, and moved to New York City, on a search for a more accepting community.
In New York City, Johnson found it easier to wear the clothes she wanted to. She usually wore brightly colored thrifted dresses and outfits, as well as bright wigs and flower crowns she made herself. After her move to New York, she began calling herself by her new name, Marsha P. Johnson. She said that the P stood for “Pay it no mind,” which was her life motto and her response when asked about her gender. During the fifties, the word transgender was not in use, so Johnson described herself as a transvestite, gay, and a drag queen, and used she/her pronouns.
Johnson made her living in New York waiting tables and performing drag, but mostly through what some historians call “survival sex,” or sex work used only as a means to secure food, money, or a place to sleep. Johnson spent most of her life unhoused, staying with friends, in hotels, or even movie theatres. Marsha P. Johnson was not known for her hardships, though. She was so much more than the horrible things she endured. She was a vibrant woman with a warm, generous spirit. In fact, according to an article by Women & The American Story called “Life Story: Marsha P. Johnson,” “Throughout Greenwich Village, she was known as ‘Saint Marsha.’ Locals admired her ability to truly be herself. Marsha had a reputation for being generous and kind. She gave people clothes and food, even though she had little of her own.”
Upon moving to NYC, Johnson also met her lifelong best friend, another transwoman, named Sylvia Rivera, who was six years younger than the then seventeen-year-old Johnson. Johnson taught Rivera how to do her makeup and always encouraged her to love herself and her identity. The two were also together the night that the Stonewall Riots began on June 28th, 1969—which is largely credited to Johnson. While stories differ from source to source, many agree that Johnson threw a shot glass at a mirror, urging queer people at the Stonewall Inn to fight back against the police raid that was already happening that night.
Johnson’s story only began here, though. From that point on in her life, Johnson was known to some as a hero and the leader of the first gay pride revolution, and as a danger to society by others, who were spinning an anti-gay narrative. Johnson stood proudly for her beliefs, though, and said, “Darling, I want my gay rights now. I think it’s about time the gay brothers and sisters got their rights… especially the women.” She and Rivera worked to form STAR, which was formed as a safe place for trans people, especially people of color, to find refuge from a hugely unsupportive world. The operation began in what the women thought was an abandoned truck, but when the pair later found out (as it was moving) that the truck was actually not abandoned, they moved to a building without electricity or running water.
Johnson and Rivera supported their trans children and paid their rent with sex work, and always managed to keep breakfast on the table. Johnson said about her work, “I’ll always be known [for] reaching out to young people who have no one to help them out, so I help them out with a place to stay or some food to eat or some change for their pocket. And they never forget it. A lot of times I’ve reached my hand out to people in the gay community that just didn’t have nobody to help them when they were down and out.” And she’s right, her legacy is one of love and incomprehensible generosity.
According to “Life Story, Marsha P. Johnson,” “Despite her popularity, Marsha also lived a life of poverty and danger. She was arrested over 100 times. She believed no one should hustle [be forced to engage in sex work or survival sex] or live on the streets, but she knew no other way to survive.” Johnson contracted HIV, and spoke out about the importance of not fearing people who were HIV positive, or treating them any differently.
Johnson even faced discrimination by her own community, which was at the time led mostly by white gay men and lesbians who did not want to include gender diversity and people of color in the movement, even though it was started by trans women of color. In fact, the 1973 Pride march in New York City banned drag queens from participating, including Johnson and Rivera, saying that drag was “giving them a bad name.” Instead of accepting defeat from her own community, Johnson marched ahead of the parade with Rivera to prove how brave and revolutionary she really was.
Johnson’s story doesn’t end as it should have—with her exalted to stardom and living a life of peace during her lifetime. Her body was found in July of 1992, floating in the Hudson River, with a large wound on the back of her head. The authorities ruled it a suicide, but her friends and fellow transwomen of color knew that she was not suicidal, and that this looked much more like a murder. It was not until recently that the case was reopened, and it still remains unsolved.
It’s hard to fathom that Johnson was so radiant and giving, especially since she had to fight at every turn, and lived a very hard life. But she was—this kindness is what will always survive her, what will always be felt with every photograph of her, ever mention of her name. What a beautiful legacy to leave behind, love. As a community, we owe so much of our freedom to the courage of a young Black transwoman, Marsha P. Johnson, and her resilience and bravery. Let us never—not ever, ever, ever—forget the incredible life of Marsha Pay It No Mind Johnson, may she rest in peace always.