Disappointed that no one had shown up for a party to celebrate her 25th birthday, Marsha P. Johnson headed to the Stonewall Inn on the evening of June 27, 1969, looking for a party elsewhere. She soon found herself at the center of the Stonewall riots and was among the first to confront the police that week. A beloved mentor and fearless trans activist, Marsha was a revolutionary who dedicated her life to helping transgender youth and other marginalized people living on the streets of New York.
Born and raised in northern New Jersey, Marsha relocated to Manhattan in 1966. Soon thereafter she met and began mentoring Sylvia Rivera, who was only a teenager at the time. The pair went on to found Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in the autumn of 1970, advocating on behalf of homeless drag queens and LGBTQ runaways and providing them with food and shelter.
When she wasn’t advocating, Marsha was a performer. She was a member of Hot Peaches, a flamboyant communal theatrical troupe, and was photographed by Andy Warhol in 1974 as part of “Ladies and Gentlemen,” a series of Polaroids featuring drag queens.
In addition to her advocacy efforts and stage talents, Marsha was known for her wit. When asked by a judge what the “P” in her name stood for during a court appearance, Marsha explained that it was short for “Pay it no mind!” The judge laughed and dismissed the charges against her.
It is telling that in spite of all of the revolutionary work Marsha did, there is very little information about her publicly available. Like many transgender women of color, Marsha died an untimely death in 1992. Her death was officially ruled a suicide but many in the community believed that she was murdered. Whatever the cause of her death, Marsha’s story is a reminder that many strong trans voices have been lost to history, just as many trans people today are silenced by discrimination or work tirelessly for equality without recognition. This month, we are thinking about these voices at NCTE and how we can work to ensure that more trans people are heard.
Marsha P. Johnson was a source of strength and pride for trans people throughout New York City. She will always be remembered for her dedication to helping those in the LGBTQ community most in need of assistance, and is an inspiration to many young trans people doing that same work today.