Marsha P. Johnson was an activist, self-identified drag queen, performer, and survivor.
Marsha P. Johnson was born on August 24, 1945, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She was born Malcolm Michaels Jr., the fifth of seven children to Malcolm Michaels Sr. and Alberta (Claiborne) Michaels. The “nobody, from Nowheresville”—as she described herself in a 1992 interview—moved to New York City after graduating from high school, with nothing but $15 in her pocket.
During her relocation, she changed her name to Marsha P. Johnson. The “P” stood for “Pay It No Mind,” her response to questions about her gender. Before the term transgender entered the lexicon, she considered herself as a transvestite or a drag queen. Although she struggled sleeping on streets and in theaters of New York’s Greenwich Village, she met other transactivist who fought to be widely accepted in the gay community.
With flowers or Christmas lights in her hair, her discovery stemmed from her values that everyone can be who they want to be. “Marsha would talk to me all the time and tell me, ‘Don’t let anybody tell you what to do, be who you want to be,” her nephew, Al Michaels, recalled.
Johnson was a free-spirited activist who was a part of a growing community of LGBTQ+ youth who sought acceptance in New York City. However, laws criminalizing cross-dressing and same sex relationships prohibited Johnson and her peers from expressing herself freely. She was at the frontline of defense to protect her communities’ rights.
Marsha P. Johnson life had dramatically changed during the Stonewall uprising in 1965. The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street was raided by NYPD sixth precinct. The bar that was local to many people of the LGBTQ+ community and turned violent once police officers were harassing people for violating various discriminatory laws. Johnson was at the frontline and fought back for her rights.
Stonewall was solidified as a pivotal moment in the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement by the marches that began a year later. After her participation in the Stonewall uprising, Johnson was recognized as a prominent gay liberation activist. She joined the Gay Liberation Front, ACT UP, and co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with a transgender woman she met at 17-years old, Sylvia Rivera.
Together, Rivera and Johnson started STAR House for LGBTQ+ youth struggling with homelessness, with a focus on supporting people of color. In 1973, when the New York City Pride march organizers banned drag queens from participating, she and Rivera marched ahead of the parade.
Marsha P. Johnson, a black transgender woman, was a prominent figure in the gay liberation movement. She passed away in 1992 but continues to shed light on many Black transgender men and women who are still battling against anti-bias stigmatization. She is a beacon for everyone, not just communities from the LGBTQ+ communities, as her institute defends and protects the human rights of Black transgender people.
“When I became a drag queen, I started to live my life as a woman,” Johnson said.