Marsha P. Johnson was a Black transgender woman, activist, model, sex worker and mother figure to New York City’s LGBTQ community who advocated for LGBTQ rights during the 1960s and 1970s. Originally from New Jersey, Johnson was born as Malcolm Michaels Jr. In her early years, Johnson would often take the train from New Jersey to New York City and transform from Malcolm to Marsha. In 1966, she made the transition permanent, moving from Jersey to Greenwich Village —a large LGBTQ community at the time — and also legally changing her name to Marsha P. Johnson. Known for her exotic hats and jewelry, Johnson was full of life and loved being her authentic self, which attracted much attention. However, she used her hypervisibility as a Black trans woman with prominent masculine features to make a statement and take a stand for the LGBTQ community. In fact, whenever people would ask Johnson what her middle initial stood for she would often reply, “pay it no mind.” This response was intended to be a sarcastic comeback to frequent questions about her gender. Speculated as being a genderfluid individual and drag queen, Johnson would sometimes go back to being Malcolm as her male persona and was also well-known as a drag performer. Many people speculate that because there was not much nuanced conversation around gender identity and expression during this time, Johnson was often categorized as trans and could not articulate her full complex self due to a lack of terminology.
Johnson’s activism stemmed from firsthand experiences of discrimination and hate towards LGBTQ individuals, particularly trans folks. She experienced the inequalities — many of which continue to occur today — that trans women of color face, including homelessness, forced sex for pay living arrangements, and violence perpetuated by both the police and heterosexual communities. Johnson felt that LGBTQ people had the right to exist and be themselves without the threat of violence. The Greenwich Village area was steadily growing with LGBTQ people, which created a supportive community of acceptance and salvation — something that was nearly impossible to obtain in a heterosexist society. However, early in the morning of June 28, 1969, the police raided the a known gay bar, The Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village. It was then that Johnson and other activists declared that enough was enough, and took a stand against police harassment of the LGBTQ community. Their actions ignited the famous Stonewall Riots, now known as the catalyst of the LGBTQ rights movement in the United States.
After the riots, Johnson collaborated with a Puerto Rican transgender activist, Sylvia Rivera, and cofounded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a local community organization to assist homeless and runaway transgender people. Johnson also joined the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), an organization that sought political action and protection for people based on sexual orientation or behavior against oppressive laws and unequal ethics. Johnson became influential in the community and was later asked by Andy Warhol to pose for a collection of paintings and photographs.
On July 6, 1992, Johnson was found dead in the Hudson River, in what authorities ruled a suicide. However, many close friends insisted that she was not suicidal and many witnesses noticed that she was being harassed earlier in the day. The police, however, never completed a full investigation.
Through her life and death, Johnson faced many challenges trans women of color, particularly, Black trans women, still face today, such as violence, poverty, and an indifference to their murders. Despite Johnson’s contributions to the LGBTQ community, her legacy continues to be erased and white-washed by transphobic Black people and racist, anti-Black LGBTQ people due to her identity as a Black trans woman. However, it is our responsibility and duty to honor Black ancestors like Marsha P. Johnson just as much as those such as W.E.B. Du Bois. Marsha P. Johnson has paved the way for many Black trans youth, and without her work and that of other trans women of color, the state of the LGBTQ rights movement would look very different today.
For more information on #BlackTransHistory and other historical Black trans women figures, please visit: The Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition
#BlackTransHistory #BlackHerstory #BlackGirlMagic #BHM
CHARDONNAY MADKINS is a womanist and activist serving the Los Angeles area. She received her Bachelor's of Arts degree in Psychology and Urban & Environmental Policy from Occidental College. As one of the few black women leaders on Occidental's campus, Chardonnay Madkins played a prominent role in the institution's Black Student Alliance and also co-founded the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition, where she shed light on issues involving survivors of color and mobilized students and faculty to demand administrators appropriately handle sexual assault cases. She dedicates her time advocating specifically for Black survivors and changing policies around sexual assault. She maintains a passion for knowledge and aspires to continue her education of human rights and womanist politics in order to give voice to the voiceless.
You can reach Chardonnay at firstname.lastname@example.org