Marsha P. Johnson adopted her last name from Howard Johnson’s, a restaurant that once stood on 42nd street in New York City, with the P standing for “pay it no mind,” a phrase she would say in response when asked about her gender. Using it as her drag name, Johnson went through the late 60s and 70s performing acts that were both comedic and political, all while doing everything from waiting tables to working in the Flower District to make ends meet.
Johnson’s life had changed in the early hours of June 28th, 1969, the day the Stonewall Riots started. Sometimes called the Stonewall Rebellion, this was a period of several days in which the gay patrons of the Stonewall Inn rioted took a violent stand against police raids. It is generally taken as the start of the Gay Rights movement.
There are several different accounts of Marsh P. Johnson’s involvement in the riots. One says she started the uprising herself, while another says she was just trying to find her friend Sylvia Rivera. The most corroborated one comes from multiple sources: that on the second day of the week-long riots, Johnson was seen atop a street lamp dropping a bag with a brick in it onto a police car, thus shattering the windshield. This differs from another account that says she threw a brick directly at a police officer.
The stories and accounts that have come from the Stonewall Riots have forever tied Johnson’s name to the riots. She is often called one of the leading figures in the event.
On the heels of the riots, Marsha would join the Gay Liberation Front, or GLF, in which she and the group were in the first Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally, which fell on the first anniversary of the Stonewall event. Marsha later co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR, which supported the gay community by housing queer youth and sex workers. It remains a groundbreaking organization in the history of gay rights activism. Through this the STAR House was born, a shelter for gay and transgender street kids. She continued her activism until her untimely death in 1992.
Through her efforts on behalf of the LGBTQ community, she made it possible for its members to not only be seen but to be heard. This makes her not only an important participant in the Gay Rights Movement but also a figure to be celebrated during Black History Month.
Thank you, Marsha, for your courage, your work, and your love!