Who Was Marsha P. Johnson?
“Darling, I want my gay rights now! I think it’s about time the gay brothers and sisters got their rights, especially the women!” says Marsha P. Johnson, as she watches a Pride Parade stroll by in an old recording.
Aside from being the generous queen of Christopher Street and an instigator at the Stonewall Riots of 1969, Marsha was also just one of many trans women who experienced violence and her murder was brushed aside by law enforcement.
Marsha P. Johnson was born as Malcom Michaels, Jr. on August 24th, 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She got into cross-dressing pretty young, but was met with some backlash from her Christian family. She moved to Greenwich, New York when she was eighteen, and got into drag and prostitution to support herself. It was around this time that she truly became Marsha P. Johnson. The P stood for her catchphrase, “Pay it no mind,” which she would say whenever people inquired about her gender.
Marsha is best known as an instigator to the Stonewall Riots of 1969, where police officers raided the Stonewall Inn and arrested LGBTQ+ individuals with no cause–as they did very frequently–but this time they were met with resistance due to the ambushing nature of the raid. Marsha also spent most of her adult life trying to help the outcasts of Christopher Street. This area provided refuge to homeless people, queer youth, and young prostitutes. Marsha co-founded the Street Transevstite (later Transgender) Action Revolutionaries, or STAR, alongside her friend Sylvia Rivera (who is just as legendary, and will have her own article very soon).
STAR was extremely important during this time because the prostitutes on Christopher Street had an ongoing struggle with the Vice cops at the nearby precinct. These officers were tasked with tackling prostitution and drugs in big cities, but many of the girls reported the officers being rough with them, physically and verbally. These cops always had the upper hand as well, because no one would believe a transgender prostitute over the word of a police officer.
On July 6th, 1992, Marsha P. Johnson was found dead in the Hudson River just off of Christopher Street–the police ruled it a suicide. Traffic came to a standstill as members of the community and Marsha’s friends took to the street to protest the police’s poor handling of the case. Everyone who knew Marsha thought it was impossible that she would suddenly decide to end her life, but the police ignored their protests and refused to investigate it any further. The case went cold.
This was until Victoria Cruz took it upon herself to find the truth about Marsha’s sudden death throughout a documentary entitled The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (available on Netflix). Cruz worked with the LGBTQ+ Anti-Violence Project, an organization dedicated to taking on these cases when no one else will listen to the victims of hate crimes. In the documentary, she discusses the rate at which trans women are being murdered, and is determined to try to find justice for Marsha.
Cruz interviews Marsha’s living friends and family, and people who worked with the Anti-Violence Project at that time. She tried to speak with a retired officer who would have worked in the Christopher Street area during that time, but he refused to speak with her. The prevailing theory about Marsha’s murder is the involvement of the mafia, who backed the LGBTQ+ community in the 60s and 70s, but also paid off certain cops to have them look the other way. While the police were likely not responsible for her murder, they chose not to investigate, knowing there was foul play involved.
There’s been a lot of trouble in the past year regarding police in America because of a disregard for lives that they don’t agree with or don’t like. While we’re not here to debate politics, I think most people should agree that the senseless killing of marginalized people is a problem, especially by people tasked with the protection of innocent people. This kind of pain and injustice serves as a reminder of how much we need to stick together as a community.
This Pride month, let’s celebrate all the rights we finally have through decades of fighting, but remember that we’re still not living in a utopia. There are LGBTQ+ people everywhere living in fear for many reasons. We still have a lot of work to do–for us, for our past selves, and for future generations. Marsha P. Johnson is just one of many people who died trying to help us get to where we are today.