If you know anything about Marsha P. Johnson, you definitely know that she was a key figure in the 1969 Stonewall Riots. However, while that was a huge part of her legacy, and always will be, there is so much more to her story than Stonewall.
Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson was the fifth of seven children, and was born on August 24th, 1945, in the town of Elizabeth, New Jersey. Her father worked on the assembly line at a General Motors factory, and her mother was a housekeeper. She grew up going to a Methodist Episcopal Church, and continued to go to different places of worship throughout her life. After graduating high school, she immediately moved out to New York City with, as Johnson put it, “$15 and a bag of clothes.” She remained in extreme poverty throughout her whole adult life, often being homeless as well. To make money, she became a sex-worker and performed with a drag group called the Hot Peaches. Due to her sex work, she often got arrested, even going as far as being shot in the 1970s. In regards to her arrest record, Johnson once stated she “stopped counting after the 100th time.”
Johnson also was, as many people already know, a devout activist. This fierce spirit is what led her, at only 23 years old, to be such a big part of the Stonewall Riot. On June 28th, 1969, New York City police raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn, which is on the lower west side of Manhattan. This was not an uncommon occurrence, as public same-sex dancing was illegal at the time, and the State Liquor Authority banned bars from serving LGBTQ+ people alcoholic beverages. However, on this particular night, the people in the Stonewall Inn were fed up, and fought back against the police, throwing bricks and resisting arrest. Some say Johnson was the person who threw the first brick, but this is a claim she has adamantly denied.
Her activist lifestyle had only just begun - in her lifetime, she worked on behalf of homeless LGBTQ+ youth who were rejected from their families, advocated for those with HIV and AIDS later in life, and was a voice for prisoner’s rights. Johnson co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which advocated for, housed, clothed and fed young transgender people. In addition, STAR supported sexual liberation and pushed to align gay rights with other social movements.
Sadly, on July 6th, 1992, Johnson’s body was pulled out of the Hudson River. Her death was quickly ruled as a suicide, but after friends and admirers of Johnson questioned authorities, they reclassified the case to “drowning from undetermined causes.” However, in 2012, the NYPD agreed to take another look at the case, and as of right now it remains open and unsolved. Marsha P. Johnson’s memory should always be attributed with action. She was a multiple-issue-activist, and NEAT invites anyone reading this to remember that every voice counts, and you too can make a difference!