Marsha P. Johnson was born on August 24, 1944, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She was identified as male at birth. However, young Marsha enjoyed wearing clothing made for girls. After a boy sexually assaulted her, she stopped wearing the clothes she loved and felt most comfortable in.
After graduating high school, Marsha moved to New York City with only $15 and a bag of clothes. She began dressing almost exclusively in women’s clothes and adopted the full name Marsha P. Johnson. The “P” stood for “Pay It No Mind.” To her, this was a life motto and a response to questions about her gender.
Today, historians and former friends of Marsha describe her as a transwoman. During Marsha’s lifetime, the term transgender was not commonly used. Marsha described herself as a gay person, a transvestite, and a drag queen. She used she/her pronouns.
Marsha was part of a growing community of LGBTQ youth who sought acceptance in New York City. But in the 1950s and 1960s, LGBTQ people’s rights were strictly limited. For example, dancing with a person of the same sex as well as cross-dressing were illegal.
It was difficult for Marsha to find work. She realized that the fastest way to make money was to “hustle.” This meant working as a sex worker; The work, due to stigmatization of sex workers, was incredibly dangerous. Marsha was often alone with strangers in hotel rooms and cars. Sometimes, the strangers were violent. On multiple occasions, clients pulled guns on Marsha. Once, she was even shot.
Marsha spent most of her life without a permanent home. She slept in hotel rooms, restaurants, and movie theaters. She sometimes lived with friends. Even when she found work waiting tables or performing in drag shows, she still made most of her money as a sex worker.
Not long after arriving in New York, 17-year-old Marsha met 11-year-old Sylvia Rivera. Sylvia was a Puerto Rican transwoman who was also new to New York. The two became instant friends. Marsha taught Sylvia how to apply makeup, live on the street, and look out for trouble. She also encouraged Sylvia to love herself and her identity.
Marsha enjoyed expressing herself through her appearance. Her lavish outfits were often made from thrift store finds, gifts from friends, and items she found on the street. She also created and wore elaborate crowns of fresh flowers.
Marsha’s life dramatically changed when she found herself near the Stonewall Inn in the early hours of June 28, 1969. That night, police officers raided the gay bar. As the officers began to arrest people for violating various discriminatory laws, the patrons of the Stonewall fought back.
While there are many conflicting stories about the uprising’s start, it is clear that Marsha was on the front lines. In one account, she started the uprising by throwing a shot glass at a mirror. In another, she climbed a lamppost and dropped a heavy purse onto a police car, shattering the windshield. Young transwomen like Marsha were particularly vocal that night because they felt they had nothing to left to lose. Their rage was not just about the police. It was about the oppression and fear they felt every single day.
“Darling, I want my gay rights now. I think it’s about time the gay brothers and sisters got their rights . . . especially the women.”
The Stonewall uprising was an awakening for an entire generation of LGBTQ activists. Soon, Marsha was attending rallies, sit-ins, and meetings of the newly formed Gay Liberation Front. She was excited about the work but frustrated at how white gay men and lesbians dominated the conversation. She questioned where transgender people fit in. Transpeople were more likely to be homeless and targeted by police. The movement did not appreciate the extent to which transgender youth needed help and support.
In 1970, Sylvia came to Marsha with an idea. She wanted to protect young transpeople living on the street by giving them a home. She asked Marsha to help her create a place where they could feel safe, unite, and fight for their rights. Marsha and Sylvia later formed the Street Transvestite Activist Revolutionaries (STAR). The first STAR House was in the back of an abandoned truck in Greenwich Village. Nearly 24 young people called the truck home. Sylvia and Marsha hustled every night to make sure their new family had breakfast each morning.
One morning, they returned to the truck just as it was pulling away with STAR residents sleeping inside. Apparently, the truck was not abandoned after all. As they watched their “kids” jump from a moving truck, Marsha and Sylvia realized they needed a real home. They rented a dilapidated building with no electricity or running water. They fixed up the building and paid rent for nearly eight months. When they could no longer pay, they were evicted. But the impact of STAR had already been felt by many.
Even without lodgings, STAR provided a safe haven for people who had never had a place to call home. As the gay liberation movement became increasingly white, middle class, and cisgender, STAR reminded everyone that transgender and gender non-conforming people deserved equal rights too. When the organizers of the gay pride parade tried to ban STAR, they showed up anyway.
In 1975, artist Andy Warhol crossed paths with Marsha and photographed her for his Ladies and Gentleman series. When a Warhol screen-print of Marsha went on display in a Greenwich Village store, Marsha took some friends to see it. The store owners called her riffraff and threw her out.
Marsha’s whole life seemed to be a balance between popularity and exclusion. Throughout Greenwich Village, she was known as “Saint Marsha.” Locals admired her ability to truly be herself. Marsha had a reputation for being generous and kind. She gave people clothes and food, even though she had little of her own.
Despite her popularity, Marsha also lived a life of poverty and danger. She was arrested over 100 times. She believed no one should hustle or live on the streets, but she knew no other way to survive. In 1990, Marsha contracted AIDS. She spoke publicly about it and told people she hoped they would not be afraid of those who had the disease.
On July 6, 1992, Marsha’s body was found floating in the Hudson River. The police officers ruled her death a suicide. Marsha’s friends and acquaintances strongly disagreed. They thought it was more likely that Marsha was a victim of an attack. Transwomen, particularly women of color, were regular targets of hate crimes. The LGBTQ community was furious the police did not investigate her death. At Marsha’s funeral, hundreds of people showed up. The church was so full that the crowd spilled into the street.
The case involving Marsha’s death remained closed for decades. In 2012, the New York City Police Department finally agreed to re-open it, yet the case still remains unsolved. Since then, Marsha has become an icon of the transgender community. In 2019, New York City announced that a statue of Marsha and Sylvia would be the first monument to honor transwomen in the city. In 2020, New York State named a waterfront park in Brooklyn after Marsha.
AIDS: Acronym for Auto Immune Deficiency Disorder. An infectious disease that attacks a person’s immune system and can be difficult to treat.
cisgender: A person who identifies with the sex they were assigned at birth.
cross-dress: To wear clothes typically associated with a different sex and is most commonly used to describe men who wear make-up and women’s clothing.
drag queen: A performance artist who typically dresses up like a woman for entertainment purposes.
gay: A man attracted to men.
lesbian: A woman attracted to women.
LGBTQ: An acronym that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer and is an umbrella term for the community of people whose gender and sexual identities exist outside of heteronormative expectations.
transwoman: A person who was assigned male at birth but identifies as a woman.
transgender: A person who does not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. A term for all transmen and transwomen.
transvestite: A term to describe people who wear clothes designed for the opposite sex. While it was in use during Marsha’s life, this term is now considered offensive and has been replaced with other terminology, such as transgender.
Note: Marsha’s life story includes a large amount of vocabulary that may be unfamiliar to teachers and students. To learn more, check out the vocabulary resource guides from GLAAD: Transgender glossary and LGBTQ glossary.
Why did Marsha move to New York City? What challenges did she face there? What opportunities did she find?
Describe Marsha’s and Sylvia’s friendship. Why do you think they were so close?
What was STAR, and why was it so important?
What tensions existed within the gay liberation movement? How did Marsha feel about this?
What was Marsha’s role in the Stonewall uprising, and how did it shape the rest of her life?
How did Marsha embody her “Pay It No Mind” name?
What were the circumstances around Marsha’s death? What does this make you think and feel?
Why do you think Marsha’s life has started to gain more attention in recent years? What and who does she represent and why is this important?
Marsha was neither the first nor the last transwoman of color to be a victim of violence. Regardless of the true nature of her death, she was a victim of violence, including police brutality, throughout her life. Invite students to research recent activism around the extreme violence that transwomen of color continue to face. You may wish to start with a screening of The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson or a search for the Black Trans Lives Matter movement.
A few days before her death, Marsha gave an interview in which she joked about the recent installment of a monument outside the Stonewall Inn. She noted that many people had to die in order for “two statues” to be erected. Invite students to learn more about this monument and connect it to the life of Marsha P. Johnson. Why do they think Marsha had this attitude? Do they believe the monument is an appropriate homage to this event and community?
Invite students to research the ways in which Marsha’s legacy is being remembered today. Encourage them to search for articles about the Marsha and Sylvia statue in New York City, Marsha P. Johnson state park in Brooklyn, and more. Ask them to think about the kind of monument or memorial they would want to create for Marsha, based on her life story.
AMERICAN IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP; ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE