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Who was Marsha P. Johnson? | The Unforgotten

By youngvicstaff 11 Sep 2020

Marsha P. Johnson, 2017. ©Netflix/courtesy of Everett Collection Inc & Alamy Stock Photo.


Marsha P. Johnson

(Elizabeth, New Jersey, 1945 – New York, 1992)

Marsha P. Johnson's remarkable life-story, her gay & trans liberation and AIDS activism, and drag performance career make her a defining figure in the LGBTQ+ rights movement of the 20th century – not only in the United States, but as an icon with an international appeal and impact.

Born in 1945, Johnson grew up in a religious household in post-war New Jersey, and left for New York penniless at the age of 17. In the gay scene of Greenwich Village in the mid-1960s, Johnson became a visible and popular presence. Johnson adopted her drag queen name with the middle initial 'P' standing for 'Pay it no mind' - her response when asked about gender.

In 1969, the Stonewall Riots broke out, a series of spontaneous demonstrations against police raids on gay bars and against anti-gay legislation of the time. Johnson was one of the first to participate in the heated fightback against police and subsequently joined the Gay Liberation Front. In her unique and often brightly coloured and flower-adorned outfits, Johnson became a recognizable presence at the burgeoning LGBTQ+ liberation marches of the early 1970s. Even more so when, banned from participating in one for fear of drag queens giving the demonstrations a negative image, Johnson defiantly marched in front of it.

With a fellow transgender rights activist, Johnson set up Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries or STAR, and established a shelter for gay and trans youth. Johnson continued her activism in the 1980s with ACT UP, a grassroots advocacy group for people living with AIDS.

Apart from her prolific activism, Johnson is best known for her involvement in New York's drag performance circuit and arts scene. She modelled for Andy Warhol, she sang with drag performance collective Hot Peaches, and later joined The Angels of Light, an avant-garde theatre group.

Johnson died in 1992 at the age of 46; her body was found in New York's Hudson river. With police reluctant to investigate anti-gay and anti-trans violence, Johnson's cause of death remains undetermined. To this day, her activism, her performances and her style intrigue and inspire. The subject of multiple documentaries and fictionalized dramas, Johnson is seen as a trailblazer in LGBTQ+ emancipation.

Image: Marsha P. Johnson, 2017. ©Netflix/courtesy of Everett Collection Inc & Alamy Stock Photo.