Story by Breona Couloote
Marsha P. Johnson was a trans black woman and gay liberation activist born on August 24, 1945, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Raised in a strict Christian household, she started wearing dresses at the age of 5 but quickly stopped after being bullied by neighborhood children.
“When I was 18 years old, my mother didn’t have to show me the door” recalls Marsha. ”I had my high school diploma and that’s all I needed and a bag full of clothes”. With $15 in her pocket, she moved to Greenwich Village and did everything she could to survive, including waiting tables and sex work. However, Marsha became well known for having a charismatic personality and a caring nature serving as a drag mother to homeless LGBTQ youth. When people asked about her gender, Marsha often referred to the P in her name as “pay it no mind”.
Trans women are oftentimes overlooked for their contributions to history. During the early gay rights movement, queer individuals put their lives on the line to freely express themselves and love who they wanted to love. In a time of increasing oppression of the female and gay figure, Marsha P. Johnson’s famous “shot glass heard around the world” created a worldwide revolution.
On the fateful night of June 28, 1969, Marsha and other LGBTQ youth were confronted by undercover police at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street. In the 1960s, serving gay people alcohol was illegal. Allegedly, she threw a shot glass at a mirror while yelling “I got my civil rights”. The Stonewall Riots became known as one of the first acts of rebellion in the gay liberation movement and as a result, The Pride March started in 1970 to remember the honorable actions at the Stonewall Inn.
Also in 1970, Marsha and Sylvia Rivera established STAR, Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries, to help homeless queer youth and it served as one of the first LGBTQ shelters in America. Being HIV positive, she was actively apart of ACT UP to fight the end of HIV and AIDS.
Tragically, on July 6, 1992, Marsha’s body was found on the surface of the Hudson River. The police ruled her death a suicide, however, an outcry from her friends and the LGBTQ community said that she was murdered.
This belief is not too far a stretch with HRC citing the death of transgender people, particularly transgender women of color is on the rise. “In 2017, advocates tracked at least 29 deaths of transgender people in the United States due to fatal violence, the most ever recorded.” The discrimination, prejudice, and violence faced by trans women are often more prolific that their accreditation to contemporary society.
In her honor, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute is launching in 2019. Its mission is to “create a crucial entry point for Black trans women and gender non-conforming femmes to obtain the skills, financial and programmatic resources necessary in advocating for an end to violence against all trans people.”