Black History Month is a very important part of our lives. Every year, we take this month and do our best as a society to honor the millions of African American lives that were taken throughout the years. We also take time to educate ourselves and thank the many activists who changed our lives for the better. Therefore, in honor of Black History Month, Pride Palace would like to thank and honor one of the best and bravest African American and Queer activists of our time: Marsha P. Johsnon.
Born in 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson was the fifth of seven children in her family. She got her education through the Elizabeth Public School System, graduating from Thomas A. Edison High School in 1963. Johnson proceeded to relocate to New York with a mission to discover herself.
In New York, Johnson turned to prostitution as a way to survive. Soon, she was able to find an amicable community within the nightlife of Greenwich Village. A self-made drag queen, Johnson found happiness as she was famous for her unique design and costume creation. During this self-discovery time, she was referred to as Malcolm and Black Marsha. She then settled on Marsha P Johnson, the “P” standing for “Pay It No Mind.” With time, Johnson started serving as a “drag mother” by helping homeless and struggling LGBTQ youth. This allowed her to become a prominent fixture in the LGBTQ community.
What many people don’t know is that Marsha P. Johnson struggled with mental illness. It was almost impossible to notice that, as she had a deep, meaningful way of putting others’ needs before her own. She also remained in communication with her family and often went back home to New Jersey to visit. When going back home, Johnson would invite numerous wayward people to join her and her family for a hot meal. Of course, she would never visit her family empty-handed; she would bring her nieces and nephews trinkets and her mother flowers. Clearly, Marsha P. Johnson’s family was very important and meaningful to her.
Johnson’s nature and strength led her to speak out against injustices and mistreatment of the LGBTQ community. On June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, things turned violent after members of the LGBTQ community were harassed by the NYPD sixth precinct. This riot is very famous in history as one of the galvanizing forces for LGBTQ political acitivism at that time. Marsha P. Johnson was identified as one of the main instigators of the uprising. Furthermore, some have recognized her as the vanguard of the gay liberation movement in the United States.
Following the Stonewall riot, Johnson and her friend Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). STAR was created with the mission to provide shelter and food to homeless LGBTQ youth in New York City, Chicago, California, and England for a few years in the early 1970s. Although it eventually disbanded, their impact was huge. Johnson and Rivera became fixtures in the community, helping hundreds of homeless transgender youth.
On July 6th, 1992, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River off the West Village Piers. The police ruled she had committed suicide despite claims from her friends and other members of the local community that she was not suicidal. Many believe she was murdered. Twenty-five years later, Victoria Cruz, a crime victim advocate of the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP) re-opened the case.
Nowadays, Marsha P. Johnson is considered one of the most respected and inspiring icons in LGBTQ+ history. Her actions and words continue to inspire trans activism and resistance all over the world. She has been celebrated in a series of books, documentaries, and films. If you would like to know more about Johnson’s story, we recommend the following films: Pay It No Mind: Marsha P. Johnson (2012), The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017) and Happy Birthday, Marsha! (2018). Pride Palace thanks Marsha P. Johnson and the many other LGBTQ+ activists of our time for their effort and dedication to the community. Happy Black History Month, everyone!
Written by Paloma Pinto