Activist and drag queen, Marsha P. Johnson, was one of the first people to call for action following the Stonewall Riots in 1969. Johnson was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front (GFL) and later co-founded the S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) organization, alongside Sylvia Rivera.
Johnson and Rivera, close friends for years, felt that the needs of LGBTQ youth were not being taken care of by existing queer activism groups – especially trans youth of color.
When Johnson started performing in drag, she originally called herself ‘Black Marsha’. She decided to change it to ‘Marsha P. Johnson’ after the Howard Johnson restaurant on 42nd Street in New York City, NY. The ‘P’, she said, stood for “pay it no mind.”
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She identified as a gay, trans drag queen, and said this to a judge once when she was arrested for dressing in feminine clothing. It humored the judge, and she was let go.
She was known for her shiny dresses, red plastic heals, bright wigs and the flowers that she placed in her hair.
When the Stonewall Inn started allowing women and drag queens into their bar, Johnson was one of the first people to go. Before this, only gay men were allowed inside. Following the riots, Johnson was one of the first people to join the GFL. On the first anniversary of the riots in 1970, Johnson marched alongside fellow activists in the first Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally.
In 1973, pride committees in New York stated that drag queens would no longer be allowed to participate in parades. The committee claimed that drag queens, like Johnson and Rivera, were “giving them a bad name.”
In response to this, Johnson and Rivera marched in front of the entire parade. Diana Davies, a reporter who photographed several Pride parades in the ’70s, asked Johnson why drag queens were demonstrating at the parade. “Darling, I want my gay rights now!” she replied.
Johnson died in 1992 under mysterious circumstances after drowning in the Hudson River. She has continued to be an icon for LGBTQ advocacy and progress.
New York City announced this week that they would be erecting a monument to Johnson and Rivera to honor their lives and activism.