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The Life and Mysterious Death of Marsha P. Johnson

It's June, a time for reflecting on the past and how far our society has come. Mostly it's about corporations changing their logos on social media to be rainbow-themed. Don't be fooled, these corporations do not care about LGBTQ+ rights. What they care about is profit. Their logos remain unchanged in oppressive nations where being different is a crime.

Someone who did care, deeply, was Marsha P. Johnson. Marsha was a drag queen, trans rights activist, and apocryphal catalyst for the Stonewall riots. Who was she, and why has her mysterious death been ruled a suicide despite evidence pointing to homicide?

Early Life

Marsha was born as Malcolm Michaels Jr. on August 24, 1945, in New Jersey. Her father was an assembly worker at a General Motors factory. Malcolm's mother was a housekeeper. She didn't grow up wealthy, quite the opposite. With seven children to feed her parents were hard-pressed to provide for them all.

Their family was part of the Mount Teman African Methodist Episcopal Church. Unwieldy name aside, the church was in itself a groundbreaking endeavor. In 1816, Richard Allen founded the first Protestant denomination for African-Americans, by an African-American.

Marsha's parents were devout, and she had this to say about her time in the church:

"I got married to Jesus Christ when I was sixteen years old, still in high school."

Marsha P. Johnson

When she was a five-year-old boy, she started wearing dresses. This stopped when the neighborhood boys began making fun of young Malcolm. Her childhood wasn't all hymns and happy Sundays. In a 1992 interview, Marsha told of how she was raped at a very young age by an older boy.

Marsha couldn't fathom a reality where she could be gay while living in New Jersey. It wasn't until she went to New York that she entertained the possibility of living a life true to who she was. Her mother would say, 'being homosexual is like being "lower than a dog"'.

Malcolm Michaels Jr. left home at the age of 17. Traveling to New York, and transforming into Marsha P. Johnson along the way.

A Drag Queen by Any Other Name

Today, historians and those who knew her in life refer to her as a transgender woman. Marsha never self-identified as transgender. Referring to herself as a Drag Queen, transvestite, or gay person. The term transgender wasn't really in use back then, so the issue is open to speculation. Marsha was dismissive when questioned about gender. She famously responded to such questions by saying:

"Pay it no mind."

Marsha P. Johnson

'Pay it no mind' is also what the P in Marsha P. Johnson is supposed to stand for.

When she left New Jersey she had $15 to her name and high hopes for the future. She got a job waiting tables in Greenwich village in 1966. At the time it was the cradle of the growing LGBTQ+ community. Today it is one of the most expensive places to live in New York.

Marsha fell in with the street workers who frequented the corners near the restaurant she was working at. This exposure to another way of living was what made Malcolm realize that she didn't have to live a lie. She came out and was soon involved in sex work:

"My life has been built around sex and gay liberation, being a drag queen"

Marsha P. Johnson

Initially, she changed her name to "Black Marsha", but soon abandoned it for the more formal, Marsha P. Johnson. The surname comes from Howard Johnson's restaurant. The Howard Johnson hotel chain had been very active in the civil rights movement.

Being a sex worker was an incredibly dangerous job. Unfortunately, it was one of the few opportunities open to the queer youth in the 60s. Marsha had to spend time alone with strangers, in their cars or hotel rooms. Clients would often threaten her with weapons. She was even shot once.

Sex work is no less dangerous today. Despite being the oldest profession, there is still a stigma surrounding it. Prostitution is illegal in most places, forcing sex workers to work with dangerous criminals. When a sex worker goes missing, regardless of country, the police are less likely to investigate. This is part of the phenomenon of the 'Less Dead'.

Drag Style - Drag Mother

Marsha P. Johnson at a march

Marsha lived hard. She spent her nights on the street, in movie theaters, in hotel rooms, or if she was lucky, on a friend's couch. Most of her money came from sex work, though she waited tables when she could and performed in drag shows.

Her drag-style wasn't "High Drag". Expensive and elaborate outfits were out of her price range. She salvaged what she could and relied on the kindness of others. Marsha was often seen wearing a crown of fresh flowers in her hair. These flowers were salvaged after nights spent sleeping under sorting tables at the flower market in Manhattan.

Soon after her own arrival in New York at the age of 17, Marsha met an 11-year-old who had taken to the streets as well. Sylvia Rivera was abandoned just before her 11th birthday by a grandmother who disapproved of her grandson's effeminate behavior. Her mother had committed suicide when she was three, and her father had abandoned her early on. Sylvia became a child prostitute to survive.

Marsha took Sylvia under her wing and taught her how to survive on the streets. She also taught Sylvia to love herself for who she was. Acceptance is a powerful thing, and Sylvia found it in Marsha and the rest of the community.

Stonewall - Another Brick in the Mirror

Rudy - Remembering Stonewall (Stonewall riots quote)

In the early hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, the police conducted an abusive raid. This was one of many such raids conducted by the police during that era. Being gay was a crime, and the New York State Liquor Authority had decided to crack down on gay clubs. They argued that the congregation of queer individuals was an example of disorderly conduct and deserved to be punished.

This persecution made being gay very difficult. When things are outlawed it doesn't reduce people's use or need thereof. Gay bars were illegal, so they were inevitably run by criminal organizations. The Genovese crime family owned and ran most of the gay clubs in Greenwich Village. Among those clubs run by the Genoveses, was Stonewall Inn.

Despite the bribes paid to the police by the Genovese family, they were still raided that night. Police came busting in, flailing batons, frisking bar patrons, and assaulting others. Usually, the Genovese family would be tipped off to a raid by crooked cops before it happened. Not this time.

Drag queens were taken into the bathroom by female officers to have their gender checked. You see, there was a law called the gender-appropriate clothing statute which meant that dressing ambiguously could get you locked up. Thirteen people were arrested during this brutal raid.

Instead of dispersing, the patrons gathered outside the bar. They were growing increasingly agitated and the police were responding with all the calm authority of a coked-up chimpanzee. Things popped off when a lesbian woman was smashed over the head by an officer trying to force her into his vehicle. She cried out for help and her community responded by throwing pennies, bottles, and stones at the police. Things escalated from there and soon there was a full-blown riot to contend with.

Marsha was one of the people drawn to the riot later on. This is in contrast to the myth of Stonewall that had Marsha throw the first bottle that shattered the mirror behind the bar. She didn't start the riot, but she was there to support it. She fought on the front lines of the Stonewall riots.

Some police officers were trapped inside of the Stonewall Inn as the riot raged on outside. Rioters attempted to get at the officers who had barricaded themselves inside. Frustration soon led to attempts to burn the bar down with the police trapped inside. This would have been an ironic turn of events considering that the laws which made gay bars illegal also led to the illegal bars not being up to code. Stonewall Inn had no running water and no fire escape, the perfect death trap. Fortunately the arson attempt failed, there were still some allies trapped inside with the cops.

The riots died down eventually, but protests carried on for five more days. While the Stonewall riots were not the true beginning of the gay rights movement, it did serve as a spark for renewed vigor in the movement. Soon there were many new organizations fighting for rights. That fight still continues to this day all across the world. Despite great leaps forward in equality, much of the world remains openly hostile to anyone showing signs of being different.

The Gay Liberation Front

Marsha fought on the frontlines of the riots. Most stories from those five days are apocryphal and cannot be definitively proven. Like the story of Marsha climbing a lamp pole and dropping a heavy purse onto a police car and smashing its windshield. Whatever the truth is, Marsha was changed after the riots. She had always been a caring person, but now she dedicated herself to fighting for gay rights:

"Darling, I want my gay rights now. I think it’s about time the gay brothers and sisters got their rights . . . especially the women."

-Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha joined the Gay Liberation Front as part of their GLF Drag Queen Caucus. She struggled with how the movement and conversation seemed to only focus on gay and lesbian white people in the community. Trans people were more likely to end up on the streets or be abused by the police after all. During those years Drag Queens weren't widely accepted by the rest of the LGBTQ+ community, either. Unlike today, where Queens like RuPaul rule the world.

"No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.”

Marsha P. Johnson

Sylvia proposed a new organization to Marsha. One to protect the trans youth living on the streets. They formed the Street Transvestite Activist Revolutionaries (STAR) which would focus on offering housing for homeless trans people. Their first shelter was in the back of an abandoned truck in Greenwich Village. Marsha and Sylvia fed the 24 people in their shelter with their own money. This money came from their sex work.

Soon enough hardship would find STAR again. The truck which they had thought to be abandoned was in fact not. Marsha and Sylvia arrived in the morning to see the truck pulling away, forcing the 24 young people inside to leap from the moving vehicle. They had to find a better home.

Renting and renovating a dilapidated building worked out well for 8 months until they couldn't afford the rent anymore. This is in spite of the fact that they had slowly been improving the conditions inside. They may have gentrified the building out of their own price range.

Eventually, STAR had no housing to offer to the young people on the streets. They continued the fight to be heard in the conversation about gay rights which was becoming very white and excluded those who were gender non-conforming or trans. Eventually, the organizers of the Pride parade tried to ban STAR from attending, but they showed up anyway.

Marsha crossed paths with Andy Warhol in 1975. He photographed her for his series titled 'Ladies and Gentleman'. When Marsha took her friends to go see the print in a gallery, the owner of the gallery had her thrown out, calling her riffraff.

Death of 'Saint Marsha'

All throughout the Greenwich Village community, Marsha was known as Saint Marsha. She had done so much despite having so little. Life had truly kicked her in the teeth. Marsha had been arrested over 100 times, she had been shot, beaten up, and eventually, she contracted AIDS. Marsha believed that no one should have to do sex work to survive, but she knew no other way to live.

Marsha P. Johnson was found floating face down in the Hudson River on July 6th, 1992. There was evidence, found years later, that she had suffered a terrible blow to the back of the head. Police at the time refused to perform an autopsy or even investigate. They ruled her death a suicide and washed their hands of the whole affair. Cops being cops, they were probably just happy to be rid of another civil rights leader.

Marsha's friends were outraged, but there was little that they could do about it. Their friend fits firmly into the category of the 'Less Dead', so her death wasn't worth investigating to the police. Much easier to dismiss it as a suicide. After all, sex workers, gay people, and trans people were dying all the time, and the police saw nothing strange about that.

Her case was reopened in 2012 by the New York City Police Department. The case remains unsolved to this day.


Today the trans community has achieved some recognition in mainstream society. Their rights have been on the backburner of the LGBTQ+ movement for most of its existence. Marginalized within an already marginalized community. While discussion of transgender issues remains an incredibly complex task, one fact rings true throughout: We are all human.

“I’ll always be known [for] reaching out to young people who have no one to help them out, so I help them out with a place to stay or some food to eat or some change for their pocket. And they never forget it. A lot of times I’ve reached my hand out to people in the gay community that just didn’t have nobody to help them when they were down and out.”



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