Marsha P. Johnson was a transwoman activist and drag queen who, nearly 48 years ago, began the historic Stonewall Riots. “Marsha said ‘I got my civil rights,” then threw a shot glass into a mirror, and that started the whole thing,” reported David Carter, activist and author of Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution. “It became known as the shot glass heard around the world.”
Her actions sparked the first act of gay resistance to police brutality. Riots ensued on the streets outside Stonewall Inn for days; the first LGBT pride parades were born, along with the modern gay, lesbian, and transgender movement.
At the time, however, the LGBT community wasn’t always accepting of transgender individuals or people of color. At a Gay Pride Parade in 1978, the organizers tried to exclude drag queens and trans people. But Marsha, along with her friend and fellow trans activist Sylvia Riviera, just marched up to the front to look like they were the ones leading it.
In Greenwich Village, Marsha was a beloved member of the community. Neighbors remember her elaborate, colorful outfits, where she wore flowers, trinkets, and even Christmas lights in her hair. She walked up and down the streets greeting everyone. She’d ask for money on the street and then give it to someone who needed it more. With Sylvia, she founded STAR: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, providing food and a shelter for homeless transgender individuals. She joined the Gay Liberation Front and worked in ACT UP. People called her Queen Mother, and Saint Marsha. (She also posed for Andy Warhol in a polaroid series on drag queens.)
Marsha died mysteriously in 1992, when her body was found in the Hudson river. Originally ruled a suicide by police and thus not investigated further, her close friends insisted she was not suicidal–instead, they believe she was murdered. Earlier in the day, witnesses saw her being harassed by a group of people. She had also previously been thrown into the river at least once by harassers. A full investigation was never conducted, but in 2012, the cause of death was changed from “Suicide” to “Undetermined.”
When people would ask Marsha what the P initial stood for, she’d tell them “Pay it no mind.” She began saying this, too, when people inquired about her gender. As we wrap up Pride Month, let’s continue to honor all those who have fought for LGBT rights, no matter what color or gender they identify with (if at all)–and, especially, those who have been excluded from the narrative.