BHM Heroes: Marsha P. Johnson

During the month of February, BRTW ensemble members are selecting personal Black heroes to highlight everyday. These heroes may have spoken the magic words that first made them see their Black beauty, the people who inspired them to become artists, or even the person who taught them how to make proper mixed greens.

Marsha P. Johnson was a legendary woman- a drag queen, mentor and activist in the New York City gay scene. She was born Malcolm Michaels, a name given to her at birth in Elizabeth New Jersey on August 24th, 1945. Upon moving to New York City she began using both female pronouns and officially adopted the name Marsha P. Johnson (the P stood for “Pay it no mind,” a testament to Johnson’s resilience). From then on Johnson would put on and take off the Malcolm name like a coat- living most of her life as Marsha and “she” but then other times going out as “he.”

Johnson soon became a fixture in 1960’s Greenwich Village, performing in eccentric drag attire with the troupe Hot Peaches. Her friends included fellow trans activist Sylvia Rivera and artist Andy Warhol, who photographed her (see photo above).

Marsha’s activism was sparked June 29, 1969 when police committed one of their semi-regular raids of gay bar The Stonewall Inn. As they began to round up and antagonize the LGBTQ patrons a riot broke out. Accounts vary, but some say it was Marsha who threw the first brick- an act that began not just this particular riot but that led to the formation of the modern gay rights movement. She and Rivera became leaders in this movement, speaking out for trans women and forming Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), where Johnson earned her third name: that of “queen mother” to the homeless gay and trans youths she helped feed, clothe and shelter. She also found time to join groups such as the Gay Liberation Front and AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) an activist group dedicated to raising awareness of, improving treatment against, legislating fair treatment for victims of and ultimately eradicating HIV/AIDS.

Marsha P. Johnson was declared dead on July 6, 1992. Her body was found in the Hudson River and was initially ruled a suicide. Her friends suspected foul play, however, and the case was reopened in 2012.

If you’d like to learn more about this unsung hero, check out the acclaimed documentary Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson. 

RIP, Marsha.

Mieko Gavia,

Producing Ensemble Member