Marsha P. Johnson was an activist and participant in the Stonewall Uprising. Famous for her wit and generosity, she and Sylvia Rivera founded an organization for Transwomen called Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR).
Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels in 1944 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Not content with her assigned gender as a man, she legally changed her name in 1966 when she moved to Greenwich Village in Manhattan, New York.
When she was hauled before the court for one of many brushes with the law, Marsha P. Johnson was asked by the presiding judge what the P stood for. “Pay it no mind,” she responded.
Johnson and her drag daughter, Sylvia Rivera, would hang out at the Stonewall Inn, a seedy bar on Christopher Street that allowed customers to dress in whatever gender they pleased. They were also present at the Stonewall Inn during the 1969 Stonewall Awakening, five days of unrest that occurred when a police raid of the bar met resistance. Some witnesses claim that Johnson started the uprising by yelling, “I’ve got my civil rights!” and throwing a shot glass against a mirror (what some called “the shot glass heard ‘round the world”). Others said that an unnamed lesbian in men’s clothing started it when a policewoman pushed her (or him) on the way to a waiting paddy wagon.
Whatever sparked the uprising, Johnson and Rivera were active participants from the start. For her part, Rivera was remembered that night for throwing coins at the police: “You already got the payoff,” she yell, “here’s some more” (referring to the bribes that law enforcement received in order to keep the Stonewall Inn open). Witnesses reported that the next evening, Johnson climbed up a light pole and dropped a heavy weight onto a police car.
The violent response to police oppression, however, did not result in any fatalities. The protesters did not shoot anyone or loot any shops, and the police (for the most part) showed remarkable restraint, considering the circumstances – four officers had been driven into the Stonewall Inn by bricks, bottles and as mentioned earlier, coins – and retaliation against the community could have been much worse. Nevertheless, the brunt of injuries were inflicted by the riot squad upon the protesters, some of whom suffered broken bones from severe beatings.
Soon after, Gay Liberation began in earnest. Johnson and Rivera founded an organization, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which operated a shelter for homeless drag queens and transwomen called STAR House.
Johnson continued to challenge the norms of the emerging gay discourse by her own behavior. She would panhandle for money and continue to engage in sex work, then subvert the criticism given to the homeless (she was homeless for various periods of her adult life) by giving her money and material goods to those who she felt needed them. She would pray in different houses of worship as well as make clothes offerings to Neptune by stripping and casting everything into the Hudson River. There are likewise reports of Johnson reverting back to Malcolm Michaels and threatening people with violence.
Nevertheless, the Gay community in Greenwich Village developed an appreciation for her idiosyncrasies. She was considered to be a street-smart saint, a holy woman who extended an unspoken blessing every time she asked for money, appeared bedecked in second-hand clothes with what sometime appeared a bouquet of flowers, tinsel, and Christmas lights in her hair, or was handcuffed by the police and taken once more to jail.