Marsha P. Johnson

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Marsha P. Johnson
A photo of Marsha P. Johnson.png
Born Malcolm Michaels, Jr.
24 Aug 1945[1][2]
Elizabeth, New Jersey, United States
Died July 6, 1992(1992-07-06) (aged 46)
New York City, New York, United States
Occupation AIDS Activist, Gay Activist, Transgender Activist, Drag Queen

Marsha P. Johnson (August 24, 1945[1][2] – July 6, 1992) was an African American drag queen[3][4][5] and gay liberation activist. A veteran of the Stonewall riots, Johnson was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey and was a popular figure in New York City's gay and art scene from the 1960s to the 1990s.[3] Later in life she became an AIDS activist with ACT UP.[3]

Social action[edit]

One of the city's best known drag queens[3][4] and street queens,[3][4] Johnson has been identified as one of the first to fight back in the clashes with the police amid the Stonewall riots.[6][7] In the early 1970s, Johnson and close friend Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR); together they were a visible presence at gay liberation marches and other radical political actions.[3] In the 1980s Johnson continued her street activism as a respected organizer and marshall with ACT UP. With Rivera, Johnson was a "mother" of STAR House, getting together food and clothing to help support the young drag queens, trans women and other street kids living on the Christopher Street docks or in their house on the Lower East Side of New York.[8]

Once, appearing in a court the judge asked Marsha, "What does the 'P' stand for?", Johnson gave her customary response "Pay it No Mind."[3] This phrase became her trademark. In 1974 Marsha P. Johnson was photographed by famed artist Andy Warhol, as part of a "ladies and gentlemen" series of polaroids featuring drag queens.[7] Johnson was also a member of Warhol's drag queen performance troupe, Hot Peaches (which has been compared to the similar, San Francisco troupe, The Cockettes).[9]


In July 1992, Johnson's body was found floating in the Hudson River off the West Village Piers shortly after the 1992 Pride March.[3] Police ruled the death a suicide.[7] Johnson's friends and supporters said she was not suicidal,[10][11] and a people's postering campaign later declared that Johnson had earlier been harassed near the spot where her body was found. Initial attempts to get the police to investigate the cause of death were unsuccessful.[3] After lobbying by activist Mariah Lopez, in November 2012 the New York police department re-opened the case as a possible homicide.[12]


Only two days before her death, Johnson was interviewed extensively about her life. The interview forms the core of the 2012 documentary, Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson, directed by Michael Kasino and Richard Morrison.[3] Also interviewed are many of Johnson's closest friends. Johnson is honoured by them as saintly, as a deeply spiritual person who attended every church and temple, who gave away what little she had to help others on the streets, and who made Santeria-influenced offerings to the spirits of the waters that surround and run through New York City.[3] She is honored as a queen, a veteran activist, and a survivor.[3]

New York City baroque pop band Antony and the Johnsons was named in Johnson's honor,[8] and their eponymous 1998 album features a song called "River of Sorrow," which is inspired by Johnson and her death. The song is featured in the documentary.[3]

A character based on Johnson appears in the film, Stonewall,[13] a drama inspired by the Stonewall riots. She is played by Otoja Abit.[14]

Happy Birthday, Marsha! is a short film about Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, set in the hours before the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City.


As is the case with many drag queens, street queens, femme gay men and radical faeries of the era, Johnson's friends usually used "she/her" pronouns for Johnson.[3][5] But Johnson did not take affront at male pronouns, either, especially if used by close friends and comrades.[3][10][15] Johnson's concept of her gender identity varied throughout her life. In the early 1970s, Johnson simultaneously identified as a "gay transvestite" and considered surgical transition,[16] the latter of which she ultimately rejected, saying two days before her death, "I'm a man."[3] For the most part, Johnson had the same personality no matter how she was dressed, though there were also times when Johnson would strongly assert a male identity.[8][17] "Although generous and warm-hearted, Marsha also experienced bouts of mental illness and infrequent violent outbursts that sometimes found expression in her 'male persona as Malcolm.'"[17][18]

"Marsha rose above being a man or a woman, rose above being black or white, rose above being straight or gay" - Journalist Randy Wicker (Johnson's close friend and roommate)[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007, Death, Burial, Cemetery & Obituaries: "Michaels, Malcolm Jr [Malcolm Mike Michaels Jr], [M Michae Jr], [Malculm Jr]. SSN: 147346493. Gender: Male. Race: Black. Birth Date: 24 Aug 1945. Birth Place: Elizabeth, Union, New Jersey [Elizabeth, New Jersey]. Death Date: Jul 1992. Database on-line. Provo, UT, USA:"
  2. ^ a b Scan of Birth Certificate. Accessed Sep 10, 2015
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p "Feature Doc 'Pay It No Mind: The Life & Times of Marsha P. Johnson' Released Online. Watch It". Indiewire. December 26, 2012. Retrieved February 17, 2015. 
  4. ^ a b c Feinberg, Leslie (September 24, 2006). Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Workers World Party. "Stonewall combatants Sylvia Rivera and Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson... Both were self-identified drag queens."
  5. ^ a b Randy Wicker Interviews Sylvia Rivera on the Pier. Event occurs at 8:24.  September 21, 1995. Accessed July 24, 2015.
  6. ^ Carter, David (2004). Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution. St. Martin's. ISBN 0-312-20025-0. 
  7. ^ a b c Feinberg, Leslie (1996). Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Boston: Beacon Press. p. 131. ISBN 0-8070-7941-3. 
  8. ^ a b c "Marsha P. Johnson (1944 - 1992) Activist, Drag Mother." A Gender Variance Who's Who. May 2, 2009. Under Creative Commons License: Attribution
  9. ^ "Feature Doc 'Pay It No Mind: The Life & Times of Marsha P. Johnson' Released Online. Watch It". Indiewire. December 26, 2012. Retrieved February 11, 2015.  27:15
  10. ^ a b Wicker, Randolfe (1992) "Bennie Toney 1992".  Accessed July 26, 2015.
  11. ^ Wicker, Randolfe (1992) "Marsha P Johnson - People's Memorial".  Accessed July 26, 2015.
  12. ^ Jacobs, Shayna (2012-12-16). "DA reopens unsolved 1992 case involving the 'saint of gay life'". New York Daily News. Retrieved 2015-06-15. 
  13. ^ Stonewall Clip "Marsha P. Johnson" In Theaters September 25, 2015, RoadsideFlix, YouTube. Accessed Sep 10, 2015.
  14. ^ Otoja Abit at the Internet Movie Database. Accessed Sep 10, 2015.
  15. ^ Wicker, Randolfe (1992) "Marsha P Johnson - People's Memorial". Event occurs at 14:00.  Accessed July 26, 2015.
  16. ^ "Rapping With a Street Transvestite Revolutionary" in Out of the closets : voices of gay liberation. Douglas, c1972. p. 112.
  17. ^ a b Cohen, Stephan (2007). The Gay Liberation Youth Movement in New York: 'An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail'. London: Routledge. p. 16. ISBN 0-8070-7941-3. 
  18. ^ Carter, David (2004). Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-34269-1. pp.65-66.
  19. ^ Wicker, Randolfe (1992) "Marsha P Johnson - People's Memorial". Event occurs at 14:28.  Accessed July 26, 2015.

External links[edit]