Marsha P. Johnson

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Marsha P. Johnson
A photo of Marsha P. Johnson.png
Born Malcolm Michaels, Jr.
(1945-08-24)August 24, 1945[1][2]
Elizabeth, New Jersey, U.S.
Died July 6, 1992(1992-07-06) (aged 46)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Occupation AIDS Activist, Gay Activist, Transgender Activist, Drag Queen

Marsha P. Johnson (August 24, 1945[1][2] – July 6, 1992) was an American drag queen,[3][4][5] sex worker, 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 Johnson 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] 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 J. Camicia's international, NYC-based, GLBT performance troupe, Hot Peaches (which has been compared to the similar, San Francisco troupe, The Cockettes).[9][10]


In July 1992, shortly after the 1992 Pride March, Johnson's body was found floating in the Hudson River off the West Village Piers.[3] While police initially ruled the death a suicide,[7] Johnson's friends and other members of the local community insisted Johnson was not suicidal.[11][12] Several people came forward to say they had seen Johnson harassed by a group of "thugs" who had also robbed people.[11][12] Despite a people's postering campaign and vigils at the site where Johnson's body had been found, initial attempts to get the police to investigate the cause of death were unsuccessful.[3] In November 2012, activist Mariah Lopez finally succeeded in getting the New York police department to reopen the case as a possible homicide.[13]


Only ten days before her death, Johnson gave an extensive, filmed interview which 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 (led by Anohni) was named in Johnson's honor,[8] and their eponymous 1998 album features a song called "River of Sorrow," which is inspired by Johnson's death. The song is featured in the Pay it No Mind documentary.[3] In 1993 Anohni appeared in a play about Johnson and International Chrysis by the Hot Peaches,[10] the same theater group with whom Johnson had performed. Anohni also wrote and directed a play about Johnson, "The Ascension of Marsha P. Johnson" at the Pyramid in 1994 and at PS122 in 1995.[14]

A character based on Johnson appears in the film, Stonewall,[15] a drama inspired by the Stonewall riots. She is played by Otoja Abit.[16]

Happy Birthday, Marsha! is a short, experimental film about Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, set in the hours before the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, in which Johnson is portrayed by Independent Spirit Award-winning transgender actress Mya Taylor.


As was generally the case with drag queens, street queens, femme gay men and radical faeries in the interconnected subcultures of the era, Johnson's friends often used "she/her" pronouns for Johnson.[3][5] But this was not due to any insistence by Johnson; most people in these subcultures were addressed by "feminine" pronouns in that in-group vernacular, even if they were more masculine men/women.[3][5] Johnson did not insist on feminine pronouns or take affront at masculine pronouns.[3][11][17] However, at times Johnson would insist on being referred to by more "masculine" names and pronouns.[8][18]

Johnson's concept of gender identity varied over time and in different situations. In the early 1970s, Johnson simultaneously identified as a "gay transvestite" and briefly debated the options of surgical transition,[19] the latter of which Johnson ultimately rejected, saying in an interview on June 26, 1992 (ten days before death), "I'm a man."[3] For the most part, Johnson's personality was not based on wardrobe or makeup choices, even during the times when Johnson would strongly assert a "male" identity.[8][18] "Although generous and warm-hearted, Marsha also experienced bouts of mental illness and infrequent violent outbursts that sometimes found expression in his 'male persona as Malcolm.'"[18][20] Johnson struggled with homelessness, drug addiction, and the severe effects of untreated medical conditions including inadequate treatment for AIDS. Johnson lived a hard and complicated life, largely on the streets, doing whatever it took to survive.[3][5][8][18][20]

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 q r "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 c d 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 d e "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 NYC's Hot Peaches website. Accessed 23 Jan 2016.
  11. ^ a b c Wicker, Randolfe (1992) "Bennie Toney 1992".  Accessed July 26, 2015.
  12. ^ a b Wicker, Randolfe (1992) "Marsha P Johnson - People's Memorial".  Accessed July 26, 2015.
  13. ^ Jacobs, Shayna (2012-12-16). "DA reopens unsolved 1992 case involving the 'saint of gay life'". New York Daily News. Retrieved 2015-06-15. 
  14. ^ Blacklips Performance Cult Chronology of Plays. Accessed 23 Jan 2016.
  15. ^ Stonewall Clip "Marsha P. Johnson" In Theaters September 25, 2015, RoadsideFlix, YouTube. Accessed Sep 10, 2015.
  16. ^ Otoja Abit at the Internet Movie Database. Accessed Sep 10, 2015.
  17. ^ Wicker, Randolfe (1992) "Marsha P Johnson - People's Memorial". Event occurs at 14:00.  Accessed July 26, 2015.
  18. ^ a b c d 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. 
  19. ^ "Rapping With a Street Transvestite Revolutionary" in Out of the closets : voices of gay liberation. Douglas, c1972. p. 112.
  20. ^ a b Carter, David (2004). Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-34269-1. pp.65-66.

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