Women’s History Month: Marsha P Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson was a transgender woman who was honored with the title “Stonewall instigator”.  She was a drag queen and a revolutionary LGBTQ rights activist. She also once modeled for Andy Warhol.  She was very outspoken for trans people of color, being a voice for those who could not lift their own voices.  In 1969, she and Sylvia Rivera created STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) to help transgender youth who were homeless in NYC.

As interesting as it seems, organized crime found a lucrative business in the NYC LGBTQ community of the 60s.  The Genovese family controlled the majority of gay establishments in Greenwich Village.   In 1966 they bought a building, did a cheap reno on the structure and then reopened it as a gay bar (Stonewall Inn) a year later.   Thinking of the difficulties facing the LGBQT community in modern times, I cannot begin to imagine the more difficult times of the 60s.  Gay bars and clubs were a form of refuge for this community, a place of acceptance where they could feel safe and be who they were without fear of hate.  The NY State Liquor Authority would discriminate against these safe spaces by saying that anyone who was LGBTQ or anyone who would serve alcohol to LGBTQ were considered “disorderly”.  The Genovese family had bribed the NYC Police Department’s Sixth Precinct to ignore the establishment and its patronage.  It was considered a BYOB type of club which allowed them to skate around the need for a liquor license.  Now don’t start looking at the Mob as if they were the guardian angels of the gays of the greater NYC community.  They most definitely were not.  The establishment had no running water behind the bar, the toilets were regularly overflowing and the “Family” routinely blackmailed the more prominent patrons who wished to keep their orientation quiet.  The one thing that allowed Stonewall to stand out was its acceptance of the Drag Queens who were sometimes not accepted at other gay bars in the area.  Also, they allowed dancing.

On June 28, 1969, NYC police raided Stonewall Inn. The crime-family was not given their normal “heads up” to allow them to hide “disorderly” conduct and activities.  With warrant in hand, cops entered Stonewall and found bootleg booze and people violating NY State’s “gender appropriate clothing statute”.  They were brutal in their attack and in the end arrested thirteen people.  As the events of the evening unfolded a group of people from other bars, people who lived in the area and passersby all gathered outside of the club.  As their numbers grew, so did their rage as they watched the treatment of the patrons.  Years of discrimination upon their shoulders became too much to bear.  As a lesbian was beaten while being forced into the police van, she called out to the crowd to act.  And, act they did.  The crowd began throwing things at the police.  Within a few minutes it ramped up into a full on riot.  In a twist of irony, the cops tried to lock themselves in the bar for their own safety while outside the fury grew.  Rioters tried to set fire to the bar but the flames were extinguished by the NYFD and riot cops.

(A link for a PBS article on anti-cross-dressing laws can be found: HERE.)

A number of people recall Marsha in the crowd as one of the main instigators of the uprising.  Because of her fearless nature in the face of discrimination, some call her the vanguard of the gay liberation movement in the United States.

President Barack Obama designated the site (Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park), and the surrounding area (including the sidewalks) a national monument for the contributions to gay and human rights.

Marsha was born in Elizabeth NJ on August 24, 1945.  She experienced a rough childhood in a Christian home.  Cross-dressing at an early age, she found herself severely reprimanded.  She found her way to Greenwich Village once she graduated high school.  There her struggles became amplified.  She did not have the financial resources needed to live in the area and found herself homeless.  During that time she would prostitute herself to make ends meet.  To get through her struggles she would find joy dancing as a drag queen on Christopher Street.  She was known for her costumes, many of which she, herself, designed using items found in thrift stores.  She was affectionately known as a “drag mother”, helping the younger people of the community who struggled or found themselves homeless.  She toured the world successfully with Hot Peaches.

On July 6, 1992, her body was found in the Hudson River close to the west Village piers.  NYPD ruled it a suicide although her friends and the community were very vocal that she was not suicidal.  In 2017 Victoria Cruz of the NYC Anti-Violence Project (AVP) re-opened the case.  Everyone who knew her, loved her, admired her – consider it murder (to this day).

If you would like to know more about Marsha, the following links might be useful to you:


Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson

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