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Marsha P Johnson: A Black Trans Pioneer and Activist

Today marks the beginning of #pridemonth, and this year it looks much different. Protests have broken out across the country as activists fight injustice and demand long term systemic change from our police force and government. As a minority owned media company, we stand with them.

Marsha P. Johnson was a black trans woman, activist, prostitute, drag performer, and Greenwich Village fixture who helped launch the Stonewall Riots of 1969, a series of violent protests that catalyzed the gay rights movement across America. She moved to New York with $15 an a bag of clothes, and was homeless without many resources for most of her life.

When Marsha passed away quite mysteriously in the summer of 1992, her death did not attract much press from the mainstream media; however, interest in her legacy has soared in recent years because of what she represented and the important movement that she spearheaded, which in turn saved the lives of many trans men, women and gender non-conforming people who followed in her footsteps.

Growing up in the 1950’s and ’60s was not an easy time to live beyond the mainstream. The persecution of queer people and criminalization of their activities was absolutely rampant in society. You could not even dance with members of the same sex, and most bars would not serve alcoholic beverages to gay patrons. Once she arrived in New York, Johnson began engaging in prostitution under a persona that later turned into her identity: Black Marsha. She was allegedly arrested over 100 times, and was even shot once in the 1970’s.

Marsha played an important role in the legendary raid at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar on Christopher Street, on the morning of June 28th, 1969. Often characterized as a “riot,” Johnson was on the frontlines of the many people who resisted police on that fateful day. From there, she helped legitimize and militarize the gay rights movement that led to tangible change in laws for queer people across the country. Her work helped catalyze the organization of the first gay pride parade in 1970. She also co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) which helped advocate for young transgender people who had no support from their families or their local government.

Marsha was also not afraid to strut her stuff. The outfits she donned – red plastic heels, glittering robes, chartreuse wigs, fruit in her hair – were often assembled from street collections and discarded costumes. She definitely commanded attention – and she got it. Andy Warhol took polaroids of Johnson in 1975 in a series of screen prints that depicted drag queens and transgender party-goers at a nightclub called The Gilded Grape.

However, her life did not come without hardship and daily struggle. She had a series of mental breakdowns in 1970 which eventually put her in psych wards on and off for the rest of her life. She was known for her charisma and effervescence, but was also known for her sporadic behavior and incessant wandering. Later in the ’80s and ’90s she became a staunch advocate for people with HIV and AIDS. In a 1992 interview, she said she had been HIV positive for two years already. A few days later, her body was pulled from the Hudson River. Her death was initially classified as a suicide, and then reclassified as a drowning from undetermined causes. 20 years later, the detectives took a fresh look at her case – it officially remains open as the cause of death is unknown.

Her whole life, Marsha P. Johnson fought an uphill battle, but she never gave up. So, as we honor #pride today as well as #blacklivesmatter, we also remember that the fight for justice and equality continues across the country and around the world.

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