- Marsha P Johnson struggled with poverty, made ends meet as a sex worker and was persecuted as an LGBT+ person of color. But she fought to help others.
New York is to rename a seven-acre park overlooking the Manhattan skyline after Stonewall hero Marsha P Johnson.
Johnson was a trans woman of color, a drag queen and a leading LGBT+ activist. She was also one of the key figures in the 1969 Stonewall riots – the birth of modern LGBT+ rights.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made the announcement at a Human Rights Campaign gala.
During his speech he promised to expand protections for LGBT+ people. And he said the state is ‘fighting back’ against hate towards marginalized communities.
Marsha P Johnson at Stonewall
Johnson defined herself as ‘trans’, ‘gay’ and a ‘queen’. She was gender non-conforming and her bold outfits often challenged the ideas of what it meant to be masculine or feminine.
Marsha P was a chosen name. When people asked what the P stood for, she said ‘pay it no mind’. And she apparently gave the same reply to a judge once when up in court who was so amused he released her.
Johnson couldn’t afford expensive clothing for her drag attire. However, she slept under tables in the Flower District of Manhattan and became known for wearing crowns of fresh flowers.
In fact her exact role during Stonewall is unclear. Johnson later claimed to have arrived after the riots started in the early hours of 28 June 1969. By that point, the Stonewall Inn was on fire.
However, Robin Souza who was there claimed Johnson threw a shot glass at the mirror in the torched bar. She allegedly shouted ‘I got my civil rights’. And Souza would later say it ‘was the shot glass that was heard around the world’.
Others claimed Johnson ‘threw a brick’ at one of the police officers harassing LGBT+ people outside the bar. But again, that version of the story was never verified.
But the most commonly agreed account is about the second night of rioting. That night, Johnson climbed a lamppost and dropped a bag with a brick in it down on a police car, shattering the windshield.
The ‘brick in a handbag’ story also rings true for another reason. Later, in the 70s, New York police accused her of hustling. But when they went to arrest her she hit them with a handbag which contained two bricks in.
Marsha P Johnson the community hero
Stonewall was not just the start of the modern LGBT+ movement but also saw Johnson’s activism take off.
She joined the Gay Liberation Front. And she was part of the Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally on the first anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion in June 1970. That rally would launch the modern Pride movement.
She joined with her friend Silvia Rivera, another trans and gay activist, to co-found Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR).
Together they created STAR House, a shelter for gay and trans street kids in 1972.
Johnson was the ‘drag mother’ of the house and the two activists paid the rent with money they made as sex workers. They worked to provide the kids with food, clothing and emotional support.
Meanwhile Johnson was a popular presence in New York’s Greenwich Village. She waited tables and earned the nickname ‘Mayor of Christopher Street’.
And in the 1980s, Johnson helped the community fight back against AIDS. She was a respected organizer within the grassroots anti-AIDS campaign ACT UP.
Sadly, she died at the age of just 46 in 1992.
New name for East River State Park
Since her death, many have honored Johnson.
She is one of 50 American ‘pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes’ inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument. The monument is outside the Stonewall Inn in New York City, where she dropped her brick-laden bag.
The new honor will see East River State Park in Brooklyn named after her.
The seven-acre park has views over the river to Manhattan and is used for picnics and barbecues.
In May 2019, New York also promised to build a statue to Johnson and her friend Rivera.