Women's History Month: Marsha P. Johnson

Women’s History Month celebrates all women, not just cisgender women. Marsha P. Johnson is regarded as one of the most significant trans-activists in history, which is why we have chosen her for our spotlight this week.

Who Was She?

Born into a Roman Catholic family in 1945, Marsha’s childhood was not an easy one, as early attempts at cross dressing experiments were quickly reprimanded by both family and neighbours.

Upon graduating from High School, she left her parents’ house for New York City where she waited tables before entering the drag scene and finally connecting with the LGBTQ community. Marsha would go on to perform in numerous venues, and would even model for a series of Any Warhol portraits.

In the early hours of the morning, on the 28 June, 1969, New York police conducted a raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, home to numerous members of the LGBTQ community, including gay men, butch lesbians, and drag queens. The raid however, did not follow standard procedure. Clientele refused to show identification.

Trans women, drag queens, and crossdressers refused to be escorted to bathrooms to have their sex identified. One woman, whilst being dragged into a police wagon, fought and escaped several times whilst the crowd watched on. Slowly but surely, animosity grew, as the crowd began to jeer and chant at officers. A cry of “Why don’t you guys do something?” by the arrested woman set off the spark that would become the Stonewall Riots.

Marsha P. Johnson, amongst others has been indicated as one of the primary instigators of the riot. Having said to have “thrown the first brick” she is credited by many as being in the vanguard of the rioting. After significant damage and violence, the police were retreating, having been humiliated in the process. The rioting continued however, leading into a second night, during which Marsha took a significant role.

Numerous eye witnesses stated that it was the trans community who were doing much of the fighting against the police forces, driving back the officers from the crowd.  Eventually the crowds dispersed, but it was absolutely not the end of the story.

Following the riots, Marsha joined the Gay Liberation front, and participated in numerous activist events, protests, and pride rallies. With her friend Sylvia Rivera, she founded S.T.A.R., an organization dedicated to providing aid to homeless trans people. In order to supplement this, Marsha and Sylvia both engaged with sex work, and were landed in trouble with the police numerous times.

In 1992, following the annual pride parade, Marsha’s body was discovered in the Hudson River. Police ruled her death as a suicide, a decision that has been consistently disputed by those who knew her, and by the fact that a large wound was found on the back of her head. In 2012, Marsha’s case was reopened as a possible homicide.


The Legacy

Marsha’s life was one which is both tragic, and inspiring. When we look back at Marsha’s life we must consider the history of trans women across the globe, one of oppression, regulation, and constant struggle to exist.

The Stonewall Riots paved the way for LGBTQ liberation, with trans women at its forefront. Naturally it’s important to remember that trans people were only beginning to be accepted at this point, and most used drag as a way of gender expression.

By today’s standard, many might have identified as non-binary, agender, queer, or any other identity. We must treat those who helped shape our present with respect and dignity, and during Women’s History Month, take some time to consider those often not represented by mainstream media.

Trans women, women of colour, and disabled women are all part of our history. Let us make the history books reflect that fact.