Marsha P. Johnson at a New York City Gay Pride Parade, 1982 Credit: © Ron Simmons. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Ron Simmons.
Marsha P. Johnson at a New York City Gay Pride Parade, 1982 Credit: © Ron Simmons. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Ron Simmons.

Marsha P. Johnson, a New Jersey native, was a Black transgender woman who paved the way for the gay liberation movement. Born in Elizabeth, N.J., on August 24, 1945, Johnson was raised in a Christian household where she often faced beratement from family members for her gender identity.

In 1966, Johnson moved to Greenwich Village in New York, which would become the setting of her new life as an openly trans woman and her advocacy in the gay liberation movement. In New York, Johnson would find acceptance and comfort within the growing LGBTQ community there, becoming active by performing as a drag queen. Johnson was known by many for her bold and vibrant outfits, floral headpieces, and jewelry during her performances.

Within the first few years of living in New York, Johnson quickly became a notable and well-known figure in the queer community by immersing herself in the culture. Johnson frequented the bars and nightclubs on Christopher Street, an area in Greenwich Village that had been a safe space for the LGBTQ community at the time. One of the most famous gay bars in the area had been the Stonewall Inn, where in 1969, a historical event would take place, setting off an uprising of advocacy for the queer community.

On the night of June 28, 1969, Johnson and many other queer individuals had been at the Stonewall Inn when police officers entered the building and made multiple arrests of attendees at the bar, seemingly without reason. These public arrests, fueled by homophobia, angered the LGBTQ community, and many, including Marsha P. Johnson, began to riot. Johnson had been seen by many individuals present at the riot as one of the first to start to protest against the police raid and attack on the LGBTQ community. She took to the streets advocating for gay rights and against discrimination and police brutality.

Marsha P. Johnson’s advocacy during the Stonewall Riots inspired many members of the LGBTQ community to continue to advocate for their rights and against the rampant violence they faced. These acts of advocacy went on to bring strength and determination to those in support of the gay liberation movement.

Johnson’s efforts towards gay liberation continued as she went on to co-found the first LGBTQ youth shelter in North America in the early 1970s. The Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) was an organization devoted to helping homeless trans and LGBTQ youth by providing safe environments. Having been founded in New York, STAR has helped many young LGBTQ individuals off the streets and into organized, safe housing by utilizing trailer trucks and hotel rooms.

On July 6, 1992, at 46, Marsha P. Johnson’s body was discovered in the Hudson River. The case remains unsolved.

Despite her difficult and unaccepting upbringing, Marsha P. Johnson became a powerful figure in the LGBTQ community and is celebrated today for her strength in speaking out when faced with discrimination. Johnson is remembered for her legacy of perseverance and strength and as a power figure for women and the LGBTQ community. By fighting against discrimination and advocating for her community, Johnson made a significant impact on the gay liberation movement and inspires members of the LGBTQ community to stand strong in their identities today.

To celebrate women’s history is to celebrate transgender history. The impact that trans women have made in the past has helped create the roots of underrepresented groups that still face prejudice today. With this, their impact is often overlooked or discredited.

My goal is to bring to light the stories and the lives of these important figures, to show respect for the history of all women, and to support the communities that still face prejudice today. – AA

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