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LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 11: To mark the launch of the Young Vic’s 50th Birthday Year The Unforgotten art installation is unveiled, commemorating three unsung trailblazers of the Black community will be available to photograph: Mary Seacole, a British-Jamaican businesswoman who set up the ‘British Hotel’ behind the lines during the Crimean War, Marsha P. Johnson, an advocate and activist for LGBTQ+ rights and Ulric Cross, a Trinidadian diplomat, RAF navigator, legal visionary and most decorated black serviceman of World War II. The installation asks us all to (re)consider who we celebrate as our heroes. during the Young Vic 50th Birthday Launch photocall on September 11, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images)

Happy Black History Month! This is the 15th blog of a series of blogs called “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know”. This series will be a collection of my research into little-known Black Americans who have made history in one way or another (or multiple ways!).

The focus of today’s blog is Marsha P. Johnson, infamous drag queen and activist for LGBTQ+ rights through the Gay Liberation Front and co-founder of STAR, an organization that helped to house homeless LGBTQ+ youth.

This is her story.

Early Life

Marsha P. Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels Jr. in 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She grew up with her two parents and six other brothers and sisters. She remained very close to her family, even after she grew up and moved away. After graduating high school, Johnson served in the United States Navy for a short time. After this, she moved to Greenwich Village in New York where she set out to discover herself.

Life in New York

Living in New York, Johnson turned to sex work in order to get by. In doing so, Johnson found herself becoming a member of a welcoming community. Eventually, she became a self-made drag queen infamous for her unique costumes and style. During this time, Johnson was still being referred to as Malcolm, but eventually, she settled on Marsha P. Johnson, with the P standing for “Pay It No Mind.” Johnson got her big break as a drag queen when she worked with Hot Peaches, a drag theater company.

Stonewall

Soon, Johnson became an important figure in the LGBTQ+ community. She had a passion for helping LGBTQ+ youth who either did not have a home or were struggling. One day in 1969, Johnson visited a gay bar in New York City called The Stonewall Inn. While she was there, New York police raided the place and forced over 200 people onto the streets, where further harassment and violence ensued. Johnson became known as one of the most prominent figures who stood up to the police during the incident. She resisted arrest and later led and organized several protests for LGBTQ+ rights.

STAR

The Stonewall Uprising made headlines and started many conversations around LGBTQ+ rights. With her friend Sylvia Rivera, Johnson co-founded an organization called STAR or Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. The goal of the organization was to help transgender and other LGBTQ+ youth who needed primarily housing, but other resources as well. The organization’s reach impacted communities in New York, Chicago, California, and England. Despite suffering greatly from mental illness, Johnson’s passion to help others only grew throughout her life.

Death & Legacy

In 1992, Johnson went missing. Six days later, police found her body in the Hudson River with a severe head injury. Police ruled her death a suicide despite family and friends’ insistence that Johnson was not suicidal. During this time, there were also rumors of an attack by “thugs”, as violence against members of the LGBTQ+ community was (and still is) fairly common. In 2016, a crime victim advocate with the New York City Anti-Violence Project named Victoria Cruz reopened the case. Parts of her investigation were featured in 2017 documentary on Johnson’s life called The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson available on Netflix. Read more about Marsha P. Johnson here or here.

Read another article from the “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know” blog series here.