Protecting LGBTQ lives and celebrating pioneers
Rosie Batsford explores the life and legacy of Marsha P Johnson, highlighting the importance of LGBTQ+ lives in Pride Month.
As we move towards the end of Pride Month, it is important to reflect upon the LGBTQ+ pioneers who formed the cornerstone of a powerful community. Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992) was an American LGBTQ+ liberation activist who spread awareness of HIV and AIDS, and a drag queen. She was passionate about securing rights for members of the LGBTQ+ community, stating that “As long as gay people don’t have their rights all across America… there is no reason for celebration”.
Johnson was immersed in creative spheres and worked with industry leaders. For example, Andy Warhol, included Johnson in a series of 1975 prints titled “Ladies and Gentlemen”. She credits her experience as a drag queen in the group “Hot Peaches” to her confidence in expressing her life and advocating for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community: “I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville until I became a drag queen.”
“As long as gay people don’t have their rights all across America… there is no reason for celebration”
An outspoken advocate, Johnson was a significant figure in the Stonewall uprising. The riots lasted from the 28th of June to the 3rd of July 1969. There are conflicting accounts of her actions during the historic event. She hosted a series of protests and was heavily involved in the first Gay Pride Parade held in 1970. The event was hosted by a series of gay rights groups. This includes the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance. Johnson was an active member in each of these organisations. Johnson attended these events with Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002), a Puerto Rican transgender woman whom Johnson met in New York in 1962. Rivera considered Johnson a “mother” figure, nurturing self-expression and confidence in her identity.
In 1970, Johnson and Rivera founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). This was recognised as “an organisation dedicated to sheltering young transgender individuals who were shunned by their families”. Johnson was also instrumental in establishing STAR House, a place where transgender youth could stay. The first of which was in Greenwich Village. This element was close to Johnson and Rivera’s hearts, whom each spent many of their early years facing homelessness. These organisation pre-dated the term ‘transgender’, welcoming oppressed young people who identified differently to their assigned sex at birth. However, the organisation was dissolved in 1973.
The work of activists has never been without push-back – Johnson experienced immense hardship, particularly in her personal life. Throughout the 1970s, she faced numerous mental health crises and spent periods in psychiatric hospitals. She also faced severe financial difficulties, often turning to sex work, which resulted in multiple arrests. In an interview on the 26th of June 1992, she shared that she had received an HIV diagnosis. Johnson spoke openly about the reality of the illness and dispelled rumours. This reduced the taboo surrounding HIV in the LGBTQ+ community.
The work of activists has never been without push-back – Johnson experienced immense hardship, particularly in her personal life.
Only a few days later, on the 6th of July 1992, Johnson was found deceased in the Hudson River. Her death was initially ruled a suicide, but many suspected foul play. The ruling was eventually turned over to drowning from an undetermined cause. 1992 was the worst year on record for anti-LGBTQ+ violence in America, many people demanded further investigation into Johnson’s death. In 2012, the New York Police Department re-opened investigation into Johnson’s death. This was detailed in the 2017 documentary ‘The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson’. Despite these tragic circumstances, Johnson’s legacy lives on; along with Rivera, she features in many documentaries and public art displays. This includes a monument commissioned by the Public Arts Campaign in New York, “She Built NYC”; the first monument in New York to honour a transgender woman.
Johnson was instrumental in pioneering the LGBTQ+ movements and rights that we are familiar with today. Her positive impact is felt every, by millions across the globe, and we are grateful for her existence every day.