Marsha P. Johnson was a drag artist and sex worker in New York’s Greenwich Village for three decades. However, on 28 June 1969, Johnson became a key figure in the events that followed the police raid on the Village gay bar, the Stonewall Inn. Having resisted arrest, Johnson and others led a series of uprisings in protest at the raid. Not only did the first Gay Pride parades follow in 1970, but Johnson also went on to found STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), to support young transgender people. As well as working to help homeless young people ostracised by their families because of their sexuality, Johnson was also a tireless advocate for AIDS patients, being diagnosed themself with HIV in 1990.
Johnson gained some recognition following this, being invited to book interviews and even having inspired multiple documentaries about their life, including David France’s 2017 film The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson.
Johnson’s flamboyant sense of style and larger-than-life personality also caught the attention of one Andy Warhol. Johnson, who mostly sourced her outfits from rubbish bins, was often seen wearing bright red heels, stacked costume jewellery, colourful wigs and dresses covered with glittering sequins. Such elaborate looks became part of her drag persona, and were immortalised in Warhol’s 1975 Polaroid portfolio, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Unfortunately, their fame also had a hugely negative impact on their life. For the most part, Johnson felt extremely lonely and marginalised by society and in 1992, aged only 46, their body was found in the Hudson River. The investigation went largely unreported by the mainstream press and the NYC police ruled it suicide, despite Johnson’s friends and fellow activists always having shared disbelief toward this ruling.
Almost 30 years on from her death, Johnson is now getting the attention she was denied when she was alive, with tales of her activism circulating on Instagram like never before, bringing her legacy to the attention of a new generation of admirers in Pride month. Due to this growing recognition of her invaluable contributions to the causes of social and economic justice, a monument dedicated to Marsha P. Johnson, the late African-American transgender activist and pioneer, will be unveiled in New York in 2021.