Someone who chose to make a difference in the community. Johnson was a leader during the stand off that culminated in the infamous Stonewall Riots, a rallying cry against police surveillance and harassment of people in New York’s LGBT community during the 1960s. Today, the anniversary of Stonewall is commemorated annually via pride parades held across the U.S.
A black transgender activist, Johnson’s efforts also including mentoring and helping to provide housing for homeless LGBT youth, AIDS activism with the organization Act Up and founding organizations to serve trans communities. Her work is chronicled in the documentary Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson.
One of the city’s best known drag queens and street queens,, Johnson has been identified as one of the first to fight back in the clashes with the police during the Stonewall Riots. Johnson and close friend Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR); together they were a visible presence at gay liberation marches and other events. In the 1980’s, Johnson continued her street activism as a respected organizer and marshall with ACT UP. With Rivera, Johnson was a “mother” of STAR House, getting together food and clothing to help support the young drag queens, trans women and other street kids living on the Christopher Street docks or in their house on the Lower East Side of New York.
Once, appearing in a court the judge asked Marsha, “What does the ‘P’ stand for?”, Johnson gave her customary response “Pay it No Mind.” This phrase became her trademark. In 1974 Marsha P. Johnson was photographed by famed artist Andy Warhol, as part of a “ladies and gentlemen” series of polaroids featuring drag queens. Johnson was also a member of Warhol’s drag queen performance troupe, Hot Peaches (which has been compared to the similar, San Francisco troupe, The Cockettes).
In July 1992, Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River off the West Village Piers shortly after the Pride March in 1992. Police ruled the death a suicide. Johnson’s friends and supporters said she was not suicidal, and a people’s poster campaign later declared that Johnson had earlier been harassed near the spot where her body was found. Initial attempts to get the police to investigate the cause of death were unsuccessful. After lobbying by activist Mariah Lopez, in November 2012 the New York police department re-opened the case as a possible homicide.