Darling, I want my Gay Rights Now: Marsha P. Johnson – A Woman Whose Activism changed a Nation

Marsha P. Johnson, also known as Malcom Michaels Jr., was born 24th August 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. They are best known for their part in American Gay Liberation Front activist group. A self-identified drag queen, they were an advocate for gay and trans rights.  The P in their name, stood for Pay it no mind, as a retort to instances when people commented on their appearance and life decisions.

At the time, being gay was seen as a mental illness in the united states, and those who openly identified as gay were regularly threatened, and beaten by police, shunned from society.

Marsha started wearing dresses at age five, but shortly stopped after receiving harassment from neighbourhood boys. In a later interview, they described being sexually assaulted by an adolescent boy, and then their mother described homosexuality as being lower than a dog. In 1963, Marsha left to New York City with $15 and a bag of clothes, and after living in Greenwich Village and meeting people in the city who shared like minded beliefs, they found it was time to come out.

According to Susan Styker, a professor for human gender and sexual studies, their gender expression could be most accurately described as gender non-conforming. This term was rarely used during Marsha’s life. Their drag style was seen as the interstice between masculine and feminine, highlighting that they were both at once.

Johnson grew up extravagantly and they started performing as a woman in New York. When they were 23 years old, the infamous police raid on the city’s Stonewall Inn occurred.

Police used excessive violence to force 200 partygoers onto the streets and continued to violently attack them. Marsha was one of the key figures who stood up to the police during these attacks. They not only resisted arrest, but days after the attack, fuelled a series of protests and riots to fight for gay rights. Martha was said to have thrown shot glasses at the mirror in the burning bar, screaming ‘I got my civil rights.’

Marsha cofounded with their friend Sylvia Rivera, the S.T.A.R organisation, (street transvestite action revolutionaries,) to support gay and trans individuals who had been left homeless after coming out to their families.

A month after the protests, the first openly gay march took place in New York.

Unfortunately, Marsha went missing in 1992, aged 42, and was found six days later by police. Although foul play was ruled out, their friends disputed this this, saying attacks were still common and that they had been harassed by thugs days before they died. In 2012, campaigner Mariah Lopez was successful in getting police to reopen her case as possible murder, and shortly after reopening, the status of their death was changed from suicide to indetermined.

And set to be unveiled this year, is a statue in honour of Marsh. Her work for the LGBTQ+ community remains prevalent today.

Published by Heather Dalgleish

21-year-old journalism student. Author and illustrator for In Full Bloom Magazine

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