10 Things to Know About Marsha P. Johnson

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I am the outspoken feminist that Pat Robertson warned you about.

Our Pioneers of Feminism series continues with the famous transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson. If you’re wondering why Marsha P. Johnson qualifies as a Pioneer of Feminism, click here.

I will provide this brief disclaimer: There are words in this piece that are not the current, correct terms related to trans* people and trans* issues. They are used because they were the words that Marsha used in the sixties and seventies. They are not my chosen words.

mpj by andy warhol b&w10. Marsha P. Johnson was born on June 27, 1944 in New Jersey. Her birth name was Malcolm Michaels, Jr. Marsha moved to Manhattan, New York, in the mid 1960s and would become well known in the city’s drag scene.


untitled9. Marsha is known as a transgender and gay activist. (The terms vary depending on what you read about her and who wrote it because in the 60s and 70s when Marsha was out there kicking ass and doing activist-y type things, people didn’t have the language we have now to refer to trans* folks.) Marsha’s path to activism began due to discrimination and hate towards people who formerly would have been called transvestites or transsexuals. At the time, that is the language that was used. She also was involved with the Stonewall Riots.

stonewall-veteran-Marsha-P-Johnson-441x6008. Marsha was full of life and personality. When asked what the “P” stood for, she would say “It stands for pay it no mind” and even provided this response when asked by a judge what it meant. He found it amusing and let her go.  It was also intended to be a sarcastic response to the frequent question she was asked about her gender.


Sylvia_Rae_Rivera7. Along with Sylvia Rivera, Marsha founded STAR: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries in 1970 which was a transgender rights group and also had a shelter for homeless trans* teens and drag queens. The organization also fought for the inclusion of trans* people under the umbrella of gay rights.


martha2376. Although Marsha legally changed her name and referred to herself as Marsha and dressed in traditional female attire most of the time, she on occasion would go by her birth name. Friends of hers talked about how Marsha would change personalities as Malcolm and would sometimes become more aggressive and provoked fights. It’s unclear how true those reports were. This also speaks to the fluidity of gender and a person’s right to self identify without judgment.

index5. Marsha was also involved with the Gay Liberation Front. The group fought for protection and advocacy for those who identified as gay or transgender.



mpj by andy warhol24. Marsha posed for Andy Warhol which speaks to the fact that she was well known as Andy Warhol mostly created pieces featuring people who were part of pop culture.



RPDRS6_vertical_RuPaul_whtBg1.jpg3. Marsha, despite later identifying as transgender, was a drag queen. The Andy Warhol piece actually was part of a series on famous drag queens. She has been identified by RuPaul as the one who paved the way for drag queens and is often described as the true drag mother.


8681c08922dd77f14bfb0dd53dbae19b 2. There is a popular documentary about Marsha P. Johnson called “Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson”.  To watch, click here.



Monica_Johnson_topic_article-small_46131. Marsha died in 1992. She was found in the Hudson River. Although friends and acquaintances said that they had witnessed her being harassed earlier in the day and insisted that she was not suicidal, her death was ruled a suicide. On occasion, there is interest in re-opening her case but as of right now, there has been no change to her official cause of death.


For more Pioneers of Feminism, click here.


Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article had a different header image. A reader has pointed out that that image was not actually of Marsha and thus the photo was changed.


  1. The first thing folks need to know about Marsha is that the lovely picture you have up top is not Marsha. 🙂 That picture is of Nova, a much younger person who was also at GLF meetings. It was mis-filed in the the library collection where you found it, and mis-labeled as Marsha.

    The stories of Marsha shifting into her/his Malcolm/Marshall/Mikey persona and sometimes getting physically aggressive with people are true, though I’m not sure how often it happened. I saw it happen, as did at least a dozen other people that I know of. Most of the time Marsha was very sweet, and rather ethereal. But there would be days where s/he would drop the high-pitched queen voice and speak in a deep voice. The expression on her face became different. On those days s/he could get quite angry if called “Marsha.”

    We who were her friends could tell by the look on her face what sort of day it was, but s/he could also change on a dime. Once she shoved me – a friend of hers – hard, yelling in a deep voice. It was shocking, coming from someone who was usually so kind. Marsha was strong, and tall. I think s/he meant well when she got physical with me, but I’m lucky I didn’t fall as it could have been serious. Then later she came back all sweet and consoling and holding hands with me again. It could be a bit crazy-making! We all loved Marsha, but she had these moments.

    She was complex, like all living people. Now that she’s gone, it’s strange to see her turned into a poster child for various peoples’ causes. Most of the time they try to slam her into tiny boxes she just doesn’t fit into. Like, she never called herself transgender or a woman. In the interview two days before she was murdered she said, “I’m a man. Did he think I’m a woman? He had to know I’m a man.” I know people some times have trouble making sense of all this, but that’s life! Thank you for acknowledging her complexity here.

    And update that picture, girlfriend! 😉

    (Does anyone know what became of Nova?)

  2. Thank you for comments! You are correct–if that picture isn’t Marsha, it was most definitely mislabeled because we try hard to make sure we have accurate photos. As soon as I get near a computer, I will get that photo corrected and update the article. Thank you so much!

  3. The photo has been updated. If there appear to be any other questionable photos, please comment here or email me at [email protected]. The photo in question, when I checked the media file, actually was associated with a Marsha P. Johnson museum exhibit which is strange that they would have been using a photo that wasn’t of Marsha. I had thought it was legit because of it’s affiliation with the exhibit.


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