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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.
10. 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.
9. 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.
8. 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.
7. 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.
6. 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.
5. Marsha was also involved with the Gay Liberation Front. The group fought for protection and advocacy for those who identified as gay or transgender.
3. 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.
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.
1. 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.