johnson, activist, LGBTQ

Black History Month Profiles: Marsha P. Johnson, Drag Performer and LGBTQ Rights Activist

During Black History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of Black innovators and history makers such as Marsha P. Johnson who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout February to learn more about important figures.

Born: August 24, 1945, Elizabeth, New Jersey
Died: July 6, 1992, New York City
Best known for: being one of the instigators of the Stonewall uprising in June 1969 and therefore a central figure in the LGBTQ rights movement.

Who threw the first brick at Stonewall? Although the phrase has been an LGBTQ rallying cry ever since the 1969 uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, it’s hard to know for sure. However, Marsha P. Johnson, usually credited with making the move, was certainly one of the instigators of the uprising, and a prominent figure in the LGBTQ community.

Johnson was born in 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the fifth of seven children. After high school, she briefly enrolled in the U.S. Navy before moving to New York City’s Greenwich Village. She worked as a sex worker and was also a drag queen, gaining notoriety for the unique costumes she made for herself. She became successful, touring the world as a drag queen with the Hot Peaches, a drag theater company. Johnson was also known as a “drag mother,” who took in homeless LGBTQ youth. Johnson remained close with her family in Elizabeth, and when she visited home for the holidays, she’d often invite vagrants and struggling people to join her for a warm meal.

Johnson solidified her place in history on the night of June 28, 1969 at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City. At the time, engaging in gay behavior in public (even just displaying affection) was illegal. Earlier in the 1960s, the New York State Liquor Authority would penalize and shut down bars that served alcohol to suspected LGBTQ individuals, claiming the gathering of gay people was “disorderly.” That law was overturned in 1966 thanks to activists’ efforts, but in 1969, police still regularly and routinely harassed LGBTQ people. Many gay bars — including Stonewall — lacked liquor licenses and were owned by the Mafia because of the previous illegal nature of selling liquor to LGBTQ patrons. Conditions at the bar were downright unsanitary and unsafe (It didn’t even have a fire exit), and the Mafia reportedly blackmailed and threatened to out prominent individuals who discreetly patronized the establishment, but the bar was still a fixture in New York’s LGBTQ scene. Oftentimes, the Mafia bribed police to either give them a head start of stashing illegal alcohol away in case there was a planned raid or persuade the police to ignore the bar altogether.

On the night of June 28, however, the police did not tip the owners off. They entered with a warrant, arrested people and roughed up and harassed patrons. Instead of leaving, the crowd refused to disperse, and the riots began. Accounts of Johnson’s actions are unclear. Some claim she threw the first brick, but she had later said she didn’t arrive at the bar until the riots had already begun. The consensus is she did play a central role by shattering a police car window. The Stonewall uprising is known as a watershed moment in the gay liberation movement.

After the uprising, Johnson continued her activism. She and her friend Sylvia Rivera — another instigator at Stonewall — co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). STAR focused on helping homeless LGBTQ people across New York City, Chicago, California and even England.

John Nacion/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

In 1992, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River. At the time, it was ruled a suicide, but 25 years later, the case was reopened. Johnson’s story has since been featured in a number of documentaries. In 2020, Johnson’s family, the Union County Freeholders, City of Elizabeth Officials, Garden State Equality and the Union County Office of LGBTQ affairs announced they would be erecting a monument to honor Johnson. It will be the first public monument in the state to honor an LGBTQ person and transgender woman of color. That same year, East River State Park in Brooklyn, New York was renamed for Johnson, the first New York state park to be named for an LGBTQ person or a Black trans woman.

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