$15, a bag of clothes, and a fierce attitude. This is, according to a 1992 documentary by director Michael Kasino, what Marsha P. Johnson brought to New York, right after graduating high school and just before changing the course of history.
Johnson was born in August 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey under the name Malcolm Michaels Jr. Kasino’s documentary, featuring interviews with Johnson, revealed that she began wearing dresses at age 5. She lived in a time before the term “transgender” was widely used, but Johnson referred to herself using female pronouns. She was an early and influential drag queen, mostly notably remembered today for her role in the Stonewall uprising in 1969.
Johnson, living as an out and proud drag queen and “transvestite,” as she called herself, was working in New York during a tumultuous period in LGBTQ history. Author Sewell Chan, in an innovative, interactive obituary for the New York Times’ Overlooked series, explored this topic, writing that there were not many working opportunities for members of the LGBTQ community, and Johnson had difficulty finding a job. This led her to a lifestyle of prostitution and subsequent arrests – over 100 times.
Johnson’s most famous police resistance came early in the morning on June 28, 1969. In a Washington Post article titled “Stonewall at 50,” author Gillian Brockwell wrote that there are numerous accounts about Johnson’s actions – some believe she threw the first shot glass, and others, the first brick. Brockwell references historian David Carter, who “concluded it was “extremely likely” that Johnson was among the first people to resist the police.” Despite the differing accounts, a quote so often used in articles and stories about Johnson is that she threw the “shot glass heard around the world,” and that cemented her legacy at the forefront of the movement for LGBTQ rights.
Why is Johnson such an important figure in our history? As Brockwell stated in her article, Johnson herself is quoted as saying: “I was no one, nobody from Nowheresville, until I became a drag queen.” Modern drag has a long history in the United States, with author Bernadette Deron, in “The Evolution of the Art of Drag in 33 Stunning, Historical Images” on All That’s Interesting, pinpointing its beginning intermixed with prohibition, where speakeasies allowed gay men and drag queens a place to go and express themselves. Drag queens were not only present at important turning points in the fight for LGBTQ rights, but, as with the Stonewall uprising, were at the very forefront. In an NBC interview with reporter Nick Ramsey, drag queen Shequida (Gary Hall) said: “Drag should be pushing the boundaries, really shaking up the status quo, and shaking up the idea of what society says is OK.” In the same interview, BenDeLaCreme (Ben Putnam), best known for his appearance on RuPaul’s Drag Race, had this to say about the legacy of drag queens: “Drag queens have always been community leaders, rebels and rabble-rousers…[we] create magic out of nothing, whether that means a fabulous outfit made out of the scraps no one wants or a fabulous existence when society has told us we don’t deserve to live.” With the existence and popularity of shows like Drag Race and Dragula, the mass number of drag brunches and bingo nights, drag has cemented itself as an important and accepted part of our culture, which certainly would have been much more difficult without activists like Johnson lighting the path and leading the way.
Johnson also continued fighting for LGBTQ rights after Stonewall, joining the
Gay Liberation Front and cofounding the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with another drag queen, Sylvia Rivera. Rivera, in an article by Leslie Feinberg on Worker’s World, said that “STAR was for the street gay people, the street homeless people, and anybody that needed help at that time.” Together, Johnson and Rivera were leaders of early organizations that focused on gay rights, sexual liberation, and notably, transgender rights. In Chan’s Overlooked obituary, he quoted Johnson in a 1972 book who said her goal was “to see gay people liberated and free and to have equal rights that other people have in America,” with her “gay brothers and sisters out of jail and on the streets again.” Johnson continued to be a leading activist for LGBTQ rights, riding in the lead car of the 1980 Gay Pride Parade in New York. Johnson also focused on AIDS activism and shared in a 1992 interview that she had been HIV-positive for two years.
Johnson’s life was full of ups and downs, activism intermingled with difficult periods of time. Ultimately, on July 6, 1992, her body was discovered in the Hudson River. Her death was ruled a suicide and was not investigated at the time. Her death is a sad but important facet of Johnson’s legacy. As a queer woman, drag queen, and transgender woman, as well as a woman involved in sex work, Johnson was vulnerable and violently attacked multiple times, as Brockwell wrote in her article. Today, the United States is still facing an epidemic in the deaths of transgender women. According to a Human Rights Campaign study, there were 26 (reported) murders of transgender women in the U.S., the majority black transgender women. The study, updated in early June, has also concluded at least 15 fatal attacks on transgender women in 2019. These are frankly horrifying statistics, proving that, although our society has moved forward in certain aspects of LGBTQ rights, the same acceptance has not been shown to transgender people. We must continue fighting daily against these injustices, just as Johnson did in her time. Johnson’s own case was reopened in 2012 and remains open, and it is this author’s sincere hope that her legacy will create a more accepting, open, and caring world for all members of the LGBTQ community, and that her spark of rebellion will never be lost.
Written by Rachel Syens (she/her) from Michigan, USA. Follow her on Twitter! This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.