Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine

Marsha P. Johnson Was a Transgender Rights Pioneer Who Fought for LGBTQ Minorities

Johnson's pivotal role on the frontline of the Stonewall Riots, to establishing her own shelter for homeless queer youth, made her a POC and trans rights icon we should be thanking this Black History Month.

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Feb 12 2018, 5:30pm

Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine

For one month a year, the nation sets aside much-needed time to highlight the achievements made by black Americans and the challenges they continue to endure. Despite the importance of Black History Month, the conversation seems to be limited to a few important names — such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, and W.E.B. DuBois to name a few — but lesser-known black Americans from all walks of life and experiences have had equally important roles in spreading tolerance and teaching acceptance. To celebrate Black History Month, VICE Impact is focusing on the accomplishments of unsung heroes who were key figures in the fight for racial equality.

The legacy of transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson as a political agitator and organizer for gender and sexual minorities has sent ripples through the LGBTQ community. Johnson was on the frontline of the Stonewall Riots in New York’s Greenwich Village when LGBTQ citizens who were fed up with constant harassment decided to stand up to police bigotry. Known for her extravagant style of ornate hats and colorful jewelry, Johnson lived her life unapologetically. Her middle initial “P” stood for “Pay It No Mind,” which was the quip she delivered when anyone questioned her gender.

Born in 1945, Johnson was raised in New Jersey in an LGBTQ-antagonistic climate. When Johnson was just 18-years-old she moved to New York City, which was her home until her untimely death in 1992 at the age of 46. In 1970, the year after Stonewall, Johnson and fellow trans civil rights advocate Sylvia Rivera founded the Street Transvestite (now Transgender) Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to fight discrimination against trans people. They also founded STAR House as a shelter for homeless queer youth.

Although trans women of color — such as Johnson and Rivera — are credited with beginning the modern fight for LGBTQ rights, white cisgender men and women are often the faces of the movement. The contributions of underrepresented communities have been seemingly erased in popular culture. However, not all LGBTQ organizations at that time pushed these communities to the margins. Following the Stonewall Riots, a group of activists founded the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which accepted all LGBTQ people regardless of their race, sex or gender identity. Johnson, along with Rivera, joined the GLF and, along with STAR, fought against anti-LGBTQ laws and social inequality.

Johnson’s death remains unsolved. Police ruled her death a suicide after her body was found in the Hudson River in New York. However, those close to her believe that she was murdered. Johnson’s is only one example of the epidemic of violence against the trans community, particularly for trans women of color. The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ rights organization, recorded 28 violent deaths of transgender people in 2017 -- an increase of five deaths from the previous year.

The Marsha P. Johnson Institute carries on her legacy of protecting gender and sexual minorities. Also, the National Center for Transgender Equality is a civil liberties organization that defends the rights trans people nationally. You can support the work of NCTE by making a donation today.