Marsha P. Johnson wore many hats in her lifetime. She was a prostitute, a gay liberation activist, a self-proclaimed drag performer, a transgender pioneer and even a model for the revered artist, Andy Warhol.
On February 1, it was revealed that the activist would add another feat to her legacy. At the Human Rights Campaign gala, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared that the East River State Park, located in the Williamsburg neighborhood of New York, would be renamed after her during his speech about protecting marginalized groups and expanding protections, specifically for the LGBTQIA community.
“New York State is the progressive capital of the nation,” Cuomo said according to NBC Out. “And while we are winning the legal battle for justice for the LGBTQ community, in many ways we are losing the broader war for equality.”
Less than 30 minutes from where Marsha helped make history as one of the central figures of the Stonewall Uprising, she will be immortalized in the same way many transformational figures have before her. Marsha was born August 24, 1945, and died in 1992, at the age of 46. She was born in New Jersey from a working-class, two-parent household, and at the age of five, tried on her first dress.
After high school, she left home and took off to the big apple with $15 in her pocket. She adapted the “P” in her name which meant “Pay It No Mind,” and lived life out loud through her community work and fashion. She was known for her extravagant looks in which she adorned her hair and clothes with flowers and Christmas lights. In a June 26, 1992, interview, Marsha revealed that she had been HIV positive for two years.
“They call me a legend in my own time,” Marsha said in the interview. “Because there were so many queens gone that I’m one of the few queens left from the ’70s and the ’80s.” On July 6, 1992, her body was recovered from the Hudson River, near Christopher Street and was ruled a suicide, but many of Johnson’s friends maintain that she was not suicidal and are still actively seeking answers regarding her death. Marsha’s case remains open and was explored in a 2017 documentary titled “The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson.”
In 2015, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute (MPJI) was established which is an organization dedicated to the mission of the late trans activist. Their goal is to defend the human rights of black transgender people through organizing, advocating, creating a community of healing and promoting their truth and power.
In her life, unfortunately, Marsha faced adversity, sometimes within her own community, and also struggled with mental illness and homelessness. Despite all of this Marsha managed, even in death, to leave a legacy that pushes past racist and transphobic recollections of queer history which has oftentimes tried to erase her. For years, her contributions and relation to the Stonewall Uprising were unknown and unacknowledged, but the tide is finally changing.
Apart from her participation in one of the rawest turning points in American history, that was only the tip of Marsha’s work. She helped create one of the first versions of a shelter for homeless gay youth. She was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, one of the first gay liberation groups and an activist with ACT UP, a political group that worked to end the AIDS epidemic. She participated in demonstrations with ACT UP and dedicated her life to raising awareness regarding the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York City. New York officials also announced last year that Marsha and fellow transgender activist Sylvia Rivera, would be honored with a public monument in Greenwich Village, one block away from the Stonewall Inn.