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Marsha P Johnson: How the transgender-rights activist became a pioneer of the LGBT movement

The Independent logo The Independent 30/06/2020 Chelsea Ritschel
Marsha P. Johnson looking at the camera © Provided by The Independent

Google is honouring black transgender-rights activist Marsha P Johnson with a Doodle more than 50 years after the Stonewall Riots, and one year after the self-identified drag queen was posthumously honoured as a grand marshal of the New York City Pride March.

A key figure in the 1969 Stonewall Riots, and an activist who fought on behalf of LGBT+ youth, Johnson is remembered as a pioneer of the LGBT+ movement in the United States.

Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on 24 August 1945, Johnson moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village after graduating high school in 1963.

After arriving in New York City, Johnson legally changed her name from Malcolm Michaels Jr to Marsha P. Johnson. According to Elle Hearns, founder of the Marsha P Johnson Institute, the P stood for Pay It No Mind, which is how Johnson responded when people enquired about her gender.

In 1969, when Johnson was 23, she played an integral role in the protests and uprisings following the police raid on the Stonewall Inn. A year later, Johnson and her close friend, Sylvia Rivera, a Latina trans-rights activist, founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), the first organisation in the US to be led by trans women of colour and to act as a shelter for LGBT+ youth.

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In addition to supporting young gay and transgender individuals, Johnson also dedicated her time and energy to advocating on behalf of those living with AIDS.

“We want to see all gay people have a chance, equal rights, as straight people have in America,” Johnson explained during an interview in 1972. “Our main goal is to see gay people liberated and free and have equal rights that other people have in America.”

In 2019, New York City announced plans to erect statues of Johnson and Rivera in Greenwich Village.

The monuments will be the “first permanent, public artwork recognising transgender women in the world,” according to the city.

Johnson died in 1992, with her death ruled a suicide, however, for years the circumstances around her death have been questioned by both friends and acquaintances.

In honour of Johnson’s memory, as well as her commitment and dedication to the LGBT+ community, Google has also announced it is “donating $500,000 to the Marsha P Johnson Institute, which works to end violence against black trans women across the United States and create a world where they are safe, valued, and treated with human dignity.”


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