Marsha Johnson: The drag queen that changed history

Updated: Jun 12


Marsha Johnson. Artist: Andy Thornton

Marsha Johnson was a well known transgender activist, although in recent years her notoriety may have decreased, the work she did for LGBT+ rights has lived on. Born in 1945, Marsha was known by her friends as happy, kind and a caring person. In her own words she did not take herself too seriously with a similar approach to protesting she was flamboyant in her fight for transgender rights. She dressed in whatever she pleased and would create her own outfits of any scraps she could find and moved to New York in 1963 which was to become her home for the next 30 years. She was to become one of the key figures in the gay liberation movement and perhaps one of her most known quotes, “Darling, I want my gay rights now!”, is a reflection on straight forward attitude to gay civil rights.


The recent push of human rights for the black community has shone a light on perhaps less known black activists such as Marsha. Marsha grew up in a community that did not accept people who dressed in gendered non-conforming clothes is and a level of prejudice and rejection she faced as a drag queen.


In Marsha Johnson’s time, licences were not given to gay bars in New York, where Marsha lived. This sets the scene for one of the turning points in gay history the stonewall riots. These riots, which happened in 1969, was the revolution that kick-started the gay liberation movement. Many people have never heard of these riots or know what they are about despite the historical importance of this event. In the 1960s there were many raids on gay bars to combat this popup bars were created so that police never knew where they were. If a raid occurred the customers had to run before they were caught and faced arrest. Names of people who attended these bars were listed in the papers and consequently, they would lose their job because of their sexuality.


Those who were openly gay could not get a job so were often homeless or the only way they could to make money was through prostitution. This is the time in which Marsha P. Johnson lived. Transgender was not even a coined term so many transgender people lived their lives as drag queens which was an issue less associated with the gay liberation movement as will be addressed later in this article.


The Stonewall march for Lesbian and gay rights

The start of gay liberation


The Stonewall riots were named after the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar owned by the mafia. The inn survived by paying off the police to turn a blind eye to the gay bar. However, this did not stop a raid in 1969 by the police at the inn. What started as a raid ended in 6 days of riots and the creation of many gay civil rights groups. Hundreds of groups were formed and the gay liberation movement was mobilised. Groups were created in Europe, Australia as well as all major cities, as the gay liberation movement spread across the world. These groups allied with groups such as the black panthers creating bridges between non-LGBT+ groups where before there were none.


There is much speculation over Marsha’s actions in the stonewall riots, one legend is that Marsha climbed a lamp post and threw a heavy object smashing a police car window which was heard throughout the riot, however, it is accepted that she was one of the forerunners of the movements and on the front line of the protests. Many of the important figures in the riots were black or drag queens. Marsha soon after organised a protest march which is well known today as pride.


Marsha on the left and Sylvia on the far right

A year after the stonewall riots Marsha and her dear friend Sylvia Rivera created Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). STAR became a refugee for the queer homeless and pushed for the acceptance of gender non-conforming in the form of a 4 bedroom apartment. STAR was mostly funded by Marsha and Sylvia’s prostitution and were known as the mothers of the house but, a year after its creation came the termination of STAR as the transgender community was pushed further and further out of the gay liberation movement.



The dark history of the gay liberation movement


The drag queens of new York city played a major role in the stonewall riots, but they would be rejected by the movement which they played such a major role in starting. There seemed to be no place for those who did not conform to gender or queens dressed in women’s clothes. Often members of this community were ostracised and kept at the back of marches.


At worst they were booed off the stage. Sylvia herself was booed off the stage at the fourth anniversary of the stonewall riots, after which she dropped out of the gay civil rights movements. Some feminists objected to their women’s attire, even calling them called them an embarrassment to the movement. The lesbian community were particularly hostile towards drag queens all of which resulted in their outcast from the movement.


Marsha continued to be apart of the gay liberation movement and would later become an activist towards ending the AIDS pandemic and organised medical research to support those with AIDS. She continued her work up to her death in 1992 of which it is still unknown if she died by taking her own life or the hands of others.


The role of gender non conforming people today


While being gay is no longer criminalised in America or much of Europe, gay marriage in the UK was only made legal in 2013 and in 2015 in the US. There has been a lull in gay liberation action with a lot of previous activity surrounding and aimed at legalising gay marriage. Although the transgender community has been accepted into the LGBT+ community at last there has been less action surrounding the rights of those who are gender non-conforming. Transphobia is still rife in the US, with no place in an American culture which accepts homosexuality but still ostracises the transgender community, they are still left on the outskirts of society.

Transgender rights have often been neglected

Transgenders are more at risk of suicide than any other sexuality groups, including heterosexuality. Healthcare, housing, even homeless centres they are discriminated against the list is endless. Although the LGBT movement has moved on from drag queen phobia, the transgender community still feel abandoned in a world where gender-conforming plays such an important role in culture. The term cis-gender, a person whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth, was not coined till the 1990s and therefore has only come in to use recently as a result cis-gender privilege is not a concept known to many. The privilege is that they do not have to question the gender given to them nor do they have to face the oppression that non-gender conforming people do. It is taken for granted that we live in a world built on stereotypical gender roles. Even community who greatly oppose these gender roles such as the feminist movements still cannot agree on the role transgender people have in society. It is taken as an advantage that most of us do not have to fight to be ourselves and express our genders.


The only way that transgender rights can move forward is by taking oppression of gender non-conformists seriously which Marsha could not afford to do in her lifetime.


If there is something to be learned from queen Marsha Johnson’s life it’s that you do not need to be a someone to change the world, darling, you just have to be your fabulous self.



This article is dedicated to my dearest friend Andy Thornton who has continued to support me, and show me what it is to be my fabulous self. You can find more of Andy's work at https://abigailthornton.work/


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