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Marsha P. Johnson's historic role in the LGBTQ+ rights movement


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

John Yang: And now as part of our Hidden History series, we look back on the legacy of a larger than life figure in her own community. Her contributions to the fight for gay and transgender rights were until recently largely overlooked.

She was fondly known as St. Marsha, a central figure in New York City's gay liberation movement, a model for artists Andy Warhol, and an advocate for transgender and homeless youth. Marsha P. Johnson wore many hats sometimes literally. They were often adorned with plastic fruit or flowers.

Marsha P. Johnson, Founding Member Of The Gay Liberation Front: They call me Marsha pay it no mind Johnson. I try and pay a lot of little things that happen to me in life absolutely no mind.

John Yang: Assigned male at her 1945 birth in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Johnson started wearing clothes made for girls when she was five, but felt pressured to stop after being sexually assaulted by a 13-year old boy. As soon as she graduated from high school, she fled across the Hudson River to New York City with just $15 and a bag of clothes.

There, she dressed as she pleased while better than in her hometown life in New York City could still be hard for those who didn't match societal norms. Crossdressing was a crime in New York State and Johnson was sometimes arrested simply for wearing makeup in public. Often unable to find a job and without a permanent residence, she turned to sex work.

Johnson really enjoyed performing and drag. She was part of a drag group called Hot Peaches and took to the stage sporting red heels and bright wings. Even though the Bahamian enclave of Greenwich Village where Johnson lived was the focal point of the city's gay life. Police still routinely rated gay bars there.

During a late night June 1969 raid on the Stonewall Inn, patrons fought back and the modern gay rights movement in America was born. Johnson, who was 23 at the time has wrongly been credited with throwing the first brick of the uprising. She said she didn't arrive at the scene until after the chaos had begun. One of the many transgender women on the front lines that night because they said they had nothing left to lose.

Johnson may not have started to Stonewall riot, but for decades to come. She was a key player in the LGBTQ plus rights movement that had sparked even as many gay and lesbian groups marginalized transgender people.

Marsha P. Johnson: You never completely have your rights, one person, until you all have your rights.

John Yang: With longtime friend Sylvia Rivera, also a transgender woman, Johnson founded STAR, Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries, the term transgender was not widely used yet. The political collective supported and housed homeless LGBTQ plus youth and sex workers.

During the AIDS crisis that began in the 1980s, Johnson helped spread awareness and raise money. She looked after sick friends even as she struggled with her own mental illness and became HIV positive herself.

In 1992, Johnson's body was pulled from the Hudson River. Police first called it suicide then reclassified it as undetermined. And in 2012, reopen the case which remains unsolved. She was 46 years old.

Marsha P. Johnson: And if I die, I hope nobody cries either. Instead, stand up, get up and dance, party and have a good time.

John Yang: Today her name and legacy live on with the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, which advocates for the rights of black transgender people.

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