The Shot Glass Heard Round the World: A biography on Marsha P. Johnson


Zofia Patel, Journalist / Editor

      Marsha P. Johnson, a name that seems to be forgotten by history to most. The only thing that may bring the slightest recognition is the name, is the word “Stonewall.” The famed series of riots in 1969 that shot through the streets of New York. It’s important to remember that things weren’t always the way they are now. Acceptance in your own community could be difficult. Still, as you can see, things changed thanks in part to one woman, often forgotten because of the color of her skin, often skipped over in the narrative of history in favor of white, cis, members of the LGBTQIA+ movement. This remarkable woman was Marsh P. Johnson. A black, trans, gay woman who kick-started a revolution. Alongside that, she also advocated tirelessly for sex workers, prisoners, and people with H.I.V. or AIDS.

Marsha was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on August 24, 1945, as the fifth of seven children in a working-class family. Her father was Malcolm Michaels Sr. He worked in an assembly line for General Motors. Her mother, Alberta Claiborne, was a housekeeper. As Marsha grew up, she tried wearing more feminine clothes but was immediately reprimanded due to her Christian upbringing.

After graduating from Thomas A. Edison High School in the year 1963, Marsha moved to New York with only 15 dollars and a bag of clothes. Being homeless and alone in New York is hard, so in order to make ends meet, she became a prostitute like many of the homeless LGBT youth had done at the time. Marsha soon found community among other like-minded people among the night-lives of the people of Christopher Street. During this time she changed her name repeatedly, alternating between her birth name Malcome and the name Black Marsha before finally choosin

g the name Marsha P. Johnson. Whenever asked what the P in her name meant she would always say, “Pay no mind.”  She would also say this to people antagonizing her and/or harassing her as a way of dismissing them.

As a prostitute, Marsha got arrested more than 100 times and has been faced with violence and was even shot once, an injury that debilitated her for the rest of her life. Along with this she also suffered from mental illness and lived without a home for 

most of her life, but none of this slowed her down. It’s thanks to her resilience that we are where we are today. 

Not long after she came to New York, she met 11-year-old Sylvia Rivera, a Puerto Rican trans-women. Marsha taught her how to apply makeup, watch out for trouble, and live on the streets. The two were fast friends as Marsha helped Sylvia a lot. Marsha loved expressing herself in many different ways. She wore extravagant clothes, often made from things she had gotten from a thrift store and gifts from friends, as well as things she found on the streets. She often wore flower crowns of her own creation filled with fresh flowers. 

June 28,1969; the night that changed the lives of almost everyone in America and even beyond there. In the early eves of the day Marsha found herself near the Stonewall Inn. That night police officers had raided the place and arrested many people for breaking discriminatory laws, which angered many people. They finally fought back against years of discrimination, hurting and angering the entire community. There are many different accounts of what happened that night, but the one thing that is very clear is that Marsha was at the forefront of it. One account states that Marsha started the uprising when she threw a shot glass at a mirror, another states that it began when she climbed up a lamppost and dropped her purse on a police car, smashing the windshield. Many young trans women participated in the riot that night, thinking they had nothing left to lose. That one riot started a string of riots that fought for the liberation and freedom of the LGBTQIA+ community, acquiring the title as the Stonewall Riots.

This revolt wasn’t the end of Marsha P. Johnson though. She then went on to start the organization STAR (Street Transvestite Activist Revolutionaries) with Sylvia. This organization was created to help homeless trans youth by housing, feeding, and providing clothes for them. Their first-ever center was in the back of an abandoned truck, but STAR soon grew to be more when Marsha made sure it got out there through drag performances with the then-popular drag group called the Hot Peaches. Though the organization quickly shut down due to lack of funds and government, it would affect many youth shelters throughout America.

Even with all this success, life could never be easy for Marsha. She had her first

series of mental breakdowns in the year 1970 and ended up going in and out of psychiatric wards after that though this never stopped her, often saying, “I may be crazy, but that doesn’t make me wrong.”

  Lots of things changed for Marsha in the year 1980, though. She was invited to be in the front car at a pride parade where she met and became close friends with the gay rights activist  Randy Wicker and began living with him taking care of his lover David Combs, who had AIDS and eventually died from it in the 1990s. She was also a huge AIDS activist and attended protests and meetings for the organization ACT UP, an AIDS activist organization.

One day June 26, 1992, Marsha told someone in an interview that she had been H.I.V positive for two years. Several days later, she was seen for the last time, and on July 6, 1992, her body was pulled out of the Hudson River near the Christopher Peer docks. The police immediately locked up the scene and then ruled Marsha’s death a suicide, despite her friends saying that she w

as not suicidal and that she was being chased the last time they saw her, according to the accounts from her friends. “She wasn’t suicidal, she did face mental challenges, but she was not in a suicidal mood at this time,” Musto said, a friend of Marsha’s. Many said she was attacked, pointing to the bruise on the back of her head for evidence though the police waved this off and closed this case. Marsha was cremated, and her dust was thrown in the Hudson River. Years later, in 2012, the case was reopened but has still yet to be solved.

Marsha P. Johnson was a revolutionary figure in the LGBTQIA+ movement. Though she may not be well known, it is important to carry on her legacy and persevere no matter what as well as helping others in need even if you need help yourself because, in the end, that may help you grow and feel happy. Just remember, “History isn’t something you look back at and say it was inevitable, it happens because people make decisions that are sometimes very impulsive and of the moment, but those moments are cumulative realities.” – Marsha P. Johnson.

Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992)