Black History Month: “Pay it No Mind”

Marsha P. Johnson

It was a quiet night at the Stonewall Inn. So quiet something was bound to happen. A few days before, police had raided the bar, arresting LGBTQ+ people and confiscating illegal liquor. Once again, on June 27, 1969, police began to target and use excessive force against employees, drag queens and anyone who didn’t fit the status quo. But many people were tired of this unjust treatment, and so they raised their voices. One of those voices belonged to Marsha P. Johnson. Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels, Jr., in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on August 24, 1945, to a Christian family. It is said that she would often switch between the two names until finally settling on Marsha P. Johnson. She quickly left her home town after high school, as both her parents and town discouraged being queer. But life would not get any better. Johnson faced poverty, homelessness, and became a prostitute to make ends meet in New York City. She soon found solace in drag and became a renowned figure, helping struggling and homeless LGBTQ+ teens. Johnson was also a successful drag queen with the NYC drag theatre company known as Hot Peaches. “I was no one… until I became a drag queen… that’s what made me in the world,” Johnson said in a 1992 interview. She was known for her straightforwardness, along with her extravagant hats and elegant jewelry. The “P” in her name stood for “pay it no mind,” a phrase she would often say those who felt the need to pry about her gender. At age 24, at the Stonewall Inn, Johnson was one of the first people to fight back against the police. But the movement soon shifted towards white cisgender men and women, leaving transgender and people of color out of the picture. In spite of this, Johnson and her friend Sylvia Rivera founded the Street Transvestite* Action Revolutionaries, or STAR. It provided a safe place for homeless youth across the country and would continue its work until the 1970s. Tragically, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River off the West Village Piers on July 6, 1992. She was 46. It was deemed a suicide by the police, but everyone knew that she wasn’t suicidal. Her case was reopened in 2017. People can learn more about her and this investigation in The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson on Netflix. In the end, the progress of acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community wouldn’t have been possible without her.

— Maya Ross

*Transvestite is what Marsha called herself, as the word transgender had not yet been coined