Marsha P. Johnson was not well known during her life. But in death, her legacy is stamped indelibly onto the rainbow pride flag.
The transgender activist was among a group of blacks who in the 1960s stood on the front lines of the LGBT liberation movement and is now receiving overdue credit for her trailblazing role.
Johnson, who founded one of the first organizations to protect transgender youth, was an outspoken figure in New York’s Greenwich Village.
“For so long, the role that people like Marsha played was dismissed,” says Marisa Richmond, a trans scholar who teaches history at Middle Tennessee State University. “The world is more open, welcoming and inclusive than it was 50 years ago. Her efforts helped make that happen.”
Johnson was part of the “vanguard” that resisted police during the Stonewall riots — demonstrations that followed a raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in the Village, on June 28, 1969, according to the 2010 book “Stonewall”, written by LGBT historian David Carter.
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At the time, New York refused to grant licenses to bars that served gays, which allowed police to enter Stonewall with a warrant. They arrested 13 people.
“The majority of people at Stonewall were either drag queens or gay men of color,” Titus Montalvo, a hairdresser and makeup artist who was 16 at the time, told USA TODAY.
The incident became a rallying cry for the nascent gay rights movement.
Many in the LGBT community credit Johnson for throwing the first brick or shot glass that sparked the riots. Johnson said she didn’t arrive at the bar until rioting was underway. Nevertheless, her role is hailed.
“There are lots of different accounts of what she did during the riots,” says Michael Boucai, associate professor of law at the University at Buffalo School of Law who studies LGBTQ rights and history. “The consensus is that she did climb a lamppost and throw a very heavy object that was in a bag and shattered a police (car) window.”
The following year, Johnson and a close friend, Sylvia Rivera, founded the trans-youth organization STAR — Street Transvestite (now Transgender) Action Revolutionaries — that housed and fed homeless youths.
Donald Bell of Chicago, a former dean of students at several colleges, says Stonewall called attention to a group of people who lacked basic civil rights. “That’s why Marsha’s visibility and advocacy remain important,” he says. “She and a number of others who lived at the intersection between racism and homophobia were political agitators that helped advance the mindset of society.”
Marsha P. Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels in Elizabeth, N.J., in 1945. She said the “P” in her name stood for “Pay-it-no-mind.”
Often draped in shimmering robes, red plastic high heels and floral headdresses, she was a muse of pop artist Andy Warhol and has been the subject of several films, including a 2017 Netflix documentary, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.”
“When he got off the bus, everyone would notice,” says Al Michaels, Johnson’s nephew, who grew up calling Johnson “Uncle Mikey.”
“We’d be playing football in the streets as kids,” Michaels recalls. “Soon as he turned the corner, he’d have on fruit, a big hat with flowers.”
After Stonewall, Johnson joined the gay liberation front. In the 1980s, she became an outspoken activist with the AIDS charity ACT UP.
She died in 1992 at age 46. Her body was found in the Hudson River six days after she was reported missing. Police ruled Johnson’s death a suicide, which members of the local gay community disputed. In 2012, authorities reopened the investigation into her death, which remains unsolved, according to her nephew.
Johnson’s death attracted scant media attention at the time, but her life and contributions have been celebrated in recent years. In 2018, The New York Times published a full obituary on her significance in the LGBT liberation movement.
“The 50th anniversary of Stonewall is coming up this June. I’m hoping that this time, trans people and people of color are front and center in the local pride celebrations,” Richmond says. “After all, we were there from the very beginning.”
Follow USA TODAY Reporter Dalvin Brown on Twitter @Dalvin_Brown