Pride Month: Who was Marsha P. Johnson and why was she so important?

Last updated at 13:40
Transgender icon Marsha P Johnson wearing a rose crown of flowersNetflix

June is Pride Month, where people all over the world come together to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community and raise awareness for inequalities that still stand today.

But this year, the global Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests have encouraged people to shine a special light on the impact of black gay and trans activists.

One person you may have heard about in recent days is Marsha P. Johnson.

She was a trans-rights activist who played a big role in important moments for the LGBTQ+ movement, such as the Stonewall protests.

Who was Marsha P. Johnson?
Documentary-poster-of-The-Death-and-life-of-Marsha-P-JohnsonGetty Images
A Netflix documentary was made about Marsha in 2017

Marsha P. Johnson was an African-American self-identified drag queen from New Jersey, whose activism in the 1960s and 70s had a huge impact on the LGBTQ+ community.

At this time, being gay was classified as a mental illness in the United States. Gay people were regularly threatened and beaten by police, and were shunned by many in society.

Marsha said the "P" in her name stood for "Pay it no mind" - a phrase she used when people commented negatively on her appearance or life choices.

In June 1969, when Marsha was 23 years old, police raided a gay bar in New York called The Stonewall Inn.

The police forced over 200 people out of the bar and onto the streets, and then used excessive violence against them.

In 2019, the head of New York's Police Department apologised for their actions, saying, "the actions taken by the NYPD were wrong."

Marsha, who was living and working in New York at the time, was one of the key figures who stood up to the police during the raids.

She resisted arrest, but in the following days, led a series of protests and riots demanding rights for gay people.

Much like the recent Black Lives Matter marches in the United States, news of these protests spread around the world, inspiring others to join protests and rights groups to fight for equality.

A month after the protests, the first openly gay march took place in New York - a pivotal moment for the gay and trans community everywhere.

What impact did she have?
Stonewall Inn, New YorkGetty Images
The Stonewall Inn was the site of protesting and riots in June 1969

Even though the Stonewall riots kick-started this wave of support for the LGBTQ+ community, there was still a lot of discrimination against them.

It was common for young gay and trans people to be kicked out of their family homes by their parents.

Marsha and her friend Sylvia Rivera, who was also an activist , founded STAR - Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries - an organisation to support gay and trans individuals who had been left homeless.

Marsha dedicated much of her life to helping others, despite suffering several mental health issues herself.

She was nicknamed the "Saint of Christopher Street" (where the Stonewall Inn is located), because she was known for her generosity towards people in New York's LGBTQ+ community.

What happened to her?

Sadly, Marsha died in 1992. She went missing and police found her body after six days.

Police said she had taken her own life, but many friends argued this ruling at the time, saying attacks on gay and trans people were common.

Others said they saw her being harassed by a group of "thugs" a few days before she died.

Twenty years later, in 2012, campaigner Mariah Lopez was successful in getting the New York police department to reopen Marsha's case as a possible murder.

Marsha P JohnsonGetty Images

After the NYPD reopened the case, the police reclassified Johnson's cause of death from "suicide" to undetermined.

Marsha's legacy lives on today in organisations such as the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, which says it "protects and defends the human rights of BLACK transgender people".

In February 2020, the Mayor of New York renamed the East River State Park in Brooklyn, The Marsha P. Johnson State Park and announced there will be a statue created in her honour, to be unveiled in 2021.