No quote encapsulates Marsha P. Johnson more than “Pay It No Mind.” After all, that’s what she said her middle initial stood for. And that fearless attitude exemplifies how the Black transgender activist lived her life, leading the charge for LGBTQ+ rights every step of the way — and helping instigate the Stonewall Inn uprising that sparked the gay pride movement.
But life didn’t start out fearlessly for Johnson. As the fifth of seven children of a General Motors assembly line worker and a housekeeper, Johnson was about five years old when she began wearing dresses, but was often harassed by other children.
After her high school graduation, she moved across the Hudson River to New York City in 1963 with only a bag of clothes and $15. She took on the name "Black Marsha," and eventually added on her famous middle initial and took her last name from a Howard Johnson restaurant she frequented.
It was a time when same-sex dancing in public wasn’t allowed, bars were banned from serving alcoholic drinks to gay people and cross-dressing could lead to a sexual deviancy arrest. To make ends meet, she became a sex worker — often getting arrested, losing count after the 100th incident. However, Johnson also found a community in the city, especially after meeting Latina drag queen Sylvia Rivera. Together, they started raising their voices.
While the genesis of the Stonewall Inn uprising remains shrouded in myth, there’s no doubt Johnson was a key figure leading the events of June 28, 1969 — some even credit her with throwing the “shot glass heard around the world” that started the rebellion. By following year, the first gay pride parades took place, and Johnson and Rivera founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to house, feed and clothe young transgender people.
Johnson became known as much for her activism as for her attention-grabbing wardrobe, often complete with red plastic heels, colorful wigs and flowers and fruit in her hair. Though she struggled with mental health issues, Johnson was beloved for her charismatic persona. Since the term transgender wasn’t used during her time, she identified as gay, transvestite and as a drag queen, using the pronouns she/her.
Johnson also became an AIDS activist, later revealing in a 1992 interview that she had been HIV-positive for two years. Not long after, her body was pulled from the Hudson River near the West Village.
Here are 14 quotes from Johnson that capture her spirit and endless passion for LGBTQ+ rights:
On Coming of Age: “I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville until I became a drag queen. That’s what made me in New York, that’s what made me in New Jersey, that’s what made me in the world.”
On Changing History: “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.”
On Equality: “How many years has it taken people to realize that we are all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race?”
On Motivation: “Darling, I want my gay rights now. I think it’s about time the gay brothers and sisters got their rights… especially the women.”
On Embracing Her Identity: “I’d like to see the gay revolution get started… If a transvestite doesn’t say 'I’m gay and I’m proud and I’m a transvestite,' then nobody else is going to hop up there and say 'I’m gay and I’m proud and I’m a transvestite' for them.”
On Human Rights: “You never completely have your rights, one person, until you all have your rights."
On Mental Health: “I may be crazy, but that don't make me wrong.”
On Distrust: “I got robbed once. A man pulled a gun on me and snatched my pocketbook in a car. I don't trust men that much anymore.”
On the Fight for Freedom: “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.”
On Her Reputation: “I know people think I’m a stupid little street queen out there begging for change ‘cause there’s nothing else she knows how to do.”
On Gender Roles: “I'm very comfortable around straight men. Well, I know how to handle them. I've been around them for years, from working the streets. But I don't like straight men. I'm not too friendly with them. There's only one thing they want — to get up your dress. They're really insulting to women. All they think about is getting up your dress, anything to get up that dress of yours. Then when you get pregnant or something, they don't even want to know you.”
On Paying It Forward: “I’ll always be known [for] reaching out to young people who have no one to help them out, so I help them out with a place to stay or some food to eat or some change for their pocket. And they never forget it. A lot of times I’ve reached my hand out to people in the gay community that just didn’t have nobody to help them when they were down and out.”
On Her Own Legacy: “They call me a legend in my own time, because there were so many queens gone that I’m one of the few queens left from the ’70s and the ’80s.”