In honor of Marsha P. Johnson’s 75th birthday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that East River State Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn will be renamed to honor Johnson’s legacy. According to a press release from Aug. 24, 2020, Marsha P. Johnson State Park is now the first state park in New York that honors a transgender woman of color. By the summer of 2021, the park will install bright and colorful public art pieces to celebrate Johnson’s life as an LGBTQ+ activist and to educate the public on the history of the LGBTQ+ community.
“Marsha P. Johnson was one of the early leaders of the LGBTQ movement, and is only now getting the acknowledgement she deserves,” Governor Cuomo said in the press release. “Dedicating this state park for her, and installing public art telling her story, will ensure her memory and her work fighting for equality lives on.”
According to the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, an organization dedicated to protecting the rights of Black transgender individuals, Johnson was “an activist, self-identified drag queen, performer, and survivor.” Johnson also referred to herself as “Black Marsha” before officially naming herself Marsha P. Johnson. She told people that the “P” in her name stood for “pay it no mind,” which was her response when people asked about her non-conforming gender identity.
Johnson is best known for her role in the Stonewall Riots in 1969 when police raided the Stonewall Inn. The bar had become a safe haven for LGBTQ+ people in New York City in the 1960s, and it gave the community the opportunity to be themselves without the fear of being discriminated against. Unfortunately, police raids on gay bars were common during this time. According to a New York Times article, “the police department was trying to enforce a prohibition against selling alcoholic drinks to ‘homosexuals’” when they raided the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969.
LGBTQ+ people were, and continue to be, at a high risk for oppression, abuse, and discrimination, but Johnson, alongside other LGBTQ+ activists, such as her good friend Sylvia Rivera, rose up to fight for LGBTQ+ equality and liberation. She became one of the most prominent people in the Stonewall Uprising, fighting back against the violence and oppression toward LGTBQ+ people and leading the six consecutive days of protests that came after the initial raid. She organized the first ever Gay Pride March in New York City, and her rebellion marked the beginning of the LGBTQ+ Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
Johnson and Rivera also worked together to create the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), an organization that advocated for transgender youth and provided them with basic necessities such as housing, clothing, and food. Although the organization disbanded in the early 1970s, Johnson and Rivera were able to house homeless LGBTQ+ people in New York City, Chicago, and California.
In addition to fighting for LGBTQ+ rights, Johnson was a pioneer in the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s. She worked closely with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a political group who fought to end the AIDS epidemic in the United States and end the stigma around being HIV positive. Johnson revealed her own battle as someone who was HIV positive in 1992.
According to the New York Times’ Overlooked Obituaries series, Johnson said her goal as an activist was to “to see gay people liberated and free and to have equal rights that other people have in America.” She also said she wanted her “gay brothers and sisters out of jail and on the streets again.”
Even as a young child, Johnson rarely conformed to gender norms. She wore dresses and skirts, and her style grew with her when she moved to Manhattan after graduating high school in New Jersey. Johnson was known for her signature red heels, sparkling dresses and colorful wigs, and her style, activism, and big heart did not go unnoticed. In 1975, Andy Warhol took polaroid pictures of her and created his Ladies and Gentlemen series, depicting the faces of transgender individuals of color and drag queens. The series was known for being vibrant and expressive, and many art critics believe Warhol used such wild colors intentionally to represent liberation.
Johnson will also be honored by a monument in Elizabeth, New Jersey, according to a CNN article. It will be New Jersey’s first ever public monument in honor of a transgender woman of color, and the statue will be located outside of Elizabeth’s City Hall.
Johnson’s nephew Al Michaels says he is proud of his aunt and remembers her telling him to always be himself. He believes that everything his aunt fought for is still prevalent today.
“Marsha is needed now,” Michaels told CNN. “Here we have the Black Lives Matter movement and the Trans Lives Matter movement. We have the same thing happening to people today, as far as police brutality.”
Johnson died in 1992, but her legacy as a strong, Black, transgender woman, crusading for social justice lives on. Check out @marshapjohnsonstatepark on Instagram for updates on when the park’s improvements will be completed.