Pay It No Mind: Celebrating the Legacy of Trans Trailblazer Marsha P. Johnson


Marsha P. Johnson is a fashion icon, drag queen, and pioneer for LGBTQ+ rights. She is often recognized from the iconic image where she proudly displays her bright red lipstick, adorned with a flower crown, a vibrant fuchsia top, and a big smile. But what many do not know about Marsha are the trials and tribulations she endured to become the revolutionary we know her as today.

Born Malcolm Michaels Jr. to a working-class family in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Marsha began embracing different aspects of her gender expression. Marsha often discussed the evolution of her femininity and how it has changed as she explored her sexuality. Fashion was a big part of her identity, as she meticulously crafted each of her outfits from thrift items and used makeup to express herself further. Marsha credits the people in her life—specifically her mother— for creating an environment where she could become whoever she wanted and the places she frequented for their role in cultivating her persona. Her middle initial stands for Pay it no mind; her response to critics or speculations about her gender identity.

Malcolm transformed into Marsha P. Johnson as she moved to New York City with just a few dollars after graduating high school. Moving to the city was anything but easy for her. Marsha was frequently arrested for prostitution and cross-dressing, some of the many laws enacted to criminalize queer people. When the Stonewall Uprisings of 1969 occurred, Marsha stood on the frontlines, resisting police presence. Despite the challenges she faced, Marsha remained grounded in her faith and used adversity to continue to push for the liberation of the LGBTQ+ community.

Marsha P. Johnson was HIV positive and was an advocate for those suffering from the AIDS epidemic. After Stonewall, Johnson partnered with Sylvia Rivera, another gay rights activist to create the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). Her participation in this grassroots organization advocated for young transgender people, who had little support and gave them a place to stay.

Through her activism, Marsha consistently reminded those listening that the fight for liberation does not stop after one significant event: “As long as my people don’t have their rights across America, there’s no reason for celebration,” says Johnson in a 1972 interview.

Marsha passed away in 1992 but her legacy lives on through the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, which operates as a safe space for Black trans people. Her activism and fight for LGBTQ+ rights teach many the importance of fighting for the collective well-being of people who continue to be oppressed. Marsha’s resilience and commitment to equal rights for all marginalized communities are demonstrated in modern-day movements and will continue to be acknowledged when discussing the legacy left behind by prominent activists.



Here are some resources I used while writing this article:

Blair Academy