Fifty-one years ago this week, New York City police launched an early morning raid on the Stonewall Inn, a small Greenwich Village bar popular with members of the gay community. The raid sparked the Stonewall riots and would become a catalyst for the gay rights movement in the US and around the world.
Marsha P. Johnson, a gay liberation activist and self-identified drag queen, was a fixture of the Greenwich Village life for nearly three decades and was a central figure in the pushback against police at the Stonewall uprising. To honor her contribution to the gay liberation movement, Google dedicated its Doodle on Tuesday to Johnson as part of its traditional celebration of Pride Month, an annual celebration of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex community.
Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels Jr. on Aug. 24, 1945, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to a working-class family. She started wearing dresses at the age of 5, but stopped temporarily due to harassment from local children. After being sexually assaulted by another boy, she began to think of being gay as “some sort of dream” rather than something that was possible.
After graduating high school in 1963, Johnson moved to New York City with $15 and a bag of clothes, settling in Greenwich Village, a neighborhood popular with the gay and lesbian community. Around this time, she changed her name to Marsha P. Johnson — she used to say that the P stood for “Pay it no mind.”
Despite the neighborhood’s large population of gays and lesbians, it was a difficult time to live outside the sexual mainstream. Bars were prohibited from serving gay people alcoholic beverages, and same-sex dancing in public was illegal, although dancing was permitted at the Stonewall Inn thanks to weekly cash payoffs to police, although raids still occur occasionally.
One of those raids occurred just after midnight on June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn. Johnson denied starting the uprising, but she’s considered a vanguard of those who resisted the police and the disturbances that followed.
After an officer struck a lesbian over the head with a baton, the crowd began throwing bottles, stones and other objects at the police. A full-blown riot broke out minutes later, with the crowd trying to overturn and burn police cars as some police and detained patrons barricaded themselves in the bar for protection.
The crowd was eventually dispersed, but tensions between the police and gay community remained high, leading to several more days of protests, some of which attracted thousands of protestors. In the aftermath, several gay rights organizations formed, including the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance.
A year later, on the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots, thousands marched in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — the first of dozens of Gay Pride marches that would become annual events in cities around the world.
Johnson went on to become an AIDS activist with ACT UP and co-founder of the Gay Liberation Front and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries to aid young transgender people in lower Manhattan.
But her life was full of hardships. She was frequently homeless and resorted to prostitution to survive. She was in and out of psychiatric hospitals after suffering the first of a series of breakdowns in 1970.
Johnson died in 1992 at the age of 46. Her body was found floating in the Hudson River on July 6, and the cause of death was quickly ruled a suicide, although it was later reclassified as undetermined. In 2012, the New York Police Department reopened the case as a possible homicide.
Tuesday’s Doodle was illustrated by Los Angeles-based guest artist Rob Gilliam, who says that as a “queer person of color,” he owes much to Johnson’s work.
“She was the catalyst for our liberation, the driving force behind the movement that has given many of us the rights and freedoms that we previously couldn’t even dream of,” Gilliam told Google. “Marsha created a space for us in western society through her empowering bravery and refusal to be silenced.”
Elle Hearns, founder and executive director or the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, says she relies on Johnson’s vision and brilliance as a guide for building an organization to address the movement’s needs.
“Marsha was a pioneer in the early days of the Gay Liberation movement,” Hearns told CNET. “She spoke up and motivated her community to fight back against injustice and cruelty.
“Today, I’m reminded of her every day as we continue to protest against police brutality and violence that is specifically targeted towards Black+ trans women. Marsha’s incredible legacy lives on. Today, we still see and feel the impact of her love and her work.”