Marsha P. Johnson is a legend of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. She was well ahead of her time back in the 1960s and ’70s, and her legacy is just as powerful today. Assigned male at birth in the ’40s, Johnson lived as a woman for most of her life, at a time before “transgender” was even a current term. She played a vital role in fighting for acceptance and bringing the abuses that trans people had to endure into public view. This is her incredible story.
Johnson was right there on the frontline at the Stonewall riots back in 1969, which marked a monumental turning point in the gay rights movement She spent years fighting for the rights of LGBTQ+ folks, even adding her own twist to the struggle as a proud African-American. So who was this trailblazing trans woman? Marsha P. Johnson came into the world in 1945 on a summer’s day in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the fifth of seven children.
Originally named Malcolm Michaels Jr., Johnson was born into a solidly working-class family. Her father, Malcolm Michaels Sr., worked on the assembly line at the General Motors plant in Linden, New Jersey, while her mother, Alberta Claiborne, was a housekeeper. The Michaels family, including Johnson, were regular attendees at the Mount Teman African Methodist Episcopal Church in Elizabeth, and Johnson kept her Christian faith for the rest of her life.
Johnson attended Elizabeth’s Thomas A. Edison School, graduating when she was 17. Her desire to experiment with gender identity came when she was as young as five by some accounts. It started with a desire to wear girls’ clothing, but it seems that was too “out-there” for the people of Elizabeth in the 1950s. Johnson was bullied at school, and it seems that her gender doubts had to be put on the back burner during her childhood, at least as far as her peers were concerned.
Bright lights of New York
After graduating from high school at 17 years old, Johnson then took what must have been a very brave step for a teenager from the sticks. She upped and left Elizabeth, heading for the bright lights of New York City. Although at the time gay and trans people — basically anyone who wasn’t heterosexual — faced discrimination even in the Big Apple, things there were a lot more relaxed than in suburban America.