Marsha P Johnson: who was the Stonewall riots gay rights activist and drag queen honoured with a Google Doodle

It’s said her middle initial stood for ‘Pay It No Mind’ – her response to those who questioned her gender

A new Google Doodle honours the life of Marsha P. Johnson, a gay rights activist and self-identified drag queen who became one of the prominent figures in the Stonewall uprising.

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(Image: Google)

Who was Marsha P. Johnson?

Born Malcolm Michaels Jr. on 24 August 1945, Johnson moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village after graduating high school in 1963.

It was there – amongst a burgeoning cultural hub for LGBTQ+ people – she legally changed her name to Marsha P. Johnson.

It’s said her middle initial of ’P’ stood for “Pay It No Mind” – her response to those who questioned her gender.

A man wears a button with a picture of Marsha P. Johnson during an event at the The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Centre in New York in May 2019 (Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

Johnson was a beloved fixture in the LGBTQ+ community of New York and beyond, and was colloquially known as the "mayor of Christopher Street", on which the Stonewall Inn was located.

As a result of the Stonewall campaign – of which Johnson is credited as one of the key leaders – the street became the centre of New York State's gay rights movement, and to this day serves as an international symbol of gay pride.

Following Stonewall, Johnson founded the Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with fellow transgender activist Sylvia Rivera, which fought for transgender rights and provided shelter and food to homeless queer youth

It was the first American organisation to be led by a trans woman of colour, and as such, New York City announced plans to erect statues of Johnson and Rivera in Greenwich Village.

A poster of transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson is unveiled during an event at the The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York in May 2019 (Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

It will be one of the world’s first monuments in honour of transgender people.

How did she die?

Johnson suffered from mental health issues, and although described as generous and warmhearted under her Marsha persona, an angry, violent side was known to emerge when she was depressed or under severe stress.

Some said Johnson could revert back to her male persona as Malcom, and would often get in fights and end up hospitalised and sedated; she was allegedly banned from numerous New York gay bars.

Towards the end of her life, she was said to be increasingly sick and fragile, and in 1992, her body was found in the Hudson River shortly after that year’s pride parade.

Friends and local community members insisted Johnson was not suicidal, and considered her death suspicious, noting a large wound on the back of her head.

A witness claimed a neighbourhood resident – who had been fighting with Johnson – later bragged at a bar he had killed a drag queen named Marsha, but according to locals, police were not interested in investigating further; the case was about a "gay black man" and they reportedly wanted little to do with it.

In 2017, the critically acclaimed documentary The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson was released, portraying Johnson’s life and examining the re-opened investigation into her suspicious death.

It is available to watch on Netflix.

Who made today’s Doodle?

Today’s Doodle was illustrated by Los Angeles-based guest artist Rob Gilliam, who said he took inspiration from “Marsha's vibrant personality and the iconic New York architecture that her and her colleagues proudly marched through.”

“The impact of trans women of colour has historically been omitted from retellings of queer history, so I knew I had to give Marsha's life the celebration that it truly deserved,” he said.

“Marsha knew that the true key to liberation was intersectionality. Recent times have been extremely divisive, and it's far too easy to fixate on what separates us as opposed to celebrating the commonalities we share.

“I think we could all be a little more like Marsha in that respect. Everyone has their own unique, powerful, vibrant identity— and when we embrace these differences, we take a step towards building stronger communities.”