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On July 6, 1992 the body of transgender and gay rights activist Marsha P. Johnson was pulled from murky waters of the Hudson River. Johnson, who was front and center during the Stonewall riots of 1969, also helped establish Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.) and AIDs Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), and was a visible presence in pride marches and rallies. Because Johnson’s death was ruled a suicide, after what some thought was a quick investigation, her community engaged in a decades-long quest for answers. 

Dolly Stolze

Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels Jr. on August 24, 1945 and was raised, by all accounts, in a conservative home in Elizabeth, NJ. She moved to New York City as soon as she graduated from high school because her mother did not approve of her lifestyle. She quickly made herself at home in the gay community of Greenwich Village and changed her name to Marsha P. Johnson. She would often joke that the P stood for “Pay it no mind.” 
Johnson was known to walk the streets, day or night, in floral crowns and colorful wigs. The drag queen was a regular at the Stonewall Inn, a historic gay bar in Greenwich Village, and other clubs in the city. 

During the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a common occurrence for gay bars at the time. Johnson was one of the first to fight back against police brutality and was a visible presence throughout the demonstration that sparked the modern LGBTQ movement.
On the first night of the Stonewall rebellion, according to some, Johnson shouted, “I got my civil rights!,” then threw a shot glass at a mirror. This act of defiance became known as the “shot glass heard around the world,” a reference to the shots fired at the Battles of Lexington and Concord that started the American Revolution.1 On the second night of the riots, witnesses say she climbed a lamppost and threw a bag onto the hood of a police car and crushed its windshield.2 

In 1972, the “Rosa Parks of the LGBTQ movement” helped establish S.T.A.R., the first outreach nonprofit and shelter for gay and trans youth, with fellow trans organizer Sylvia Ramirez.3 Johnson was all too familiar with the dangers these vulnerable kids faced since she was a sex worker, frequently homeless, and encountered harassment and violence. She and Ramirez worked to provide shelter for these kids, sometimes going as far as to keep doing sex work to support the shelter.3 

In the late 1980’s, she organized ACT UP, a nonprofit that advocated for the improvement of the lives of people living with AIDS through legislation and medical research during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis.3 In an interview taped about a week before her death, which later became part of the film, “Pay It No Mind – The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson,” Johnson revealed she was HIV positive.4 

Johnson and her fellow drag queens marched in pride rallies and demonstrations for decades. The last one was the New York City Gay Pride Parade that marked the 23rd anniversary of the Stonewall uprising on June 28, 1992. It was shortly after this event that Johnson disappeared. 
On July 6, 1992, her body was found floating near a pier on the Hudson River. The police ruled her death a suicide after a short investigation, despite the fact that her close friends insisted she was not suicidal.

Johnson’s friends had questions about the case that remained unanswered. Where was Johnson before her body was discovered? Did she drown or was her body dumped in the Hudson? Was she forced into the water, did she accidentally fall in, or did she jump? Was the hole in her head an injury inflicted antemortem (before death) or post-mortem (after death)? Was this a hate crime?

In “Violence Against the Transgender Community in 2017,” the Human Rights Campaign reports, “fatal violence disproportionately affects transgender women of color, and that the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia conspire to deprive them of employment, housing, healthcare and other necessities, barriers that make them vulnerable.6 In 2016, 22 transgender people were murdered, and, to date, in 2017, there have been at least 15 trans people who were killed. Many of these deaths have been linked to their gender nonconformity.

Johnson’s cause of death could have been homicide, suicide or even accidental. Many of her friends did not believe investigators spent enough time considering all the evidence, instead ruling her death a suicide and closing the case too quickly. So if Johnson’s loved ones wanted a more thorough investigation, it was up to them to examine the case.

Johnson’s roommate, Randolf Wicker, interviewed a witness who found her body and another who heard a man bragging about the crime. One witness, who was near the waterfront when her body was discovered, reported seeing a hole in her head.7 Another witness claimed that he overheard a man brag about killing a drag queen named Johnson.

Activists lobbied to change the ruling on the cause of death in order to re-open the investigation. In 2002, the NYPD took another look at the case and found that there was not enough evidence to conclude this was a suicide. Johnson’s cause of death was officially changed to undetermined. Finally in 2012, transgender activist Mariah Lopez got the NYPD to re-open the investigation.4 

Works Cited
1)    Musto, M. (2012). Who started the Stonewall riots? I have an answer. Retrieved from: https://www.villagevoice.com/2012/04/10/who-started-the-stonewall-riots-i-have-
an-answer/
2)    Thomas, J. (2015). Who’s real and who’s Invented in Stonewall? Retrieved from: http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2015/09/25/stonewall_characters_were_frank_kameny_ed_murphy_and_marsha_p_johnson_accurately.html
3)    Valentine, C. (2017). Remembering Marsha P. Johnson, the “Rosa Parks” of the LBGTQ movement. Retrieved from: http://www.papermag.com/marsha-p-johnson-trans-activist-2454557317.html
4)    [Michael Kasino]. (2015, October 12). Pay It No Mind – 
The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson. Retrieved from: 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjN9W2KstqE
5)    Jacobs, S. (2012). EXCLUSIVE: DA reopens unsolved 1992 case involving the ‘saint of gay life.’ Retrieved from: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/da-reopens-unsolved-1992-case-involving-saint-gay-life-article-1.1221742
6)    “Violence Against the Transgender Community in 2017.” (2017). Retrieved from: http://www.hrc.org/resources/
violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2017
7)    Randolfe Wicker]. (2011, June 29). Marsha P. Johnson – 
People’s Memorial. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Kmv0twbaGM 
8)    [Randolfe Wicker]. (2011, June 30). Bennie Toney talks about Marsha P. Johnson’s Killing Suspect 1997 Part 1.mov. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XzMBmDunZk

Dolly Stolze is a researcher and editor at Strange Remains, a blog site that specialized in forensic science, bioarchaeology and bizarre history. She has a master’s degree in forensic anthropology from California State University, Los Angeles. 

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