Google hon­ors gay lib­er­a­tion activist Mar­sha P. John­son with a Doo­dle.


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.

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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.”

Mar­sha P. John­son


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.

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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.”

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