As heroes go, she was pretty extraordinary.
The political climate in the 1960s was incredibly hostile to people in the LGBT+ community. Homosexuality was considered a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. McCarthy-era policies had put pressure on local governments to shut down LGBT+ meeting places (such as bars and clubs), many cities outlawed the wearing of "opposite gender clothes", and the police performed hostile "sweeps" of neighborhoods, during which they would beat and humiliate members of the community. In New York City, one of the only places that was still safe for LGBT+ people from police harassment was the Stonewall Inn.
Enter Marsha P. Johnson
She was a regular patron of the Stonewall Inn. On June 28th, 1969, the NYPD was about to perform a raid on the bar that, had it gone like their prior raids, would have resulted in beatings and arrests for the patrons. That night, they fought back. According to a witness (via), Marsha P. Johnson was the one who threw the first brick, which ignited the crowd and started the riot. The LGBT+ community in Greenwich Village responded with protests the next evening that continued for many nights after.
The movement kept growing.
And Johnson was at the center of it. She was a prominent activist, co-founding Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries with Sylvia Rivera, which advocated on behalf of homeless drag queens and runaways. Johnson was also an organizer for ACT UP, founded to impact the lives of people living with HIV and AIDS "to bring about legislation, medical research and treatment and policies to ultimately bring an end to the disease by mitigating loss of health and lives" (via).
Why isn't she more well-known?
Unfortunately the history of the LGBT+ movement in the United States has focused heavily on the contributions of white gay men, relegating the stories of Marsha P. Johnson and other nonwhite activists to the sidelines. As the LGBT+ movement has grown, the overwhelming message has been about 'normalizing' the LGBT+ experience, which has unfortunately meant distancing the movement from sex workers and other 'unsavory' members of the community. However, as we re-investigate our history we're celebrating the contributions that once went ignored, and films like Happy Birthday Marsha! (trailer above) are a part of that recognition.
So let's hear it for Masha P. Johnson!
She was an incredible activist, and an important part of our history.