Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson
Black & white version 
of Andy Warhol Polaroid

"I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville until I became a drag queen.  That's what made me in New York, that's what made me in New Jersey, that's what made me in the world." -Martha P. Johnson

The thing that still thrills me about punk rock, the reason it remains relevant and viable to me always, is the transformative power of it.  To me, punk rock has always been about the ability to turn nothing into something, to turn shit into gold.  In our society, we are taught that if you want to feel better about yourself, if you want to change the way people perceive you, you should go out and buy something.  Clothing, makeup, gadgets, a new car, a new life.  As a black child who had the fortune of being raised by relatively unmaterialistic, college educated immigrant parents, I was also taught that the acquisition of a formal education was the key to self-transformation, and ultimately class mobility.  Even so, discovering punk rock and DIY culture took me further than I ever thought I would go.  It taught me that I could make myself the person I wanted to be through the power of my own convictions and creativity, no purchase necessary.  Marsha P. Johnson, who came from a much more stringent and oppressive socio-political context than I ever had to endure, is a stunning, humbling example of the kind of personal alchemy that I'm trying to describe.

Fresh flowers were a trademark
 look for Marsha.

Johnson was a drag performer and gay & transgender rights activist in New York from 1966 until her death in 1992.  The hour-long documentary about her life, "Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson," was recently made available online (see below.)  Many of us have heard of transgender activist Sylvia Rivera, but Johnson, Rivera's friend and collaborator, remains a more obscure figure in queer history.  Together Rivera and Johnson founded the group Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and were central figures during the Stonewall Riots.  Johnson was a drag mother, the head of the STAR House, along with Rivera.  They took in, clothed and fed young, homeless drag queens and transwomen, and fought for transgender inclusion within the gay rights movement.  It has even been noted that Johnson & Rivera worked the streets so that the younger ones didn't have to.

It can be said that Johnson's activism flowed through her self-reinvention as a drag performer and transgender woman--that the power she harnessed through her ability to freely express her identity was then used to change her community and the world.  Johnson was an artist.  She cultivated a look and persona that were unique to her.  She toured to London with the performance group Hot Peaches and was a model for Andy Warhol's "Ladies and Gentlemen" photography series.  She used her drag persona to make money on the streets of New York.  She also used her drag persona to make social change on the streets of New York.  Her personal transformation lead her to participate in a greater social transformation.  The two are inextricably linked.
Marsha handing out pamphlets on the streets of New York
I was born on November 27, 1978.  By that time, rock'n'roll rebellion was old hat, hippies had already come and gone and punk rock had already been birthed and buried.  I was born at a time when more options for existence were open to me as a black person and as a woman, largely thanks to the civil rights movements of the 1960s.  I try to imagine Malcolm Michaels, Jr., a small, black, queer child living in Elizabeth, New Jersey in the 1940s and 50s--in a world that seemed to require his extinction--somehow summoning up the courage, with possibly no encouragement and certainly no money, to become the legendary figure we have come to know as Marsha P. Johnson.  I am humbled and challenged by this image.

To quote punk and new wave innovator Richard Hell, "If you just amass the courage that is necessary, you can completely reinvent yourself. You can be your own hero, and once everybody is their own hero, then everybody is gonna be able to communicate with each other on a real basis rather than a hand-me-down set of societal standards."  People like Marsha P. Johnson made it possible for people like me to live our lives authentically, to express ourselves truthfully rather than live a lie based on archaic & restrictive social norms.  Be black and proud, be queer and proud, be a proud punk.  And if people don't like it, just remember, the "P" in Marsha P. Johnson stands for "Pay it no mind!"


Original color version of Andy Warhol Polaroid 
from the "Ladies and Gentlemen " Series, 1974

Martha P. Johnson
Warhol screen print

Documentary: "Pay It No Mind: 
The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson"


  1. Dope article Ms Seamstress, another hero affirmed. I bet her story would make a helluva a zine!


  2. I discovered your web site via Google while looking for a related subject, lucky for me your web site came up, its a great website. I have bookmarked it in my Google bookmarks. You really are a phenomenal person with a brilliant mind! transgender

  3. I only just watched the documentary about Ms Johnson at the weekend. Really moving and inspiring. What an Icon. Hopefully more will perpetuate her memory and will inspire more to come

  4. I watched the documentary, then went through and read your article! Both were incredibly moving!


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