What Marsha P. Johnson’s Death Can Teach Us About Racism and Homophobia

A photo of Marsha P. Johnson (Photo credit: Netflix)

Marsha P. Johnson was an iconic, revolutionary figure of the gay rights movement. She was also an activist, sex worker, and self-identified drag queen.

Born in 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Marsha P. Johnson became the face of many LGBTQ liberation movements. And even more notably, Johnson was one of the people to ignite the Stonewall Riots of 1969. According to friends, Marsha was a charismatic, dynamic, wise, and kindhearted person who dedicated every aspect of her life to equality for the LGBTQ community.

I’ve been reading a lot about Marsha, both in honor of Pride month and to educate myself more as a white woman and member of the LGBTQ community. I’ve enjoyed learning about Marsha’s story and understanding her influence in the fight for LGBTQ rights. When I see her in videos or photos, I am warmed by her soft smile, her smooth voice, her sparkling eyes. She is truly someone that I wish I could have known.

In learning about her, though, I have come to a rude awakening:

We still don’t know how Marsha P. Johnson died.

This is chilling, inhumane and downright unacceptable.

Marsha died in 1992. She was only 46, and her death came as a shock to much of the LGBTQ community and to her friends and family. One morning, she was found floating in the Hudson River, dead, near the West Village Piers. Initially, the police who responded to the incident declared that it was most likely a suicide, and the coroner, after performing an autopsy, agreed.

But something didn’t sit right with the people who knew Marsha. In fact, they were enraged at law enforcement’s response, insisting that she did not die by suicide. People had seen Marsha just two days before her death in Greenwich Village, where she was cheerful and well as usual.

So close friends and family stuck up for her, claiming that she would never choose to die by suicide. People expressed that she had been depressed, and at times would have difficulty making ends meet, but they insisted that she was never suicidal. So after the police and coroner ruled it a suicide, that was the first sign that something was wrong.

When Marsha was found, she had lots of bruising on the back of her head. People thought that could have been reason to get another autopsy report done, which they finally were able to accomplish. Eventually, another autopsy declared that there wasn’t any evidence of trauma to Marsha’s skull, so it was unlikely that the marks and bruising were due to being beaten by another person. It was possible that the bruising developed while she was drowning.

But in the second autopsy, the cause of death was changed from “suicide” to “possible homicide.”

Despite Marsha’s friends’ and family’s dedication to uncovering the true circumstances behind her death, the police and investigators were not cooperative with the cause. Even when the cause of death was changed to rule it a possible homicide, law enforcement did not believe strongly that the investigation needed to be prolonged. In their minds, it was still a suicide, and Marsha’s case was not worthy of being reopened.

In 2017, though, a crime victim advocate named Victoria Cruz, who works for the New York Antiviolence Project, reopened Marsha’s case. Cruz conducted several interviews with Marsha’s friends and acquaintances, her family, and other LGBTQ figures to gather more information about the context of Marsha’s life and death and to explore possibilities of how she died. Cruz even tried to contact the medical examiner who did Marsha’s autopsy, but he refused to speak to her.

The interviews that Cruz conducted affirmed what Marsha’s friends had been saying from day one: Marsha did not die by suicide. Many of them felt strongly about this and, like Cruz, believed that there were many other suspicious circumstances around her death that demanded to be investigated.

For one, Marsha did not have a good relationship with the NYPD. At the time (and arguably, even currently), the NYPD were not respectful of the LGBTQ community, and there was often an elevated amount of violence directed at members of the community. Marsha was a part of that population. And since she had been one of the people to ignite the Stonewall Riots, some of the people close to Marsha felt that the police may have been involved in being violent against her, or physically retaliating due to their disregard for her rights and her place in the community.

Other people suggested that Marsha may have been attacked by a mob, or killed by someone else who may have been planning to hurt her.

In fact, shortly before her death, Marsha expressed to friends that she was worried she was being followed by someone, possibly multiple people. She alerted friends, but no one ever discovered if she was being followed and, if so, by whom. Many people believe, however, that there is a connection between her being followed and her homicide.

People think Marsha may have been followed by someone to the pier, been frightened, and been forced to jump off the pier. Some people also say it could have just been an accident, such as her losing her footing on a loose board on the pier and falling in the water.

However, the verdict on Marsha’s cause of death is not the issue at play here.

What is truly sickening about this whole situation is that it has been 28 years since Marsha P. Johnson died, and law enforcement has not even attempted to seek justice for her. They didn’t then, and they haven’t yet.

After Marsha died, friends alerted law enforcement to the fact that she was probably being followed. Again, though, this point of view was ignored. Marsha’s life may have been threatened. She may have been scared and in danger. Someone may have been out to get her, conspiring to hurt her. That’s a big deal. And still, law enforcement proceeded to wash their hands of the case, deciding not to seek any further help or attempt to dive into the possibilities. If Marsha had been a white, cisgender, or heterosexual person, her story would most likely have gone much differently. I would not be sitting here writing this because Marsha would probably already have justice. She would already have clarity.

Whether Marsha’s death was a complete accident or whether she was a victim of foul play is not the point. The point is that no one attempted to understand her death. No one attempted to dig deeper and provide closure. No one in law enforcement cared enough to know, and no one cared enough to try. Her death was swept under the rug, brushed off like she was nothing.

They have not launched a comprehensive investigation on Marsha’s death. They have not explored the reasons for why Marsha might have been being followed, or who she was being followed by. They have not chosen to assess the possibility that she may have been a victim of fatal police violence. They have not accepted the fact that her death was a tragedy, and that she is worthy of not only justice, but care. She was important; she is important. She deserves to be honored rather than brushed off. Her family and friends deserve closure.

What appears to have happened is that law enforcement wiped their hands of Marsha because they felt that she was not worthy of an investigation; that she was not worthy of justice.

And that’s despicable. It’s saddening. It’s horrifying.

And, sadly, it is also normal. It’s normal for transgender people, specifically transgender women and BIPOC transgender people, to be victims of police brutality. It’s normal for their deaths to go without investigation, without justice. It’s normal for law enforcement to be careless towards them. It’s normal for BIPOC to be victims of police violence as well, even outside of the LGBTQ community. And even with all of these things at play, the people in power — usually privileged people who are not part of any of these communities — chose to ignore Marsha’s death. They chose to treat her like another statistic, another demographic, another case in a stack of many.

They did not treat her like a human being. They did not treat her like her life mattered.

They still don’t.

Even Cruz, who reopened her case, is not affiliated with the NYPD or New York law enforcement. Cruz is a member of the LGBTQ community who felt strongly that Marsha’s case needed a comprehensive investigation in order to provide the care that she deserved.

So here’s what we can learn about Marsha’s death:

Transgender and BIPOC people are murdered at alarming rates, and they rarely receive the investigations and justice that they deserve. This is just another example of how people in power, and law enforcement, use their privilege to cover up these crimes and leave the LGBTQ and BIPOC communities feeling that their lives and deaths do not matter.

It’s proof of the systemic racism and internalized homophobia and transphobia that jeopardizes so many lives and plagues our government. Homophobia, transphobia, and racism aren’t dead. They are alive and well. It’s nothing new, because this is America.

In fact, Marsha herself was aware that she one day might die at the hands of police or be denied justice. She once said, “I don’t think they do a good investigation on a gay murder. They think, ‘Oh, that is one more gone.’ When you gay, it takes forever.” Marsha’s statement is painfully ironic. “I always say tomorrow is not promised to me.”

And for people like her, it never was, and it still is not.

For me, learning about Marsha — both her life and her death — was sobering. I’m disheartened by the fact that the police department and law enforcement could be so nonchalant about Marsha. So many people knew Marsha. She was such a notable figure of the gay rights movement. She was a valued community member all across the city. Her friends and acquaintances pleaded for her death to be investigated, determined for her to have the justice she deserved.

And forget her fame, forget that she was an icon; shouldn’t her life still matter?

Marsha is one of too many. But she is a heartbreaking reminder of the power dynamic in our country, the racism, the homophobia, the transphobia — four cruel patterns. And the thousands of people that are not held accountable for hurting, or dismissing, BIPOC and LGBTQ deaths.

We can never forget Marsha and her influence on the LGBTQ and BIPOC community, nor can we forget to acknowledge the injustice of her life and death.

And we should never stop believing that this country can — and needs to — do better.

It starts now.



Writer. Creator. Teacher. Feminist. Just trying to spread love, talk about equity, and be a good human. She/her. Follow me on Instagram @brooklynxreece!

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