Johnson was an outspoken advocate for trans people of color. She was born in New Jersey and cross-dressed throughout her youth which was frowned upon by her religious family. She moved to Greenwich Village, New York City after high school and was one of the central figures in the historic Stonewall Riots of 1969 in which many LGBTQ folks and particularly trans women of color fought back in the face of police harassment and violence. Johnson, along with fellow trans activist, Sylvia Rivera, formed Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR), an organization that supported homeless transgender youth and sex workers in Manhattan. Johnson also was an AIDS activist with the organization AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) from 1987 through 1992 during the AIDS epidemic in New York City.
Johnson was a successful drag queen who toured with the troupe, Hot Peaches from 1972 through the 90s and designed her own costumes from thrift store finds. She was a popular figure in the New York City art scene and did some modeling for Andy Warhol. People would frequently inquire about her gender and she would tell them that the “P” in her name stood for “pay it no mind.” Johnson’s life ended abruptly when she was tragically murdered on July 6, 1992. Despite her untimely death, Johnson’s legacy lives on through those she impacted and the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, whose mission is to end violence against all trans people across the U.S., especially black trans women.