Celebrating Marsha P. Johnson: A Trailblazer at the Heart of the Stonewall Uprising

Speaking to an interviewer in 1972, Marsha said that her dream was “to see gay people liberated and free and to have equal rights that other people have in America,” tragically she died in 1992, long before same-sex marriage and gender change were legally recognised in the US. Although her ambition has yet to be fully realised in 2021, it is undoubtable that Marsha’s passionate advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights has had a deep and profound impact on the LGBTQ+ community, powerfully shaping the modern LGBTQ+ community we recognise today.

Marsha P. Johnson was one of six siblings, born in New Jersey to a housekeeper and General Motors worker in 1945. From a young age, she felt an affinity for feminine clothing and would wear dresses which encouraged boys in her neighbourhood to bully her, leading to Marsha suppressing her identity throughout her childhood. It wasn’t until she moved to New York City at the age of 17 with only $15 and a bag of clothes that Marsha was able to truly explore her self-expression as a drag queen. The diverse and welcoming gay community she encountered in the city inspired her to come out. Eventually, she would legally change her name to “Marsha P. Johnson” with the ‘P’ standing for “pay it no mind” – a phrase Marsha used when people asked about her gender.

During this time, being gay was considered a mental illness in the US with LGBTQ+ people ostracised by society and regularly abused or threatened by the police. This of course, resulted in a life of hardship for Marsha who was living on the streets of New York without a home or financial arrangements.

The Stonewall Riots

In June 1969 when Marsha was only 23 years old, the police carried out a violent raid on a gay bar in New York named ‘The Stonewall Inn’ where the police used excessive force against the patrons, driving 200 of them onto the streets and beating them.

In retaliation of the police raids, Marsha alongside Stonewall patrons and others who frequented gay and lesbian bars in the Village, led a series of protests spanning over a few days. The marches demonstrated powerful resistance and solidarity within the LGBTQ+ community and additional engendered an unprecedented wave of public support for gay rights. The Stonewall Riots are now widely regarded as the pivotal catalyst of the gay liberation movement and a historic milestone in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the US.

The year following the Stonewall Riots saw a Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally that Marsha took part in as a member of the Gay Liberation Front, which would set the precedent for the annual commemoration of Pride Month.


With her friend and fellow transgender rights activist, Sylvia Rivera, Johnson founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) in 1972 which sought to provide a safe space for gay and transgender homeless young people. STAR’s primary mission was to care for gay youths that found themselves lacking acceptance and security elsewhere and to make sure they did not face violence on the streets from intolerant people. Marsha acted as a ‘Queen Mother’ at STAR referring to anyone brought off the street into the STAR homes as “children,” fostering a sense of kinship especially amongst the African American and Latino LGBTQIA+ community – many of whom faced rejection from their families.

By the 1980s Marsha was a tireless AIDS activist, who became an organiser and marshal at the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Indeed, she had dedicated much of her life towards the fight for gay liberation.

Marsha P. Johnson’s story continues to resonate with the LGBTQ+ community because of the passion, hope and perseverance she demonstrated in the face of adversity- which makes her an icon with an impressive legacy that continues to inspire.


GRANT AGREEMENT NUMBER – 2020-1-UK01-KA204-079101


We are Sculpt

IARS International Institute to operate as Sculpt

*Charity CEO available for interview – details in notes 

A UK-based youth charity today changes its operating name from the IARS International Institute to Sculpt. 

IARS is an international NGO that’s been working to empower young people to forge a fairer society for over 20 years. Their work is guided and evaluated by young people themselves.  

Over the last 20 years, IARS has delivered more than 70 successful projects that have addressed real problems that young people face, in areas such as: 

  • Gender discrimination 
  • Violence against women and girls 
  • Supporting young people to find work 
  • Creating green and sustainable business 
  • Promoting collaboration among young people across the world and much more. 

In 2021, with the world changing rapidly and opportunities for their work shifting, they decided to refresh their purpose and identity, and made the decision to rebrand as Sculpt. 

Claire Bonham, Chief Executive of Sculpt, said: 

‘We are delighted to launch our new brand that speaks to our aim to empower young people to shape their future.

‘We believe that many of today’s young people are facing unjust challenges – economically, environmentally and socially. A fair, sustainable society can only evolve if all young people have the opportunities, the confidence, the ambition and the skills to make their voices heard and propel change in their communities, irrespective of who they are or where they come from.  

‘Our rebrand, like our work, has been guided by research and by young people themselves. As an organisation we base our work on rigorously researched evidence and are led in our approach by our youth advisory board. Their voices and insight are critical to solving the right problems in meaningful ways.’  


Notes to editors:  

Dr. Claire Bonham, Chief Executive of The IARS International Institute is available for interview. Contact Claire directly on: director@iars.org.uk +44(0) 7833 224442  



Sculpt is a UK-based charity providing research, training and work-experience opportunities that empower young people to shape their own futures and those of their communities. 

We work directly with young people, employers and professionals who support young people. All our work is guided by young people themselves and based on carefully researched evidence. We: 

  • Facilitate forums for young people to make their needs and their voices heard. 
  • Publish a magazine by young people to express their perspectives and encourage debate around public policy issues. 
  • Conduct research to uncover young people’s real needs and what works to empower and support them. 
  • Deliver training to build young people’s confidence, skills, ambition, resilience and sense of responsibility, so they can shape their futures and change their communities for the better, as leaders, social entrepreneurs and active participants in civic life. 
  • Deliver training for professionals who work with young people, drawing on our research and expertise. 
  • Engage with employers to facilitate work experience and employment opportunities for young people to develop skills and access diverse jobs. 
  • Facilitate international exchange opportunities to encourage and enable young people to experience and appreciate other cultures, perspectives and ways of life. 

We tackle disempowerment from three angles: working directly with young people to build confidence and skills and their voice, working with professionals who support young people, and working with employers to break down barriers to opportunity.