Johnson’s life was frequently marked by destitution and homelessness, and in 1992 her body was found in the Hudson River, near the Christopher Street piers. The death was initially ruled a suicide, but was later reclassified as being due to drowning from undetermined causes—the case remains open. She was 46 years old.
Rivera, whom the Village Voice once called the Rosa Parks of the transgender movement, was left to fend for herself in New York City at age 11, and Johnson took Rivera under her wing. Rivera fought to bring trans rights to the forefront of the fight for gay rights, and sought to make the world a safer place for all forms of gender identity. Rivera died of liver cancer in 2002 at the age of 50 after spending much of her life battling substance abuse and without a stable home.
In 1970, the same year as New York’s first pride parade, Johnson and Rivera founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (or STAR), out of a tenement at 213 East Second Street. For a period of time, STAR housed, clothed, and fed young transgender people. Following Johnson’s death, Rivera created Transy House, a shelter in Brooklyn for transgender people. In 2017, New York City opened
its first municipal shelter for homeless LGBTQ young adults, named Marsha’s House in honor of Johnson.
In a 1995 interview
, filmed at the West Village pier on which Rivera was living at the time, she gestured to the Hudson River and said: