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Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera: The First-Ever Transgender Activists to Receive A Public-Permanent Monument

For the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, New York City will be honoring LGBTQ activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera with public monuments. They will become the first-ever Transgender activists to receive permanent-public monuments worldwide. The monument’s proposed location is at the Ruth Wittenberg Triangle, just a few blocks away from the Stonewall Inn, the scene of the Stonewall riots and emergence of the LGBTQ rights movement. 

In a recent interview, New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, commented about the monument’s importance in countering the portrayal of the LGBTQ movement as a “white, gay male movement,” and helping raise awareness of the movement’s diversity by commemorating transgender icons of color, such as Ms. Johnson, who was black, and Ms. Rivera, who was Latina.  

Johnson’s beginnings were in Elizabeth, New Jersey; after high school, she went to New York City with just $15 and a bag of clothes, eventually moving to Greenwich Village in1966. Previously known as the “mayor of Christopher Street,” Johnson is thought to be one of the first drag queens to go to the Stonewall Inn, which began life as a male-only gay bar.  

For decades, she was a notable presence in Greenwich Village and especially popular in New York City’s gay and art scene. Additionally, Johnson was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, a coalition of a number of gay liberation groups.  

A friend and ally to Johnson was Sylvia Rivera, also a pioneering transgender activist who was abandoned by her father at the age of three, and thrown onto the streets at age eleven, by her disapproving grandmother. Rivera’s early life was centered mostly in the streets of New York. Struggling with homelessness, she worked as a child prostitute, eventually being taken in by a local community of drag queens. 

After meeting in 1963, Johnson and Rivera forged a strong friendship as they fought in solidarity for trans-rights. They co-founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) in 1970, which was dedicated towards helping homeless young drag queens, gay children and trans-women. Their collective was also inspired by their devotion towards establishing rights for sex workers, the incarcerated and those affected by HIV/AIDS. More recently with STAR, Rivera advocated for New York City’s Transgender Rights Bill and the inclusion of transgender protections in New York State’s Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act in 2001. 

The Johnson and Rivera monument will be celebrated as the world’s first permanent public art work honoring the legacy of trans individuals, as part of the She Built NYC public-arts campaign, which aims to increase the number of New York City monuments honoring pioneering women. 

Currently, there is an open call for artists to design Johnson and Rivera’s shared monument, with the final design being determined by the City’s Percent for Art Commissioning Process. Applications will be accepted until October 1, 2019. If you are interested in submitting a design, or know someone who might be, click HERE for application information. 

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera: The First-Ever Transgender Activists to Receive A Public-Permanent Monument


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