They rallied for transgender rights, championed better living conditions for the urban poor, and may have thrown some of the first punches at the 1969 Stonewall Inn uprising. Fifty years later, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera — transgender pioneers of the gay liberation movement — will receive a permanent monument in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
“Transgender and non-binary communities are reeling from violent and discriminatory attacks across the country,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “Here in New York City, we are sending a clear message: we see you for who you are, we celebrate you, and we will protect you.” According to the Mayor’s Office, this will be the first permanent, public artwork recognizing transgender women in the world.
Some would say that official acknowledgment for Johnson and Rivera is long overdue. During their lifetimes, the trans drag queens experienced abject poverty, racism, and prostitution — even as they worked to better the prospects of LGBTQ youth and those affected by HIV/AIDS. Together, the women founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a radical political collective of homeless queer people and sex workers who lobbied the Gay Activists Alliance to include housing reforms and transgender rights in their platform.
Over the last three decades, Greenwich Village has become host to some of the city’s most visible monuments to the gay rights movement. Last year, Anthony Goicolea’s LGBTQ Memorial honoring the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting opened in Hudson River Park. In 2016, the New York City AIDS Memorial was inaugurated inside St. Vincent’s Hospital Park near 7th Avenue and 12th Street. And back in 1992, the city unveiled a set of statues within Christopher Park across from Stonewall to commemorate the riots. Created by George Segal, the four figures — two standing men and two sitting women — are doused in white paint and aren’t immediately recognizable as figures in the gay rights movement. Critics have long accused the sculptor’s installation as white-washing the contributions of queer and gender non-conforming people of color in sparking the LGBTQ rights movement.
The installation honoring Johnson and Rivera is proposed for the Ruth Wittenberg Triangle, which is only a few blocks away from Stonewall. That space is currently managed by the Village Alliance, a public-private partnership that oversees quality of life improvements in the area with funding primarily sourced from assessments on local property owners. In recent years, the organization has hosted a variety of temporary art exhibitions to draw tourists into the neighborhood. A Village Alliance representative tells Hyperallergic that, because the announcement just happened, it’s unclear what the fate of its arts programming will be or who will be responsible for the maintenance of the impending monument. The Mayor’s Office said in a statement that the location will be finalized upon further discussion with the community.
According to a spokesperson for the Department of Cultural Affairs, funding for the installation will come from the $10 million allotted by Mayor Bill de Blasio toward addressing the city’s public art gender gap as part of the She Built NYC program, which is spearheaded by New York’s first lady Chirlane McCray and former deputy mayor Alicia Glen. Past projects through She Built NYC have carried a $1 million budget, though the Mayor’s Office estimates that the Johnson and Rivera monument will cost about $750,000. Officials hope it will be completed by the end of 2021, and they have already launched an open call to find an artist to envision the sculpture.
Currently, only 3 percent of the city’s sculptures honor female historical figures. There are 5 monuments devoted to women compared to the 150 statues of men. That number will more than double when She Built NYC completes its 6 planned installations, which honor figures like the jazz singer Billie Holiday and the congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Central Park is also finalizing plans to install a monument to women’s suffrage, which depicts Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
In January, Hyperallergic reported that the city ignored the She Built NYC advisory committee’s recommendation to honor groups instead of individuals. Several committee members said that their point was to honor women’s collaborative efforts instead of propagating a “lone wolf” heroism that glorifies and overvalues individual contributions. Today’s announcement may ameliorate some criticism against the city. Johnson and Rivera were on the advisory board’s shortlist of contenders, and both women were known for their extremely collaborative efforts at activism.
Speaking to the New York Times on Wednesday, McCray said it was important for her that monuments like this have a “name and a face.”
“The LGBTQ movement was portrayed very much as a white, gay male movement,” she added. “This monument counters that trend of whitewashing the history.”
In recent years, Johnson and River have become key figures in queer history thanks to historical research, documentaries, and critical scholarship that reappraises their significance in forming the gay rights movement of the late sixties, early seventies, and beyond.
Johnson was born in 1945 and began wearing dresses around age 5. She reportedly moved to New York City with $15 and a bag of clothes after graduating high school in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She soon began dressing in drag and became a fixture in the nightlife scene, even posing for one of Andy Warhol’s famous Polaroid snapshots.
“I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville, until I became a drag queen,” Ms. Johnson said in 1992. That same year, her body was pulled from the Hudson Rivera near the Christopher Street piers. Her death was ruled a suicide until 2012 when authorities reclassified it as “drowning from undetermined causes” after friends and fans petitioned police to reexamine the case.
“When she died, part of me went with her,” Rivera said in an interview years after her friend’s death. Born in 1951 to a Puerto Rican father and Venezuelan mother, she became a child prostitute in the city at age 11. In an interview, she once recalled first meeting Johnson on 42nd Street when she was 17.
After Johnson’s death, Rivera continued her work on trans rights. In 1995, she opened Transy House to provide shelter for trans and gender non-conforming people in need; it also served as a center for activism and her last address. The operation closed in 2008, six years after she died of liver cancer in 2002.
“I’m glad I was in the Stonewall riot,” Rivera said in an interview with the late author Leslie Feinberg. “I remember when someone threw a Molotov cocktail, I thought: ‘My god, the revolution is here. The revolution is finally here!’”