A tribute to Marsha P. Johnson, the American LGBTQ rights advocate, performer, and drag queen, has gone up at Christopher Park in Manhattan — the first statue of a transgender person in New York City.
According to Gothamist, the Johnson monument was a long time coming: in 2019, the city promised to erect statues of two transgender individuals, Johnson and her Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) co-founder Sylvia Rivera, across from the Stonewall Inn, the site of the 1969 riots for LGBTQ+ rights that catalyzed the gay liberation movement. The project was led by She Built NYC, a public arts group committed to correcting the gender gap in the city’s monuments — until now, only seven out of its 150 statues of historical figures depicted women.
However, the pandemic delayed the process, and this week, activists took matters into their own hands. Along with writer and organizer Eli Erlick, a group installed the tribute — a plaster sculpture by artist Jesse Pallotta — this Tuesday, August 24, on the date of Johnson’s 76th birthday.
Christopher Park is open seven days a week, “from dawn until dusk,” according to the National Park Service’s website. But at 4:30pm today, August 26, Hyperallergic reporter Hakim Bishara was met with locked gates preventing him from entering the space.
In an email to Hyperallergic, the US National Parks Service told Hyperallergic that the park closes at 4:30pm in an effort to encourage social distancing, due to a group of “200 or so people” which gathers weekly nearby.
Erlick and her peers chose a spot next to George Segal’s “Gay Liberation Monument” from 1992, the year Johnson was found dead in the Hudson River, presumably by suicide.
“The NYC Parks permitting system is a long, subjective process,” Erlick told Gothamist. “Committees have historically used permitting to deny statues of people of color, women, and queer people, leaving the trans community without any representation.”
In the spirit of the artists’ guerrilla installation, a quote by activist Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt is engraved on a plaque below the bust: “History isn’t something you look back at and say it was inevitable, it happens because people make decisions that are sometimes very impulsive and of the moment, but those moments are cumulative realities.”
Hakim Bishara contributed reporting.
Correction 8/27 1:12pm EST: An earlier version of this article attributed a quote by Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt to Marsha P. Johnson, as cited by the National Parks Service.