New York City Is Looking for Artists to Create a Public Monument to Transgender Activists Martha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, from The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. Courtesy of Netflix.

In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, New York’s newest public monument will be a memorial to two trailblazing transgender activists, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.

Johnson and Rivera, close friends and allies in the fight for LGBTQ equality, were prominent drag performers and personalities in the downtown New York scene from the 1960s to 1980s. They were at the forefront of the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 and co-founded the Gay Liberation Front together shortly thereafter. 

The proposed monument, which the Mayor’s office bills as the “first permanent, public artwork recognizing transgender women in the world,” could stand at Ruth Wittenberg Triangle, roughly a block and a half from Stonewall Inn, though the location has yet to be finalized. The city will begin its search for an artist soon, and has launched an open call for designers who wish to be considered.

“Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are undeniably two of the most important foremothers of the modern LGBTQ rights movement, yet their stories have been erased from a history they helped create,” New York’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, said in a statement. “From their leading role at Stonewall, to their revolutionary work supporting transgender and non-binary youth in our city, they charted a path for the activists who came after them. Today, we correct the record. The city Marsha and Sylvia called home will honor their legacy and tell their stories for generations to come.”

The memorial is part of a broader effort to diversify New York’s landmarks in response to a 2018 report, commissioned by Mayor Bill de Blasio, evaluating the city’s statuary. In 2018, McCray and former deputy mayor Alicia Glen launched She Built NYC, a public arts initiative dedicated to erecting memorials that celebrate the city’s diverse makeup and history. US Representative Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, was chosen as the first honoree of She Built NYC’s plan last December, while earlier this year four more monuments were announced.

She Built NYC’s $10 million budget will fund each of these monuments, including the one honoring Johnson and Rivera, which will cost an estimated $750,000. The new statue is expected to be completed by the end of 2021.

Alvin Baltrop, Marsha P. Johnson (1975-86). Courtesy The Alvin Baltrop Trust, © 2010, Third Streaming, New York, and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York.

Marsha P. Johnson was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1945 and moved to New York immediately after finishing high school, a bag of clothes in one hand, $15 in the other. She settled on her new name shortly thereafter, supposedly as a nod to the Howard Johnson hotel chain. The “P,” she would say, stood for “pay it no mind.”

Sylvia Rivera, a New York native, was born in 1951, the child of Latino parents. Orphaned at an early age after father left and her mother committed suicide, she lived and worked on the streets before being taken in by the local drag community, which gave her the name Sylvia.

Street sign in New York City's Greenwich Village, named in honor of Sylvia Rivera. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Street sign in New York City’s Greenwich Village, named in honor of Sylvia Rivera. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Rivera and Johnson worked together for decades and frequently mentored young people affected by HIV/AIDS. They co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries organization in 1970 and, three years later, after drag performers were banned from New York’s Pride parade, they marched proudly ahead of the gathering together.

Shortly after the parade in 1992, Johnson’s body was found dead in the Hudson River. While initially ruled a suicide, many have since speculated that evidence points to murder. The cased was reopened for investigation in 2012. In 2017, Netflix released The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, a feature documentary examining the investigation. Rivera died in 2002 after a battle with liver cancer.

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