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Transgender Activists Will Be Honored With First-of-Its-Kind Monument in NYC

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Activists Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Barbara Deming, and Kady Vandeurs at a City Hall rally for gay rights in 1973. (Image by Diana Davies, one of the leading photojournalists of the LGBTQ liberation movement.)

Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

Activists Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Barbara Deming, and Kady Vandeurs at a City Hall rally for gay rights in 1973. (Image by Diana Davies, one of the leading photojournalists of the LGBTQ liberation movement.)

The city announced plans to memorialize Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, irreplaceable—though often overlooked—leaders in LGBTQ history.

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Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two pioneering transgender activists, are set to be memorialized in the heart of Greenwich Village—according to current plans, steps away from the Stonewall Inn, the site of the historic 1969 riots that are often credited with sparking the modern LGBTQ rights movement.

Just before the start of Pride month, which this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray announced plans for the monument, which will be built as part of She Built NYC, a public-arts campaign that “addresses gender imbalances throughout the city’s public spaces.” (According to the initiative, which was launched last spring—in part by McCray—less than 1 percent of New York’s public monuments currently depict women. She Built NYC’s goal is to boost that ratio to 50 percent.) 

The monument to Johnson and Rivera—which officials hope will be completed by 2021—will consist of original statues commemorating both activists. The proposed location for the monument is in Ruth Wittenberg Triangle in Greenwich Village, positioned mere blocks from the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street. (Its exact location will be finalized after discussions with the community, details for which have not yet been confirmed.) When completed, the monument will become the world’s first permanent, public artwork recognizing transgender women.

Marsha P. Johnson hands out flyers in support of gay students at NYU in 1970. (Image by Diana Davies)

“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,” McCray said in a statement. “From their leading role at Stonewall, to their revolutionary work supporting transgender and nonbinary youth in our city, they charted a path for the activists who came after them.”

Throughout both of their lifetimes, Johnson, who was black, and Rivera, who was Latina, pushed the LGBTQ movement to be more inclusive, advocating in particular for transgender people of color who were marginalized by the broader efforts of the Gay Liberation Movement (of which the most visible figures at the time were generally white).

The two women became dear friends in 1963 after meeting in New York City. In 1969, both Johnson and Rivera were involved in the riots at the Stonewall Inn, after which they founded STAR, the country’s first housing and support organization for homeless LGBTQ youth and sex workers. Johnson and Rivera remained committed to their joint and individual fights for human rights until 1992, when Johnson’s body was discovered in the Hudson River. (Police initially ruled her death a suicide, but 10 years later changed the ruling from “suicide” to “undetermined.” Today, her cause of death is still unknown.) In 2001, Rivera advocated heavily for the inclusion of transgender protections in New York State’s Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act and for the Transgender Rights Bill in New York City. On February 19, 2002, she died of complications from liver cancer.

A Witness to History: Looking Back at the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in NYC

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Despite Johnson and Rivera’s lifelong efforts as revolutionaries for transgender rights and racial justice, their names remain relatively unknown. “Today, we correct the record,” McCray said in regard to the city’s decision to memorialize both women. “The city Marsha and Sylvia called home will honor their legacy and tell their stories for generations to come.” 

Half a century after the Stonewall Riots, the fight for LGBTQ rights continues. The Trump administration recently moved to eliminate various healthcare protections for trans people, and trans women in particular continue to face deadly violence. “This memorial could not have come at a more prescient time—as the federal government rolls back protections for transgender people and violence toward transgender people grows nationwide,” said Carmelyn P. Malalis, commissioner and chair of the NYC Commission on Human Rights, in response to the announcement.

In addition to becoming the first-ever permanent artwork to honor transgender women, the monument for Johnson and Rivera, when built in New York City, will also mark one of the first to recognize trans individuals anywhere in the world. 

“Transgender and nonbinary communities are reeling from violent and discriminatory attacks across the country,” de Blasio stated. “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.”

The NYC Department of Cultural Affairs has launched an open call for artists interested in submitting designs for the monument. All images displayed in this article were sourced from the archival collections of the New York Public Library. Through July 13, they will be on display at the library as part of a free exhibition titled Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50.

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