In just a few days, we’ll celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion in New York, and soon, the city will be getting a new statue commemorating Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Both Johnson and Rivera were transgender women and tour de forces within the LGBTQ community. The statues will be part of the She Built NYC initiative to honour and represent influential women in history within the five boroughs of New York. ‘The monument,’ according the NYC Cultural Affair’s call to artists, ‘will be the first permanent public art work honouring the legacy of trans individuals.’
‘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,’ said Chirlane McCray, New York’s first lady, 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.’
Johnson and Rivera were close friends, prominent drag performers in the 1960s and 1970s, and fought for LGBTQ rights. The pair participated in the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in which members of the LGBTQ community held demonstrations against police raids under an anti-gay legal system. The riots were a pivotal moment during the gay rights movement and shortly after, Johnson and Rivera founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Better known as STAR, the organization particularly focused on providing shelter and support for homeless LGBTQ youth and sex workers. Through STAR they advocated for those often excluded by the larger ‘Gay Liberation’ movement, which tended to marginalize people of colour, the homeless, and HIV positive.
Johnson was born in New Jersey in 1945 moved to New York with only $15 and a bag of clothes right after high school. She performed under the name Hot Peaches, wearing the tallest of red heels and floral wig. She drew interest from many and was photographed by Andy Warhol. Rivera was born in New York in 1951, but was orphaned as a child when both her parents committed suicide. Rivera then lived with her grandmother, but ran away at age 11 lived and worked as a child prostitute on the streets before she was taken in by the drag community, who gave her the name Sylvia. The duo met in 1963 and went on to fight for LGBTQ and drag rights.
In 1973, New York banned drag performers and in 1992, they took to the street in a parade as a symbol of their solidarity. Shortly after the parade, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River. Originally deemed a suicide, the case was reopened in 2012. In 2001, Rivera resurrected STAR while fighting for New York City’s Transgender Rights Bill and protection for transgender individuals in New York State’s Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act. In 2002, Rivera passed away due to complication from liver cancer.
Though the exact location of the forthcoming statue is not certain yet, one potential home for it could be in Ruth Wittenberg Triangle, just a couple of blocks from the Stonewall Inn where the Stonewall Rebellion took place. The open call to artists closes on October 1st and the application can be found here. The statue of Johnson and Rivera will join a statue of Shirley Chisholm, well underway in Brooklyn, Billie Holiday, Elizabeth Jennings Graham, Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trías, and Katherine Walker that She Built NYC has spearheaded.