NYC Monument Will Honor Transgender Activists Marsha P. Johnson And Sylvia Rivera

Transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera will be honored with a monument near the historic Stonewall Inn in New York City, officials announced on Thursday, May 30.

Johnson and Rivera long advocated for the LGBTQ community and were leaders in the Stonewall Uprisings in 1969, according to their biographies from NYC Department of Cultural Affairs. The two activists launched the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a housing organization for homeless LGBTQ youth and sex workers.

“Transgender and non-binary communities are reeling from violent and discriminatory attacks across the country. 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,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in the statement, made with First Lady Chirlane McCray. “This monument to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera will honor their pioneering role in the fight for human rights in our city and across the world.”

The monument is part of the She Built NYC campaign, a public arts initiative that honors pioneering women for their work in New York City and the world. Johnson was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey and moved to New York City after graduating high school. She also struggled with homelessness, according to her biography from She Built NYC. Rivera was raised in NYC by her Venezuelan grandmother and left home at age 11 to escape criticism about her gender. She then became a sex worker.

“Marsha was the first friend I made on 42nd Street,” Rivera said in a 1995 interview with The New York Times. “She was 17. Marsha plugged in the light for me.” Throughout their lives, the two struggled with mental illness and drug abuse, according to The Times. Johnson died of an apparent suicide in 1992, but after questioning of the ruling, authorities reclassified her death as a “drowning from undetermined causes,” the publication reported.

Following her friend’s death, Rivera opened the Transy House, a shelter for transgender people which remained open until 2008. The activist died of liver cancer in 2002 at age 50, according to The Times. “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 the 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 de Blasio administration has proposed that the monument be placed in Ruth Wittenberg Triangle in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan. NYC Cultural Affairs announced an open call for artists to build the memorial honoring the activists.

“Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were defining revolutionaries for transgender rights and racial justice here in New York City and across the country,” said Carmelyn P. Malalis, commissioner and chair of the NYC Commission on Human Rights, in the statement. “This memorial honoring their legacies 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 — our city is celebrating our trans communities and doubling down on our commitment to protect them.”

Organizations such as the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF) have also thrown their support for the monument of the two activists.

"Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two transgender women of color, built a world-changing movement of self-empowerment for the LGBTQ community and many of society’s most vulnerable and marginalized people,” Andy Mara, executive director of TLDEF, said in the statement. “As we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising that Marsha and Sylvia helped lead, TLDEF applauds the She Built NYC Initiative for recognizing their legacies with this historic monument that will serve as a reminder for us to continue pressing on towards justice and equality.”

The campaign is also building other statues throughout New York City to honor historical female figures, including statues of singer Billie Holiday in Queens, a statue of Elizabeth Jennings Graham in Manhattan, a statue of Dr. Helen Rodríguez-Trías in the Bronx, and many others.

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.