Honoring transgender activists

Photos courtesy of NYC Mayor’s Office
A new monument in the Village will pay tribute to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera
By Jason Cohen

A monument recognizing two transgender activists will soon be not only the first of its kind in the city, but in the world.

On May 30, Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray announced the next She Built NYC monument will honor pioneering transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. The Department of Cultural Affairs has launched an open call for artists who want to be considered as designers for the monument honoring Johnson and Rivera.

The monument was recommended by the She Built NYC committee, which was started in June 2018 by McCray, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen and the Department of Cultural Affairs. Its goal is to commission a public monument or artwork on city property that honors women’s history in New York City. The Department of Cultural Affairs has committed up to $10 million over the next four years to new public monuments and commemorations.

The proposed location for the monument is in Ruth Wittenberg Triangle, a prominent public space in the heart of West Village neighborhood landmarks that were essential to LGBTQ history and advocacy, including the Stonewall Inn and St. Vincent’s Hospital.

“Transgender and non-binary communities are reeling from violent and discriminatory attacks across the country,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “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. 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.”

Johnson and Rivera founded STAR, renamed Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries in 2001, a housing and support organization for homeless LGBTQ youth and sex workers; they were also leaders in the Stonewall uprising and lifelong advocates for LGBTQ rights, particularly around racial and economic justice for LGBTQ people experiencing homelessness and poverty. In addition to their work and advocacy for LGBTQ, homeless and HIV positive youth — particularly young people of color who were marginalized by broader LGBTQ rights efforts — they were also pioneers in early efforts to further disability justice efforts.

Members of the LGBTQ community are thrilled about the monument, said Glenda Testone, executive director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center on West 13th St.

“Supporting and raising awareness of leaders like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who fought for the rights of LGBTQ and marginalized people, is an honor,” Testone said. “I hope that our country continues to expand our understanding and support of one another, and that the monument serves as a constant reminder to do that.”

According to Testone, the duo laid the groundwork for the activism of TGNCNB (transgender, gender non-conforming and non-binary people) and communities of color.

“TGNCNB people and people of color have historically been omitted from ‘official’ narratives about the LGBTQ rights movement as a whole, and we’re still fighting that today,” she said. “Monuments to New Yorkers like Marsha and Sylvia serve as an important statement that we will not go back.”

Maria Sjödin, deputy director of OutRight Action International, located at 80 Maiden Lane, said since the mayor announced the monument people from all over the world have been flooding social media with posts.

“First of all, I’m very happy about this,” she said. It’s certainly about time for the city to recognize these trans activists in the role they played. But, it’s also increasingly important ... This was the whole spectrum of LGBTIQ individuals and these two amazing trans women leading this revolution.”