City’s newest monument will honor trans activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson

By Faye Penn

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, pioneering transgender-rights activists who not only helped to ignite the LGBTQ+ rights movement but also pushed it to be more inclusive will be honored where it all began: near the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.

Johnson and Rivera were involved in the 1969 Stonewall riots when gay and trans patrons rose up against police raids.  Their participation at that event, as well as their subsequent and lifelong advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ+ rights, will be memorialized with a monument proposed for Ruth Wittenberg Triangle.

It is being built as part of She Built NYC, the city’s public-arts campaign that honors pioneering women and female-identifying trailblazers while addressing gender imbalances throughout the city’s public spaces. Less than 1% of New York’s monuments currently depict women: She Built NYC has a goal of boosting that ratio to 50%.

“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,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “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.”

“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 First Lady Chirlane McCray. “The city Marsha and Sylvia called home will honor their legacy and tell their stories for generations to come.”

“I’m proud to honor these two trailblazers, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who changed the course of history for the LGBTQ community. Not only was their bravery felt in New York City, but their fight for equality inspired change across the nation and around the world,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

Marsha P. Johnson was an activist whose involvement in the Stonewall Riots helped pave the way toward trans acceptance. Born in Elizabeth, NJ, Johnson moved to New York City after high school with just $15 and a bag of clothes. Though she struggled with homelessness, Johnson devoted her life to advocating for gay and transgender street youth, sex workers, people in prison and those with HIV/AIDS.

Following Stonewall, she and Rivera co-founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), the first LGBTQ+ youth shelters in the U.S. Towering in red plastic heels and outré floral wigs, Johnson performed with the drag group Hot Peaches and caught the eye of Andy Warhol, who photographed her. Her body was found in the Hudson River on July 6, 1992. While the cause of her death remains unsolved, Johnson’s legacy as an advocate for social, economic and racial justice has grown in recent years.

Sylvia Rivera’s radical advocacy reflected her bold and unrepentant response to challenges in her own life. Abandoned by her father at birth in 1951 and orphaned when her mother committed suicide at 3, Rivera was raised by her Venezuelan grandmother in NYC. The arrangement didn’t last long: criticism of her gender-defying ways prompted Rivera to run away at 11. Living on the streets, she survived by working as a child prostitute before a community of drag queens took her under their wing.

Yet it was her friendship with Johnson, whom she met in 1963, that was one of her most important and enduring relationships. Deeply disappointed by activists who sought to distance the gay-rights movement from drag culture and trans individuals, Rivera resurrected STAR in 2001 to fight for NYC’s Transgender Rights Bill and the inclusion of transgender protections in New York State’s Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act. She died of complications from liver cancer on February 19, 2002.

The monument of Johnson and Rivera boosts the number of women being honored under the City’s She Built NYC campaign to seven. Previously announced memorials of Billie Holiday, Rep. Shirley Chisholm, Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trias, Elizabeth Jennigns Graham and Katherine Walker are planned for each of the city’s five boroughs.