Two Transgender Activists Are Getting a Monument in New York

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, pioneering transgender activists who were at the vanguard of the gay rights movement, will be immortalized in a monument that may be placed down the street from the Stonewall Inn, the city said on Wednesday.

Ms. Johnson and Ms. Rivera were both drag performers and vibrant characters in Greenwich Village street life who worked on behalf of homeless L.G.B.T.Q. youth and those affected by H.I.V./AIDS. They are also believed to have been key figures in the June 1969 Stonewall Uprising who fought police as they raided the gay bar on Christopher Street.

The planned monument will be publicly announced on Thursday in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the uprising, which was a seminal moment for gay rights. It is also part of the city’s effort to fix a glaring gender gap in public art. Statues of L.G.B.T.Q. individuals are virtually nonexistent among the city’s monuments, and the city says the dedication to Johnson and Rivera will be one of the world’s first for transgender people.

The monument is proposed for Ruth Wittenberg Triangle, a short walk from Stonewall. In 1992, the city unveiled a set of statues in Christopher Park, across the street from Stonewall, by the artist George Segal to commemorate the uprising. The four figures, two standing men and two sitting women, are painted white and do not appear to depict particular people. Critics have said the sculpture excludes transgender women and women of color.

New York’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, said in an interview on Wednesday that she thought it was important for a monument like this to have a “name and a face.” In teaching people about the gay rights movement, she said, it is vital to include stories of activists like Ms. Johnson, who was black, and Ms. Rivera, who was Latina.

“The L.G.B.T.Q. movement was portrayed very much as a white, gay male movement,” Ms. McCray said. “This monument counters that trend of whitewashing the history.”

Ms. Johnson, who was born in 1945 as Malcolm Michaels Jr., was about 5 when she began to wear dresses, but other children’s retaliation pressured her to stop. Almost immediately after she graduated from high school in Elizabeth, N.J., she moved to New York City with $15 and a bag of clothes.

Al Michaels, Ms. Johnson’s nephew, said that he remembered her coming home to New Jersey as an adult and being scolded by her mother for wearing dresses and miniskirts. But over time, he said, Ms. Johnson helped her family warm to the idea of different gender expressions.

Mr. Michaels, 58, said although he thought his aunt might scoff at the idea of a statue of herself, she would be ecstatic that New York had reached a point at which it would build a monument to a transgender woman. Michaels said his aunt would be proud that the city was “leading the world into the future.”

Over the years, Ms. Johnson relinquished her uncertainty about feminine clothing and embraced shimmering robes and dresses, costume jewelry, bright wigs and a pair of red plastic high heels. Andy Warhol took Polaroids of her and included the photos in a 1975 portfolio depicting drag-queen night life.

“I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville, until I became a drag queen,” Ms. Johnson said in 1992.

Together, Ms. Johnson and Ms. Rivera founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a group that provided support to poor young people who were shunned by their families. (The term transgender was not in wide use during this time.) For a short while, the organization operated a shelter on East Second Street.

Living at a time of widespread hostility toward transgender people, Ms. Johnson and Ms. Rivera had their own struggles with mental illness and substance abuse. They spent much of their lives without stable homes and died relatively young.

In 1992, Ms. Johnson’s body was pulled from the Hudson River, near the Christopher Street piers. Her death was ruled a suicide, but her peers questioned that determination and the authorities later reclassified the manner of death to drowning from undetermined causes.

“When she died, part of me went with her,” Ms. Rivera said years later in an interview with the gay rights activist Randy Wicker. At the time, she was living on the pier in the West Village.

“One of our pacts was that we would always cross the River Jordan together,” she said, gesturing at the Hudson. “And to me, this is the River Jordan: the Hudson River.”

After Ms. Johnson’s death, Ms. Rivera founded Transy House, a shelter for transgender people in Brooklyn. She died of liver cancer in 2002 at age 50.

Even within the community of gay rights activists, Ms. Johnson and Ms. Rivera were often sidelined. Ms. Rivera often quarreled with gay political leaders who excluded transgender rights from their priorities, memorably warning, “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned.”

The monument is estimated to cost about $750,000, a spokeswoman for the city said, and officials will begin searching for an artist shortly. Officials hope it will be completed by the end of 2021. Its exact location will be finalized after discussions with the community.

Follow Julia Jacobs on Twitter: @juliarebeccaj.

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