Many believe that the riots at the Stonewall Inn in June 1969 in New York were a turning point for LGBTQ rights. But for transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, the days-long uprising was just a mile marker in a lifelong fight for justice.
Their lifelong commitment to ending oppression for marginalized communities will be commemorated with statues in Greenwich Village, home of Stonewall Inn, the site of the historic uprising. The statues of these pioneering trans women of color will be the first in the United States to honor transgender people, according to the New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office.
The new statues are estimated to cost $750,000, and the mayor’s office said it has not yet commissioned an artist to do the work. The artist will be paid out of the city’s $10 million budget allocated for new public artworks.
The mayor officially announced the installment of the statue in a press conference on Thursday, days before the start of Pride month in June. New York is hosting the annual World Pride parade, which started to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall riots 50 years ago.
“Putting up statues doesn’t change everything, but it starts to change hearts and minds,” de Blasio said at the press conference. “We want to honor them because they lived their truth and they made history.”
More than Stonewall
Matthew Riemer, co-author of “We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation,” echoed the same sentiment to CNN while explaining some of the history behind these historic women.
“We need to remember them correctly,” he said. “Yes, they were there for Stonewall, but that’s not it.”
Both Johnson and Rivera were founding members of both the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance, Riemer said. They both helped create the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR House, as a refuge for members of the LGBTQ community living on the street.
However, they pushed for more than just the equality and acceptance of LBGTQ, but for all marginalized groups. Before Stonewall, Rivera was seen on the streets with the Black Panthers, Riemer said.
“Sylvia was a radical militant who would show up and would embody anyone’s oppression as ‘my oppression.’ She showed up for every fight,” Riemer said.
Johnson’s focus was a little more localized, he said. She was a fixture in Greenwich Village who was “always done up and known for having a hat made of flowers.” She was a uniting force that people organized around.
Struggle behind the success
Rivera ended up living in a homeless community on Pier 52 after getting evicted. Johnson was taken in by a prominent member of the LBGTQ movement, Randy Wicker, where she lived until her death.
Rivera’s time on the street led her to the home of transgender couple Rusty Moore and Chelsea Goodwin. Inspired by STAR house, the couple started Transy House, where Rivera stayed, according to Riemer. At the Transy House, Rivera blossomed into the activist she is known as today and remained active until her death.
“Queer history is much bigger than Stonewall,” Riemer said. “Sylvia and Marsha were a part of it until their last breath, and the statue should be a call to action instead of just a place to remember. They earned their place in history, and we have an obligation to learn that history.”