A statue of trans and civil rights activist Marsha P Johnson was recently erected in Christopher Park in New York city. The bust was installed on what would have been Marsha’s 76th birthday. It is the first statue of a trans person to be installed in an NYC park.
Marsha was an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and HIV/AIDS treatment. During her life, she was a leader of the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, an activist with ACT UP and a co-founder of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Sylvia Rivera.
She also established a shelter in New York city for young LGBTQ+ individuals who were rejected by their families. Her contributions to social change persisted long after the Stonewall riots subsided.
Created by sculptor Jesse Pallotta, the statue features a slightly smiling Marsha P Johnson in her tiara and pearls. Activists adorned her hair with beautiful flowers when they were finished installing the bust.
On the plinth, a plaque quotes Johnson: “History isn’t something you look back at and say it was inevitable, it happens because people make decisions that are sometimes very impulsive and of the moment, but those moments are cumulative realities.”
Then it describes her simply as a “lover of poetry, flowers, space and the color purple.”
During the increase of BLM protests last year, and the removal of statues of racists and colonisers, more than 75,000 people signed a petition to have a statue of Marsha P Johnson installed in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, in place of its existing Christopher Columbus monument.
“At a time when we are taking down statues, I think it is just as important to collectively consider what is put up in public spaces, the process that is used to erect statues and reimagine the function of monumental work,” sculptor Jesse Pallotta says.
The new statue of Marsha sits just feet from George Segal’s ‘Gay Liberation’ monument featuring four white-painted women and men. Commenting on this purposeful placement Pallotta said: “The Segal statue is a whitewashed representation of normative gay couples and many members of the LGBTQ+ community do not fit into that category.
“Marsha represents all of the others – trans people, black and brown queers, sex workers, drag queens, houseless folks, and many more who have been historically left out of the modern LGBTQ+ movement. For many people, seeing a bust of Marsha is the first time they are seeing a representational sculpture of someone they feel historically connected to.”
The Mayor’s office announced plans in 2019 for a statue of Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera on the corner of Seventh and Greenwich Avenues, when the pandemic hit the plans were indefinitely stalled and an artist was never chosen.
No single activist or community group was behind the bust’s installation at Christopher Park, it was a group of local trans individuals who came together to see it done. Sculptor coordinator Eli Erlick said: “We cannot stay idle and wait for the city to build statues for us. We must create representation by and for our own communities.”
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