When the transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson was alive, there were no murals created in her honor; there were no institutes in her name; and there were certainly no monuments recognizing her activism. In fact, according to historians, Johnson — now recognized as one of the most influential forces of the modern LGBTQ rights movement — was told to march in the back of at least one of New York City's gay pride marches. But while Johnson, who was found dead in 1992 under suspicious circumstances, was never celebrated during her lifetime, she has transcended to icon status in death.
Last year, New York City officials announced Johnson and her fellow trans activist Sylvia Rivera would be honored with a public monument in the city's Greenwich Village neighborhood; earlier this week, Google dedicated its Google Doodle to Johnson; and now, more than 75,000 people have signed on to a petition to have a statue of Johnson erected in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, in place of its existing Christopher Columbus monument.
"We should commemorate Marsha P. Johnson for the incredible things she did in her lifetime and for the inspiration she is to members of the LGBT+ community worldwide, especially black trans women," the petition states.
The petitioners argued that Columbus, whose statue has been in the town for nearly 50 years, is "not a figure to be celebrated."
“Although it is widely taught that Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas, he could not have ‘discovered’ land that was already occupied by indigenous groups,” the petition states. “Many believe celebrating Columbus is glorifying European colonialism."
The petition, started by 19-year-old Elizabeth resident Celine Da Silva, comes as anti-racism protesters across the country deface and tear down monuments of historical figures with racist pasts, including Confederate leaders and colonizers. Columbus statues have been torn down in Minnesota and Virginia and one was beheaded in Boston. Several statues of racist historical figures are slated to be officially removed.
'A radical vision'
Marsha P. Johnson, who identified as a transvestite before the term transgender was popularized, was best known for participating in the 1969 Stonewall uprising and for her work with poor, Black members of the LGBTQ community. Alongside Sylvia Rivera, Johnson co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a political collective that provided housing for queer youth and sex workers in lower Manhattan.
“She did represent a radical vision of what we’re now taking for granted 50 years later,” Steven G. Fullwood, a historian and a co-founder of the Nomadic Archivist Project, told NBC News. “More conservative and mainstream white gays weren’t interested in having her and Sylvia and other people like that represent the movement.”
Fullwood said it was not until the widespread use of the internet in the early 2000s that Johnson started to get the recognition she never got while she was alive. He said he looks back on Johnson as “a beacon” and as someone who was always herself.
“Trans people have been at the vanguard of defining what freedom looks like in America and the world,” he said.
However, Fullwood noted that decades after Johnson's critical activism, there is still an epidemic of violence against the transgender community, particularly Black trans women. So far this year, at least 16 transgender and gender-nonconforming people have been killed violently, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
As Black Lives Matter and anti-racism protests continue across the United States and statues of racist historical figures come down, Fullwood said this is an ideal opportunity to reflect on Johnson's legacy.
“This is a really great moment to examine why America is celebrating a past that’s riddled with colonizers and killers and people who’ve oppressed other people for decades,” he said. “And then we have someone like a Marsha; we have an opportunity to reset and rethink what we think about freedom in this country.”