Activists install Marsha P. Johnson sculpture in Christopher Park
Queer and transgender activists took to Christopher Park on August 24 in Manhattan to erect a bust of the late LGBTQ icon Marsha P. Johnson.
The sculpture, which was installed on the activist’s 76th birthday, has not been approved by government officials. In 2019, First Lady Chirlane McCray and the city turned to the She Built NYC program — aimed at erecting statues of women in history — to announce plans to honor Johnson and Sylvia Rivera with a monument to Ruth Wittenberg Triangle at 421 Sixth Avenue at Christopher Street and Greenwich Avenue. However, this initiative and other monument projects have been put on the back burner during the COVID era, according to the city.
Activists behind the new sculpture include Eli Erlick, a transgender advocate and co-founder of Trans Students Educational Resources, and sculptor Jesse Pallotta, a sex worker who said he used $6,000 of his own funding to create the sculpture. Activists accused the city of dragging its feet to erect sculptures honoring LGBTQ women across the city.
“We decided to build the sculpture because we don’t believe the city will keep its promise to erect the statues of the women it claims,” Erlick said in a written statement to Gay City News. “If they do, we’re sure it won’t be timely. They haven’t built a single sculpture from their $10 million She Built NYC campaign in 2018. They haven’t even chosen artists for most of their statue submissions.
She added: “It goes much further than the delays of COVID to the fundamental disorganization surrounding and the apathy towards the memory of historical women. As trans people, we knew we had to take matters into our own hands if we were to remember a figure as deeply impactful as Marsha.
It’s unclear whether the sculpture – which sits in the middle of the park – will remain in place for the foreseeable future. The National Park Service could not immediately be reached for comment on August 27. Activists said they contacted the city to discuss issuing a temporary permit.
In a statement, Mitch Schwartz, spokesman for the mayor’s office, said the city was aware of the new sculpture but had nothing to do with it.
“It’s not a city statue, even though the city is committed to building them,” Schwartz said in a written statement. “Statues commissioned by the city are currently on hold; COVID-19 has delayed monuments and public art projects in all areas, as you probably imagine. We are still committed to completing them for Johnson and Rivera. But this one seems to have been set up by activists, and I don’t really have any more details on that.
Pallotta said he seeks to honor the contributions of black and brown people in the fight for LGBTQ rights.
“The initial spark to create a monument to Marsha was due to the city’s cancellation of the sculpture and the historical setback of George Segal’s ‘Gay Liberation Monument’,” Pallotta said. “For many LGBT+ people, they are not represented in the cis, normative same-sex couples that Segal’s statue represents. Marsha is a representation of all outcasts: trans people, black and brown queers, sex workers, drag queens, homeless people, those who have been affected by the incarceration system and many others who have historically been excluded from the modern LGBT+ movement. .”
TS Candii, a black transgender woman and founder of Black Trans Nation, said she felt more grassroots black trans activists should have been consulted or involved in the early stages of the project.
The activists who installed the sculpture emphasized that they were doing so as individuals and not as part of any organization.
“While we hope the statue will inspire viewers to support groups like the Marsha P Johnson Institutewe did not want to endanger organizations or individuals by participating in risky activity,” Erlick said in a statement.
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