Transgender civil rights icon Marsha P. Johnson honored with public monument in New Jersey hometown

Johnson is credited with starting the Stonewall uprising in 1969.

August 27, 2020, 7:43 PM

New Jersey officials approved a piece of land to build a monument dedicated to transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey. The monument would be the first in the country to honor a transgender person, according to Union County officials.

City and county officials met with members of the Johnson family on Thursday afternoon to formally announce that the space had been approved, Union County officials told ABC News.

The Johnson family was instrumental in the proposal for the monument, which will be located across the street from the Thomas Jefferson Arts Academy near the city's downtown area.

"Today, the family of Elizabeth native and LGBTQ+ Civil Rights activist Marsha P. Johnson was joined by Union County Freeholders and LGBTQ+ advocates to announce the future site of a public monument on Freedom Trail in the City of Elizabeth in Johnson's honor," the county wrote in a statement. "The monument is anticipated to be the first public monument in the State of New Jersey to honor a LGBTQ+ person and transgender woman of color."

A 1970 photo of Marsha P. Johnson handing out flyers in support of Gay Students at NYU is seen here courtesy of the New York Public Library's "1969: The Year of Gay Liberation" exhibit.
Diana Davies/NYPL/Handout via Reuters, FILE

The Johnson family is scheduled to host events in partnership with Union County Freeholders, the City of Elizabeth, Garden State Equality and the Office of LGBTQ Affairs "during LGBTQ History Month (October, 2020) to engage with the community and the public to participate in the planning and creating of the historic project," the statement said.

Johnson, an early and outspoken advocate for transgender women of color, is widely credited with helping start the Stonewall uprising in 1969.

New York City police officers raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Manhattan's Greenwich Village neighborhood, on June 28, 1969, to enforce a discriminatory law that made it illegal to serve alcohol to gay people. Johnson and others fought back, helping spawn the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement.

Johnson founded the Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries -- a group aimed at helping homeless transgender youth -- before she died tragically at the age of 46 in 1992, when her body was found floating in the Hudson River. Her death was initially ruled a suicide, but police reopened the investigation in 2012 amid calls from her family, who claimed foul play. The circumstances of her death remain unsolved.

The announcement came just days after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo dedicated the East River State Park in Brooklyn to Johnson, making it the country's first state park to honor an LGBTQ person, according to the state.

Family members of activist Marsha P. Johnson stand at the site of a new monument to be built in Johnson's honor in Elizabeth, N.J., in a photo released by Union County.
Union County Office of LGBTQ Affairs

Cuomo made the announcement last Monday, on what would have been the transgender civil rights icon's 75th birthday.

"I'm proud to announce the dedication of East River State Park in Brooklyn to #MarshaPJohnson. Today, Marsha P. Johnson State Park becomes the first State Park to honor an LGBTQ person," Cuomo tweeted. "NY is indebted to her for her brave advocacy and relentless fight for LGBTQ equality."

The state plans to improve the park's facilities and install public art celebrating Johnson's life and her role in the advancement of LGBTQ rights, according to a statement, which called the move the largest investment in the park's history.

An art installation outside of the Justice Center provides information on Marsha P. Johnson in Portland, Ore., on June 21, 2019.
Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA via Newscom, FILE

Cuomo said the state wanted to honor Johnson's work to make sure that her memory lives on forever.

"Too often, the marginalized voices that have pushed progress forward in New York and across the country go unrecognized, making up just a fraction of our public memorials and monuments," Cuomo said in a statement. "Marsha P. Johnson was one of the early leaders of the LGBTQ movement, and is only now getting the acknowledgement she deserves. Dedicating this state park for her, and installing public art telling her story, will ensure her memory and her work fighting for equality lives on."

New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul said the current social climate made this the right time to honor Johnson, who she called an "LGBTQ hero."

"With the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement, now more than ever we must continue the fight for LGBTQ equality and racial justice in our society," Hochul said. "We have come a long way with the passage of GENDA (the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act) and legalizing gestational surrogacy, but we still have more work to do to combat division and hate and achieve true equality for all."

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