The first transgender activist sculpture in New York City Parks

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Marsha P. Johnson art installation with Artist Jesse Pallotta
Activists dismount Christopher Park’s Marsha P. Johnson art installation for restoration. With support from the Federal Parks System. Pictured here with Artist Jesse Pallotta. Photo by Nora Littleton.

Marsha P. Johnson is a symbol of trans and gender nonconforming rights

Shirley McKinney grew up during the civil rights movement.

The living history of the Gay Liberation Movement opened up to McKinney when she moved to New York City from Indiana for her job with the National Park Services. When McKinney’s friends invited her to the Stonewall Inn she remembered asking, “What’s that?”

“I’m still learning,” she said in a video interview. Over time McKinney has met the original protesters. Most of them, she says, are white men and some white women. “I’m an African American woman who grew up during the civil rights movement. I understand,” McKinney said.

McKinney, a superintendent with National Park Services, has spent more than 20 years overseeing park experience, diversity and outreach at sites in Manhattan. McKinney said she wants to get history right. When she heard that a sculpture of Marsha P. Johnson, transgender activist, was mounted in New York City’s Christopher Park, she wondered who created her.

“I think something needed to be done anyway. We just hadn’t gotten to that point in our planning effort,” McKinney said.

In 2019 New York City announced that both Marsha P. Johnson and transgender activist Sylvia Rivera would be immortalized as permanent monuments in New York City but plans had stalled so a group took it upon themselves to create their own sculpture.

After a basic search for the artist behind the sculpture, McKinney found New York City resident, artist, and activist, Jesse Pallotta. The National Park Superintendent requested to meet on-site to discuss collaboration efforts.

“That’s kind of what happened and we talked about art. We talked about the fact that there’s a lot of policy that takes a long time to approve any kind of statue in a park,” McKinney said. Johnson’s bust was legalized as an art installation, something McKinney hoped would create permanence and legal status to the sculpture on park grounds and elsewhere in the city.

“I know that some of the individuals were afraid that they were going to be, you know, there was going to be negative backlash, but not at all. We want to be able to honor those heroes of that movement,” McKinney said.

Conversations with the Federal Parks System was one of the first things to happen. “That was a really big thing—communication with the people who manage the federal park of Christopher Park,” Pallotta said. “These are also the people who are managing Governors Island, the Statue of Liberty, things like that, so they’re a pretty big department to deal with.”

The sculpture was erected late last August, with the help of community activists and organizers, in response to the discontent towards the current Gay Liberation Monument by George Segal. The sculpture’s mounting also celebrated Johnson’s birthday (Aug. 24, 1945), transgender rights and followed over 150 new legislative proposals limiting the rights of transgender people across the country. In 1970, Johnson collaborated with Rivera in co-founding Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) which provided shelter and food to LGBTQ homeless youth. She paved the way for the modern Gay Liberation Movement while building awareness toward homeless transgender youth and erasure of Black and Brown transgender rights.

artist Jesse Pallotta
Marsha P. Johnson Statue dedication with artist Jesse Pallotta. Photo by Nora Littleton

Initially, as McKinney suggested, Pallotta thought that the sculpture of Johnson would be taken down in a few days. Pallotta preserved his art by creating a mold of the bust. As an art installation, not a statue, Pallotta bears the responsibility of maintaining and funding the sculpture himself, and along with community partners, have built a core group of LGBTQ caretakers around the sculpture.

For Pallotta, the sculpture is an art piece that the community engages with. “Public sculpture specifically is less about self-expression,” Pallotta said, “and more about civicness, and I think something about that I just really like because it’s connected to the everyday rather than mystifying of the artist.”

With the help of nonprofits The Marshall Project, Black Trans Nation and The Center, Johnson will be reconstructed, cared for, and kept alive throughout Manhattan. TS Candii founder of Black Trans Nation, is a key figure in the community liaison work between moving the art installation to The Center and organizing the community care around the art installation, said Pallotta. Candii, is known for her political activism surrounding sex work and transgender rights.

“[The Federal Park System] knew to work with us… because they know the erasure,” Candii said. “It’s bad enough that the park that Marsha was placed at illegally don’t even represent the community that’s there.”

Both Pallotta and Candii have been working to recognize Johnson’s statue as a symbol of transgender and gender nonconforming rights, queer people of colors’ rights and sex workers’ rights, an integral aspect to transgender history often gouged out of the history of the gay and lesbian movement.

“It’s really important to me that it feels like it’s for everyone and that everyone can enjoy it,” Pallotta said.

The new podium is three pieces. The artist describes the developing indoor structure as a “box with a lid with a statue on it”, a structure that is easy to move and allows for accessibility among the community. The new podium has been funded by The Center. For Pallotta the sculpture is a form of activism, which informs community action for a common mission of social change.

The sculpture is moving indoors and will eventually be open for viewing at The LGBTQ Center on 208 W.13 Street.