East River State Park Will Be Renamed In Honor of Marsha P. Johnson
Earlier this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced plans to rename East River State Park, an 11-acre waterfront park in Williamsburg, in honor of Marsha P. Johnson, who was a transgender activist and woman of color who, in recent years, has finally been recognized by mainstream society as the hero she was.
Cuomo said in his announcement that his “goal has been to make New York State the leading champion in the nation for the LGBTQ community. Let New York be the state that ends discrimination, bias, intolerance, and judgmentalism against members of the LGBTQ community once and for all.” He added that this marks the first time in New York state history that a state park will be named after an openly LGBTQ person.
Marsha P. Johnson was part of the notorious Stonewall Riots that, more than 50 years ago, began what we think of as the modern LGBTQ Rights Movement. However, the organized movement that sprung out of Stonewall was largely dominated by white male voices, despite people like Marsha being on the front lines and often suffering the worst in terms of police brutality. But Johnson continued to fight for the rights of queer and trans people, both within the LGBTQ community and in the world at large.
Marsha P. Johnson, who was born and raised in Elizabeth, NJ, came to New York after she graduated from high school in 1963 with only “$15 and a bag of clothes.” She became widely known in the Village scene, dubbed the “Mayor of Christopher Street” (she was even photographed by Andy Warhol).
She performed with Hot Peaches, a drag performance group, and was an activist with AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).
Johnson was a sex worker and said she stopped counting the number of times she got arrested after it surpassed 100. In 1970 Johnson created STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with close friend Sylvia Rivera, who was also a civil rights pioneer. STAR provided shelter, food, and support to LGBTQ homeless youth, work that was critical at a time when the needs of LGBTQ youth (especially those of color) were so often overlooked or scorned by mainstream society.
Johnson died in 1992 under mysterious circumstances. Her body was found in the Hudson River and despite the fact that it seemed highly likely that she was murdered, the mainstream press didn’t make much of a fuss, and neither did the police, who first ruled her drowning a suicide. (The police later re-opened the case but it remains unsolved). Rivera survived her dear friend and started a homeless shelter for trans youth, called the Transy House, in Brooklyn, in Johnson’s honor.
And now, almost two decades after her death, Marsha P. Johnson is finally being enshrined into the state’s history in an official way. And it likely won’t stop with the renamed park. Almost two decades after Marsha P. Johnson’s death, Chirlane McCray (NYC mayoral first lady) launched an effort called She Built NYC to bring more statues of women to the five boroughs, and last year it was announced that a monument to Johnson and Rivera would go up in 2021 near the Stonewall Inn and would be among first of its kind in the world dedicated to trans women.