Over 60,000 people have signed a petition to replace a statue of Christopher Columbus in Elizabeth, New Jersey with a hometown hero: Marsha P. Johnson.
Johnson, who died in 1992, was a leading figure in early LGBTQ+ rights activism as a cofounder of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.). She and longtime friend Sylvia Rivera, the other founder behind S.T.A.R., were pivotal in fighting back against police brutality at the Stonewall Inn, a bar in New York City’s West Village, on June 28, 1969, which ultimately led to a six-day standoff with police. Those events helped kickstart the modern Gay Liberation Movement, leading to the creation of the first Pride events the following year.
Celine Da Silva, the 19-year-old Elizabeth resident behind the petition, said New Jersey’s fourth largest city should “commemorate Marsha P. Johnson for the incredible things she did in her lifetime and for the inspiration she is to members of the [LGBTQ+] community worldwide, especially Black trans women,” instead of a European colonizer who killed, enslaved, and sexually assaulted indigenous Americans.
“[T]he statue of Christopher Columbus in Elizabeth should be removed and replaced with a monument to someone who is deserving of being celebrated,” she wrote on the petition page.
If a statue to Johnson were to be erected, the town of 128,000 wouldn’t be the first to honor the Black trans trailblazer. Last year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that a monument would be erected in the West Village to commemorate the work of Johnson and Rivera in fighting for LGBTQ+ equality. In February, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo followed suit by renaming East River State Park in Brooklyn after Johnson.
But as the petition went viral this week — which also coincided with the announcement of a Pride month Google Doodle in tribute to her — Johnson’s family told CNN that a statue built in her hometown would have special significance.
“I’ve always said that Marsha was more recognized in New York City and around the world than she is in her own hometown,” said Johnson’s nephew, Al Michaels. “You have a hero, one of the greatest persons who did something in history, and in your own hometown, and you have nothing there to commemorate the experience.”
Elizabeth has yet to respond to calls to remove the Columbus statue, which has stood since 1971.
A separate petition has also urged New York City to rename Columbus Circle and remove a statue of his likeness from the center of the iconic Manhattan plaza. Cuomo, however, dismissed those pleas on Thursday, saying the monument “has come to represent and signify appreciation for the Italian American contribution to New York.”
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