This article is best started by briefly outlining two historical figures: Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) and Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992).
Christopher Columbus is believed to have been born in Genoa, Italy and most famously, as the rhyme goes, “sailed the ocean blue in 1492” in order to find a route to Asia under the patronage of the Spanish Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. And, as is well known, he actually ended up on one of the Bahamian Islands (most likely San Salvador) and then moved from island to island, eventually establishing a settlement on Hispaniola (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic). But Columbus was not a heroic explorer or adventurer, as he is often portrayed, but a genocidal and tyrannical colonizer. This can be succinctly but shockingly demonstrated in a Vox article by Dylan Matthews which draws largely from Laurence Bergreen’s book Columbus: The Four Voyages. Columbus did not “discover” the Americas, as they had been populated for a millennium by indigenous peoples—specifically in the Bahamian Islands by the Arawak of the Greater Antilles and South America. And almost immediately after arriving, Columbus and his Spanish crew went to work decimating their culture and population. On Hispaniola, they captured and enslaved more than a thousand Taino people (an Arawak subgroup)—including 9- and 10-year-old girls for sexual slavery—in addition to sexually assaulting numerous indigenous women themselves and cutting off the ears of Taino leaders as punishment for non-compliance. This brutality led 50,000 natives to commit suicide to avoid the wrath of Columbus and his men. And 56 years after Columbus first arrived in the Americas, only 500 of the original population of 300,000 Taino remained in Hispaniola—a people and culture left decimated.
Despite this horrific reality, Columbus is still memorialized and celebrated across the United States to this day. In a Jacobin piece adapted from her book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argues that this glorification is demonstrative that “from US independence onward, colonial settlers saw themselves as part of a world system of colonization.” And as Howard Zinn puts it:
What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots. They used the same tactics, and for the same reasons — the frenzy in the early capitalist states of Europe for gold, for slaves, for products of the soil, to pay the bondholders and stockholders of the expeditions, to finance the monarchical bureaucracies rising in Western Europe, to spur the growth of the new money economy rising out of feudalism, to participate in what Karl Marx would later call “the primitive accumulation of capital.” These were the violent beginnings of an intricate system of technology, business, politics, and culture that would dominate the world for the next five centuries.
In essence, Columbus’s legacy is one of slavery, genocide, and absolute brutality that helped lay the groundwork of much of the oppression that persists to this day. And yet the people of the United States continue to celebrate him.
There could hardly be a more antithetical figure to Columbus than Marsha P. Johnson. No brief summary can really do justice to her beautiful and incredible life, but here is a well-intentioned attempt: born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, she moved to New York City with just some articles of clothing and $15 dollars, describing herself—in a 1992 interview—as “nobody, from Nowheresville.” But she was far from “nobody.” As Maddox Wilson puts it in an article for Left Voice, “Marsha was a mother and friend to many, a talented performer, an advocate for homeless trans youth, and a radical black organizer. With a working class perspective and a criminalized identity, she was at the forefront of the fight for LGBTQ+ visibility and rights in New York.” And Keegan O’Brien writes that Johnson, alongside Sylvia Rivera, was one of the most important trans activists in the Gay Activists Alliance and Gay Liberation Front. Together she and Rivera also formed Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) which worked to provide services for trans street youth. Wilson explains how STAR was started…
as a housing program, resource center, and advocacy group for homeless transgender youth. It started out in a parked trailer, opening their doors to trans youth as a safe alternative to living on the street. Marsha and Sylvia eventually moved their trans and gender nonconforming children into an apartment and sponsored the group through sex work.
Johnson is famously often credited for helping begin the 1969 Stonewall Riots by throwing the “shot glass heard around the world.” As Johnson told Eric Marcus in a 1989 interview, “We just were saying, no more police brutality and, oh, we had enough of police harassment in the Village and other places.” There has been contestation about whether Johnson actually began the riot, but Wilson argues that this is an attempt to “whitewash the riots, attributing the resistance solely to the white cis gay men who frequented the bar. It is important to resist this whitewashing of history: on the front lines of the Stonewall riots were the transgender drag queens and lesbians of color who put their lives on the line to stand up against the oppressive state institutions.” The Stonewall Riots now serve as the direct inspiration for modern pride parades, so Johnson’s legacy lives on in integral elements of the LGBTQ+ community. And this is all by no means exhaustive of Johnson’s amazing life and work which the reader should explore extensively.
Now, who deserves to be commemorated in the form of a monument, Christopher Columbus or Marsha P. Johnson? This is the question raised and answered by Celine Da Silva and her boyfriend Daniel Cano in a petition to “[r]eplace the statue of Christopher Columbus with a statue of Marsha P. Johnson” (which is linked to again at the end of this piece) in Johnson’s hometown of Elizabeth.
There was much controversy throughout the 2010s over monuments that glorify racist violence, particularly Confederate ones; the most infamous perhaps being the protest by white supremacists against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. This culminated in the horrific ramming of anti-racist counter-protesters by a right-wing radical in a speeding car that killed activist Heather Heyer and injured several others. And even more recently, sparked by the sickening murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, David McAtee, and numerous other POC by law enforcement, there has been a further push to topple many of the monuments that glorify slave-owners and mass murderers in conventional American history. Some argue that this sort of removal is “erasing” history, but particularly in the case of Da Silva’s petition, it is not erasure but rather the rejection of the glorification of the monsters of history in favor of the commemoration of those like Johnson who truly represent liberation.
In an anti-authoritarian spirit, Cano is quoted in a Pink News article by Emma Powys Maurice as saying, “Obviously we’re not asking the city council to consider putting up a statue. This is a demand. Ultimately, a statue is going to come up no matter what. And we’re going to honour Marsha in the way that she deserves to be honoured.” But as important as ending the glorification of genocide and commemorating truly liberatory history is, it is equally if not more important to ensure the defense of LGBTQ+ individuals—particularly of color—in the present and the future. As Helena Evans comments on the Pink News Facebook post, the construction of the statue deserves support “[a]s long as the town asks itself why Marsha left, why Marsha didn’t return etc. Hopefully not just ask itself, but looking at making sure the next Marsha doesn’t have to leave in their teens with just a bag full of clothes.” This means fighting poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, heteronormativity, and cisnormativity; establishing the sort of non-state ‘infrastructure’ (mutual aid funds, market pressure groups, housing cooperatives, community land trusts, community food projects, etc.) for LGBTQ+ individuals, POC, and those suffering from homelessness that Johnson worked to create in her lifetime; and perhaps working to create forms of community defense like the Pink Pistols who advocate the arming and training of the LGBTQ+ community in firearms usage or the famous Black Panther Party who sought to create self-governing and self-defending communities of color .
Black lives matter, LGBTQ+ lives matter, Black LGBTQ+ lives matter, all deserve to be remembered and celebrated. Johnson, whose life and work stand as testaments to human freedom and ingenuity, deserves to be remembered and celebrated.
Let us commemorate her! Here is the petition.
- Further discussion is required around such topics as the decriminalization of sex work and the international reparations and restorations long overdue to Indigenous peoples and members of the African diaspora victimized by the systems set in motion in large part by Columbus; all of which are subjects pertinent to this discourse.