For all of June, New York City will serve as host to World Pride, the biggest celebration of gay liberation in the world. The event marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in Greenwich Village and the half-century of activism and civil rights reform that followed. In conjunction, we asked readers to tell us which New Yorkers they would like to see paid tribute in the city’s public spaces. We sought suggestions of people who have already died, because the city tends to honor the living differently. This is why you won’t see names like Larry Kramer, the pre-eminent AIDS activist and playwright, on the resulting list.
But what of the dead? “Where is James Baldwin?” you might find yourself screaming into your smartphone. “Where is Walt Whitman?” We tried to veer away from the exceedingly famous in favor of keeping the focus on names that have been lost to history or at least those not already so familiar. (Baldwin, Whitman and Gertrude Stein have also already been memorialized by the city in various ways.)
It should go without saying that this list is not meant to be definitive. People will argue about it. That’s good. We welcome the debate.
1. Marsha P. Johnson, 1945 – 1992
Readers responding to our callout overwhelmingly named Marsha P. Johnson as someone to immortalize. Born in New Jersey in 1945, Marsha P. Johnson moved to Greenwich Village after high-school and an adolescence spent ostracized for dressing up in ways that boys usually didn’t. Despite the fact that she was destitute and homeless for much of her adult life — charged with prostitution more than 100 times — she devoted herself to nurturing young outcasts who came to the lower West Side of Manhattan in the 1960s and ’70s for a chance at living authentically only to find out how often sexual freedom tangled with poverty and violence.
[Read about Marsha P. Johnson in our Overlooked obituaries series.]
Johnson was a “drag mother,” an iconic performer, a model for Andy Warhol. But more than anything, she is remembered now for leading a revolution from the margins, spearheading the rebellion at Stonewall as a transgender African-American woman. In June of 1969, patrons at the bar, a hub of gay life in Greenwich Village, were long exhausted by the antagonisms they faced so routinely from the police. One night they fought back and changed history. Johnson was present for the riot and then dedicated the rest of her all-too-brief life to fighting for the rights of families made in the streets.
2. Sylvia Rivera, 1951 – 2002
At the time of Sylvia Rivera’s death from liver disease 17 years ago, The Village Voice called her the Rosa Parks of the transgender movement. Rivera’s work was closely linked with Johnson’s at a time when the term “transgender” had not yet entered the vernacular. One year after Stonewall, Rivera fought to get a gay rights bill going in New York City. Trying to break into a meeting at City Hall about the proposed legislation, she scaled a wall in a dress and heels and wound up in jail.
Sylvia was born in the Bronx to a Puerto Rican father and a Venezuelan mother. After her mother committed suicide, Sylvia was left to a life on her own, in Times Square, by the time she was 11.
She identified with the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, a radical Puerto Rican social justice group. Her singular role in the movement to broaden rights for those who did not experience gender or sexuality in a traditional sense was to recognize early on that it needed to be inclusive, that the most vulnerable were clearly those oppressed on multiple fronts — men and women of color whose sexual orientation was nonconforming and who lived on the fringes. Rivera was fighting for legitimacy not just in a straight world but among white, mainstream gay activists who wanted to control the journey and keep people like her far away from the steering wheel.
3. Lincoln Kirstein, 1907 – 1996
A moneyed son of Boston and a graduate of Harvard, Lincoln Kirstein moved to New York as a young man in 1930 and made an indelible mark on American culture. He was a critic, a poet, an essayist, a novelist and an editor who lived freely with his wife and the various boyfriends that stayed in the couple’s townhouse. During college, Kirstein spent his summers cultivating his love of classical dance. Once, traveling in Italy, he wandered into the funeral of Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes in Venice. The moment was transformative.
Kirstein later met George Balanchine and brought him to work in the United States. Together, they founded the School of American Ballet, where Kirstein served as president; the two later founded the New York City Ballet. Although he left his biggest imprint in dance, he was enormously influential in the world of visual art as well, a key figure in the early years of the Museum of Modern Art and a major force in directing its collections. Kirstein had served in the army in World War II, and he returned to Europe as part of a mission to retrieve looted Nazi art. He introduced Mexican avant-garde art to an American audience, supported the early career of Walker Evans and was central to a creative scene that included Evans, Cecil Beaton, Katherine Anne Porter and Jean Cocteau, among many others.
4. Bayard Rustin, 1912 – 1987
Civil rights leader
Bayard Rustin, best known for organizing the 1963 March on Washington, was also an important mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., bringing Ghandi’s nonviolent methods of protest to the American civil rights movement. When Rustin arrived in Montgomery, Ala., in the mid-1950s to work on bus boycotts, King had not yet embraced these methods; he had armed guards at the door of his house and guns inside. Rustin showed leaders a different way, having gone to India to study pacifism in 1948.
Rustin, who lived in Chelsea, has been called the “lost prophet’’ of the civil rights movement in large part because his sexuality forced him to the periphery. In 1953, he was arrested in California on “lewd conduct’’ charges, supposedly for engaging in sex with two white men in a car. This meant that the file the F.B.I. maintained on him — Rustin had been a young Communist — was expanding. Rustin said he knew then that sex for him had to be sublimated. He was regularly the target of homophobic attacks, and other black leaders, afraid of the tensions that would erupt around him, kept him from occupying central roles. Finally, in the 1970s, he could vocally advocate for gay rights.
5. Edith Windsor, 1929 – 2017
In 2009, when Edie Windsor’s wife, Thea Spyer, died, she was left with a tax bill of $363,053. Fixtures in New York, the couple had married two years earlier in Canada, where it was legal, but the Internal Revenue Service was indifferent to the fact that they had spent a lifetime together. The agency denied Windsor the spousal exemption from federal estate taxes that it afforded heterosexual married couples. Windsor sued the government. She won.
In its decision in United States v. Windsor (2013), the Supreme Court held that denying same-sex couples equal federal benefits was unconstitutional. Same-sex marriage prohibitions were then overturned in 17 states, and in 2015 same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide, thanks in large part to Windsor’s efforts.
A mathematician who worked as a computer programmer for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and later for I.B.M., Windsor, always a bon vivant, was a late-in-life activist. She died two years ago at 88, leaving behind a second wife, Judith Kasen-Windsor, who was 30 years younger than she was.
6. Billy Strayhorn, 1915 – 1967
Billy Strayhorn, one of the most gifted jazz composers of all time, cultivated anonymity in a way that would strike aspiring influencers of the current age as a sign of profound mental instability. Beginning in the late 1930s, he partnered with Duke Ellington to create some of the most important jazz music ever recorded. He wrote “Take the A Train,’’ a standard that became one of the signature pieces performed by Ellington’s orchestra. One of 10 children and a prodigy, he wrote “Lush Life,’’ a haunting chronicle of exhaustion with night life in the face of a doomed affair, when he was just a teenager.
Strayhorn deferred to Ellington to such an extent that he once allowed him to take partial credit for a song — “Something to Live For” — that he had written before they even met. After Strayhorn died of cancer in 1967 at the age of 51, Ellington recorded an album that critics would later cite as one of his best works, a collection of Strayhorn’s compositions titled, “And His Mother Called Him Bill.”
7. David Wojnarowicz, 1954 – 1992
Artist, AIDS activist
David Wojnarowicz first made his impression in the New York art world in the late 1970s when he placed stenciled images of burning houses on the sides of buildings in the East Village.
An abused child who would later work the piers on the West Side of Manhattan as a hustler, his art addressed same-sex desire, the AIDS crisis (he would die of AIDS in 1992 when he was 37) and the animosity directed at the marginalized in Ronald Reagan’s America. During the mid- to late 1980s he made paintings, collages, mixed media works and films. One of his films, “Fire in My Belly,’’ shot in Super 8, featured insects swarming around a corpse and a plastic Jesus, ignited the wrath of conservatives leaders like Donald Wildmon, then the director of the American Family Association, who went after Wojnarowicz and the National Endowment for the Arts for funding him, in a campaign that only enhanced the artist’s celebrity. Last year Wojnarowicz received a long-awaited retrospective at the Whitney Museum.
8. Audre Lorde, 1934 – 1992
Born in New York to West Indian immigrant parents, Lorde described herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” but she worked as a librarian as well — and as an essayist, novelist, memoirist and influential feminist thinker. Both her poetry and prose focused on civil rights, discrimination, and the complexities of racial and sexual identity.
“From a Land Where Other People Live,’’ her 1973 poetry collection, was nominated for a National Book Award and chronicled the loneliness and rage she felt as a black woman. She was among the most prominent voices of black lesbian life in the country. In 1991, Gov. Mario Cuomo named her New York State’s poet laureate, citing an imagination “charged by a sharp sense of racial injustice and cruelty, of sexual prejudice.” Her work is most resonant today for its deep understanding of the ways that gender, class and race work together to define human experience.
9. Frank Kameny, 1925 – 2011
Astronomer, civil rights pioneer
Long before Stonewall, there was Frank Kameny, a brilliant scientist who enrolled at Queens College when he was 15 and later earned a doctorate in astronomy from Harvard. In July of 1957, he got a job at the U.S. Army Map Service. Soon after, an investigator from the Civil Service Commission confronted him about rumors pertaining to his personal life. Was he a homosexual? Kameny was fired and within a year he was barred from working for the federal government.
Kameny appealed his dismissal, and though he did not succeed in regaining his job, his was one of the first civil rights cases related to sexual orientation to proceed in United States courts. He went on to publicly advocate that homosexuality was not a product of mental illness — the default position in the years before Stonewall — and that there was no justifiable reason for subjecting gay men and women to the many forms of bias society kept unleashing.
10. S. Josephine Baker, 1873 – 1945
Doctor, public-health champion
In 1898, Sara Josephine Baker graduated second in her class from the New York Infirmary Medical College. She had planned a life conventional for a woman at the turn of the century, but when her father died, she needed to help her family stay afloat. She set up a medical practice on the Upper West Side but failed to make any money. In need of an income, she went to work for the city’s health department and ultimately became one of the most significant figures in the history of American public health.
Preventive medicine barely existed before Baker came to see it as so essential, in the early 1900s. She sent nurses to new mothers living in the city’s tenements and had those nurses instruct them in how to care for infants. Infant mortality rates significantly decreased, and by 1923 every state in the country had a bureau of child health like the one Baker pioneered in New York.
Baker’s later life was spent with her partner, Ida Alexa Ross Wylie, a novelist and screenwriter who was always clear about how much more she preferred the company of women to men.
11. Keith Haring, 1958 – 1990
Few artists are as readily identified with New York in the 1980s as Keith Haring, whose graffiti art took the form of distinctive chalk drawings in subway stations, where blank advertising backboard was easy to find. Soon came commissions for large works of public art around the world. There was a hunger for his exuberant, childlike style, his use of color during a time of plague and despair.
Haring’s art was both consumerist and socially conscious — it raised awareness (about AIDS, drug use) as it brought joy. Haring learned he was infected with H.I.V. in 1988 and died two years later at the age of 31, having had his work already featured in more than 100 group and solo exhibitions.
By GINIA BELLAFANTE