The “We are universal” mural in Philadelphia. (Twitter/MuralArts)
Around the world, trans lives are being celebrated and defended through striking pieces of public art.
Last week, the US state of Philadelphia unveiled its first-ever mural celebrating trans lives.
Titled “We are Universal”, the mural was created by artist Kah Yangni and the residents of Morris Home – a small, residential, substance and alcohol recovery programme that caters specifically to trans and gender non-conforming people.
“I think it’s really awesome to be trans,” Yangni told USA Today. “I’m really proud of what I am, but I know that we live in this world where not everybody thinks that, and people in our community go through a lot.
“So I wanted to make something that would feel like a huge hug and acknowledges some of the things that are hard about our lives, but ultimately is really loving and really warm and says, ‘We’re here, and we exist.’”
The 2,200-square-foot mural shows bright colours, flowers, a butterfly and the faces of two of the Morris Home residents. It also includes quotes from residents, such as: “We’re trans”, “We’re survivors”, “We are joyful”, “We feel rage” and “We are universal”.
The Philadelphia mural celebrating trans lives is the latest in a line of murals, renamed parks and statues about trans people in the UK and US. While some commemorate important trans public figures, others draw attention to violence. Many more that were erected have since been defaced or pulled down.
From honouring the legacy of trans pioneer Marsha P. Johnson to highlighting the issues faced by trans people living today, here are six more of the most moving tributes and calls to action about trans lives.
Bristol, UK: Mural highlights trans healthcare crisis
In October 2021, activists in Bristol painted a huge mural highlighting the bleak reality of trans healthcare in the UK.
Waiting times for a first appointment at a specialist NHS gender clinic in the south west of the UK are on average four years, and in some cases as long as five years, say the trans activists who painted the mural, with hormone therapy or gender-affirming surgeries an additional three to five years of waiting.
This is against the NHS target of 18 weeks for a first appointment.
“We don’t want special treatment,” the mural says. “We just don’t want to die waiting.”
New York, US: Queer activists put up bust of Marsha P. Johnson in park
Marsha P. Johnson founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which was dedicated to helping homeless queer youth, was instrumental in the 1969 Stonewall uprising, and fought tirelessly throughout her life to advance the rights of the LGBT+ community.
It was announced in May 2019 that Johnson and her STAR co-founder Sylvia Rivera would be honoured with a monument in New York, but in the two years since, the project has not been completed.
So on August 24, which would have been Johnson’s 75th birthday, a group of New York activists took matters into their own hands.
Sculpted by queer artist and sex worker Jesse Pallotta, a bust of Johnson was put up in Christopher Park, nearby to the historic Stonewall Inn.
Writer, activist, and public speaker Eli Erlick shared photos of the bust on Twitter, and wrote: “Happy birthday, Marsha! Early this morning, a group of friends and I put up this bust of Marsha P Johnson in Christopher Park.
“It’s the city’s first statue of a trans person and – shockingly – only the eighth statue of a historical woman out of 800 monuments in NYC parks!”
Norwich, UK: Bimini Bon Boulash defiant after ‘trans rights’ mural painted over
A mural celebrating Drag Race icon Bimini Bon Boulash was painted in the Pottergate pass in Norwich in March 2021. It was created by local artist Knapple and trans activist Sharpay Salazar.
The mural featured Bimini in their iconic Norwich City Football Club ensemble alongside an inspirational message supporting trans rights.
However, just a few days after it was painted, the mural was painted over in an apparent act of vandalism.
Bimini Bon Boulash hit back at the vandals, vowing they will “never stop being myself”.
They continued: “I’ll never shy away from living an authentically queer experience even if there are people that disagree with our existence.
“Trans rights are human rights, and I will push that message until the end.
“I feel sorry for the people who felt threatened or intimidated by a message portraying love, positivity and kindness.”
New York, US: State park renamed for Marsha P. Johnson
New York’s East River State Park, in Brookyln, was renamed for Marsha P. Johnson in 2021.
However, the tribute did not go without a hitch: Initial plans for the park were scrapped after complaints from Johnson’s family.
Black trans activists also raised concerns about the “harsh thermoplastic colours and extended cement slabs” contained within the park, while Johnson’s cousin accused the city of “exploiting” her name for publicity.
The park designs were then overhauled, and a different plan emerged. The cement slabs were gone, replaced with greenery and log benches. A planned mural of Johnson was also swapped for a series of commemorative plaques, along with a mosaic featuring a poem written by Johnson leading to the river.
Chicago, US: Street mural commemorates Black trans people who were violently killed
In the summer of 2020, local artists in Chicago came together to honour the hundreds of Black trans people lost to violence with a powerful street mural.
Featuring the words “Black Trans Lives Matter” stretched across the street in Catalpa Avenue, Andersonville, the mural was created by 22 artists or art groups, with the help of neighbours who donated $4,000 to pay the artists for their time and materials.
Each participating artist decorated an individual letter in the mural. One artist, Bailey Funk, painted the words “say their names” in the letter B, prompting others to paint names around the mural, each one colour-coded to give context to the deaths.
The names in pink are people whom police killed in the last five years, while the names in yellow identify unarmed people of colour killed by police since 1975.
Hollywood, US: All Black Lives Matter
A huge painting of the words “All Black Lives Matter” in the colours of the trans, non-binary and rainbow Pride flags, is permanently displayed on Hollywood Boulevard.
Installed after the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, the block-long message between Highland Avenue and Orange Drive was painted with the help of hundreds of volunteers on 13 June, 2020.
The next day, tens of thousands of people marched in Los Angeles to protest the brutal murders of two Black trans women, Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells, 27, and Riah Milton, 25.
In August 2020, it was announced that the “All Black Lives Matter” installation would remain permanently in place.