Editor’s note: This past weekend, Netflix debuted the documentary “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson”, directed by David France. On Saturday, trans activist and co-director of the film “Happy Birthday Marsha!”, Reina Gossett, posted a photo on Instagram with a caption stating that France capitalized on her archival research and ideas for his film. France has since responded in a Facebook post. Below is Gossett’s first op-ed on this subject.
I first learned about Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson as a young person hanging out on New York City’s Christopher Street in the early 2000s. Marsha was a revolutionary black trans woman who was among the first to fight back against the racist and homophobic police at the 1969 Stonewall Riots. She was HIV positive, a sex worker, and an incredible performer and member of the group Hot Peaches. She organized people in jails and prisons, hospitals, and psych wards. With Sylvia Rivera, she co-founded the group Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to provide community care and housing for other queer and trans poor people. She often wore discarded flowers in her hair and brightened the days of people on Christopher Street with her contagious smile.
As I heard Marsha’s stories from people around me, I felt so moved by her refusal to stay small in the face of unimaginable violence. I felt a deep desire to know more about her, but I couldn’t find much written.
So for over a decade I dove into living rooms and libraries looking for whatever I could find, frequently facing down anti-black transphobic violence just to get in an archive’s door. But the work was feeding me so I kept going.
As I found more material, I started to wonder why so few people knew about Marsha. I realized that Marsha’s life had been deemed unimportant and unworthy of documenting by historians who have never cared about the lives of black trans and gender nonconforming people. Historical erasure of black trans life means so many of us are disconnected from the legacies of trans women before us, denied access to stories about ourselves, in our own voices. So it became increasingly important for me to not just find out more about Marsha but to share every bit of what I learned through my blog, writing and community organizing work so that we could reclaim and be nourished by our history.
One of the most profound moments I had was finding the footage of Sylvia Rivera’s famous “y’all better quiet down” speech. Watching it, I started to cry feeling how alive these legacies were. It was then that I dreamt of making a film about Sylvia and Marsha’s life, to uplift and share their incredible work. I dreamt of a day that black trans women and the people who love us would come away from watching my film feeling more connected to ourselves and our sense of power and joy and feel more free in the face of struggle.
I joined up with filmmaker Sasha Wortzel to co-direct a documentary about Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. We did a ton of archival research, interviewing, and collecting oral histories. I felt like we were on a critical path that Marsha had laid out for us, like I was living my purpose by sharing her story with the world.
David France’s documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, premiered on Netflix last October 6 while the one I envisioned with Sasha did not get made. We had applied for a grant to at least one of the same foundations that France, a white cisgender gay man, had applied to, but it was his film that got funding and not ours. Long before France’s film premiered, Sasha and I had decided to change course and make a short narrative film instead of a documentary. After we learned that France was planning his film, we knew we’d we’d face significant challenges making a documentary with a lower budget and fewer resources than he had. We were hopeful that our community would continue to support us, and were thrilled when we were able to crowdfund our film through donations via Kickstarter. It was truly a community effort, and I felt my relationship with Marsha deepening as we continued making Happy Birthday Marsha!. We are so proud of the final cut, which will premiere in 2018.
But as France’s documentary starts to make its way to large audiences, I can’t stop thinking about the voices that have been pushed aside in the process. Too often, people with resources who already have a platform become the ones to tell the stories of those at the margins rather than people who themselves belong to these communities. The process ends up extracting from people who are taking the most risks just to live our lives and connect with our histories, and the result ends up on Netflix, a platform you have to pay to even access. It goes against so much of what I have been working towards.
Changing that doesn’t look like tokenizing the next trans movie director or creating more visibility for a narrow group of respectable trans people. Changing that looks like shifting resources in a meaningful way, so that people on the streets, people facing the kinds of violence Marsha faced, can be the ones to tell these stories–and the ones to benefit from their telling. And that includes me, a black trans woman who has had to fight for a sustainable life while a white cisgender man gets to tell Marsha’s story. As the Netflix movie launched, I was borrowing money to pay my rent.
It is more important now more than ever for trans and gender nonconforming people to be the architects of our own narratives. While trans visibility is at an all-time high, with trans people increasingly represented in popular culture, violence against us has also never been higher. The push for visibility without it being tied to a demand for our basic needs being met often leaves us without material resources or tangible support, and exposed to more violence and isolation. Every day a new piece comes out about transness that is written and published by cisgender folk with industry resources. Every day our stories and our images are misused, sanitized, and extracted from for the gain of others. This is why it is crucial that we uplift and support the work of trans people to tell our own stories – on the screen, on the page, and on the streets.
So much of what Marsha had to deal with remains a reality for many of us. Marsha’s history has helped me make plain the connections between the historical erasure of trans women of color from the LGBT movement, and contemporary forms of anti-black transphobic violence happening today. Her image and ideas were extracted throughout her life, while she experienced so much violence – from the police, the outside world, and often from lesbian and gay activists and artists. It is this kind of violent extraction — of black life, trans life, queer life, disabled life, poor life — that leads so many of us to hold our ideas close to our chests; to never let the world see how brightly we shine. Until all of our ideas and lives are celebrated and given the resources we need and deserve, so much of our brilliance will remain hidden out of fear of our lives and labor being violated and appropriated. I truly believe this moment invites all of us not just to think about what we want to see represented on screen, but also how we want those images to be made and stories documented in the first place.