Marsha P Johnson and the Undervaluing of Trans Women of Colour

Marsha P Johnson fought for your rights. You owe her a lot. I say this to all, knowing it to be true.

This black, bisexual, transgender woman spent many years fighting for the right to be heard, to be respected, and to be equal, regardless of who you are. She’s best known for her instrumental role the Stonewall uprising of 1969, which led to the first Pride rally in 1970. She also co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) organisation, and criticised the gay and lesbian community for their transphobic approach (for example banning drag queens from marches as they were “giving them a bad name.” (Kasino, Michael (2012) Pay It No Mind – The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson))

In the past couple of years, Marsha’s activism and importance has really come to the forefront. However, this hasn’t been in the way that it perhaps should have. Rather than her work being celebrated through mainstream LGBTQ+ celebrations and outlets, she was suddenly brought up when the film Stonewall came out in 2015. The film dramatically downplayed her involvement in the Stonewall riots and subsequent Pride movement, choosing instead to write in a white, gay, cis man to throw the revered first brick of the riot in a bid to make the story more relatable to a ‘normal’ audience. Safe to say, the movie tanked in the midst of an outrage that anyone would erase such an important part of history.

Although this backlash did educate many queer people, myself included, about the beginning of Pride, it did not lead to the championing of trans women of colour that we might have hoped for. The extent to which these women are ignored in queer culture is evident in the fact that they are hardly seen in pop culture, despite being disproportionately at risk of abuse, homelessness, and premature death.

However, Netflix has just released a film about her life and death – a detailed documentary featuring archive and modern footage which follows trans WOC Victoria Cruz as she examines the newly re-opened investigation into her friend Marsha’s unsolved death in 1992. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is mainly narrated by Cruz, and throws the stories of herself, Johnson, and Sylvia Rivera (a trans WOC best known for damning the queer community for not supporting trans women) into mainstream media.

That being said, all this has been done before, and very recently. Films Pay It No Mind (2012) and Happy Birthday Marsha! (2016), as well as the 1995 play The Ascension of Marsha P. Johnson have all focused on a certain part of her life. Yet, The Death and Life promises to broadcast her story to a much larger audience than any previous art due to its platform.

Despite this seemingly being a victory for her story, and the stories of minority activist everywhere, there is still a controversy here. David France, the director of the film, has been criticised for using archived footage and evidence which was firstly uncovered by Reina Gossett, the creator of Happy Birthday Marsha!

Gossett then released a statement describing the hardship and danger that went in to finding such footage, only for France to persuade the Kalamazoo/Arcus foundation to allow him to make it, and instead remove Gossett’s work from platforms such as Vimeo. Her ‘decades of archival research’ were used by him instead.

Despite his argument that his sole aim was to amplify Marsha’s voice and not to ‘duplicate efforts,’ I cannot help but question why he chose to use Gossett’s work without permission, instead of requesting she join the production team or receive compensation.

The real problem, writes Janet Mock, is that ‘She [Gossett] researched/archived/digitised content inaccessible for decades. She interviewed Marsha and Sylvia’s peers. She did this work without pay. A black trans woman’s work about a black trans woman was used to make a film by a credentialed white cis man aided by Netflix’s millions.’

Regardless of the fact that The Death and Life centres on three trans women of colour, and a case that was reopened by another, Mock and Gossett argue that the work of women such as them are overlooked and undervalued. France’s film may publicise their cause, but does not lead to the concrete help that trans WOC need, and in fact hinders them by using their work to further his own career.

Of course, the telling of Marsha and Rivera’s stories in as many ways to as many people as possible is a good thing, but so is supporting the people whose rights they fought for in the first place. Gossett’s erasure from her own work reflects Marsha’s, and the propagation of queer movies which exploit the activism of black trans women in order to benefit white cis men is scary. As Netflix’s new show will undoubtedly become more popular than Happy Birthday Marsha!, Gossett is having to borrow money to pay her rent, her work used and uncredited.

Queer people have such amazing bisexual, transgender people of colour to thank for their bravery. It’s time they lived the lives they deserve for all of that.

Image via IMDB

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