'Happy Birthday Marsha' Shows What the Gay Rights Movement Owes Trans People

We talked to the filmmakers behind a new short film honoring Marsha Johnson, a trans activist who dedicated her life to the rights of poor trans people of color.

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Dec 19 2015, 4:30pm

Image via the Happy Birthday Marsha IndieGogo page

Marsha "Pay It No Mind" Johnson is one of the LGBT rights movement's unsung heroes. She is often credited as having thrown the first brick at the Stonewall Riots (which took place on the night of her 24th birthday party); from there, she went on to continue acting as a powerful voice for change, both inside and outside of the LGBT community, for the next twenty years.

In 1970, with her friend Sylvia Rivera, Johnson founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, an organization that advocated for homeless queer youth, mostly trans and gender non-conforming people of color. In the 1980s, as AIDS ravaged her community, Johnson became a member of ACT UP, one of the main groups that fought the AIDS crisis in New York City and elsewhere. Tragically, in 1992, her body was found floating in the Hudson River. Johnson's death was ruled a suicide—despite the protests of friends who said that she was not suicidal and that on the evening she had died, she had been harassed on the street near where her body was found.

In the decades since, Johnson has sadly been relegated to something of a footnote to the movement, often only being mentioned in connection to Sylvia Rivera. Her time as a musician with The Hot Peaches – a downtown NYC queer music & performance art collective – rarely gets remembered. And in recent attempts by cisgender people to memorialize the Stonewall Riots, her role has either been downplayed (as in Roland Emmerich's Stonewall film) or left out entirely (as in Ann Bausum's history book for teens, Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights).

Thankfully, two artists and scholars, Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel, are working to restore Johnson to the public memory. The pair recently completed filming on a short film about Johnson, entitled Happy Birthday Marsha. Starring Mya Taylor (Tangerine) as Johnson, the film uses narrative scenes and little-known footage of Johnson herself to create a moving testament to a woman who dedicated her life to the rights of poor trans people of color.

Wortzel and Gossett are in the final 24 hours of an IndieGoGo campaign to finish post-production, but they took a moment to sit down with us and discuss Johnson, their film, and our current moment of heightened trans media visibility.

Image via the Happy Birthday Marsha IndieGogo page.

Broadly: How did you two come to make Happy Birthday Marsha?
Reina Gossett: I had been doing some video blogging of interviews of Sylvia Rivera that hadn't been online yet. Sasha was making brilliant films that I was really touched by: the aesthetics, the subject matter, how layered they were. So I approached Sasha about making a film together about Syliva Rivera. Then it morphed into something that is less of a documentary like we imagined and more about Marsha P. Johnson, which is not what we imagined.

Sasha Wortzel: And of course I was really thrilled when Reina approached me to work on this project together because I'm impressed by her so much: as a friend, as a thinker, as a writer, as an organizer.

How did it evolve from a doc about Sylvia Rivera to a narrative film about Marsha P. Johnson?
Gossett: While not enough people know about Sylvia Rivera, she has more spaces—like a street named after her in New York City. And there's footage I managed to find of her in the 1970s that I put online, but there wasn't a lot about Marsha P. Johnson. Right now, there's a lot of heightened visibility for trans people, but also the highest documented rate of violence ever against trans women of color specifically. So we thought in this moment it might be important to reflect on not just who's harming us and how we're fighting back, but what are we doing with each other that is rich and beautiful and tactical and allows for a space to dream. As we started to write that story it felt so compelling to think about Marsha, who is credited as one of the first people to fight back at the Stonewall riots and is largely known as an activist, but was also a brilliant performer. She was in this downtown troupe, the Hot Peaches, she was an actress, and so we thought that would be a really fun compelling story.

There's a lot of heightened visibility for trans people, but also the highest documented rate of violence ever against trans women of color specifically.

Wortzel: Initially, Reina had collected a lot of research and archive material that had not really been seen - for example, a video of Sylvia Rviera in 1973 at a Pride Rally violently being pushed off the stage and yelled at. [In the footage] she very clearly says that the lesbian/gay/transgender movement is leaving behind trans people, and people in prison, and people living in poverty.

So initially we thought we were going to work with all this material to do a documentary, but we really felt limited by that format because there wasn't that much out there. So we wrote a script, which freed us up creatively to think about these people and their lives with one another in a way that the documentary didn't feel like it could do for us. But there are definitely some threads of documentary still in the film. We weave these narrative scenes that are performed by actors with archival footage of New York City in the 60s and some lesser known footage of Marsha P. Johnson that was shot by Darrell Wilson.

You're doing an IndieGoGo Campaign to finish the film, right? Can you tell me about that?
Gossett: When we shifted from doing a doc-based film to a narrative, we brought on actors, we had an art department, and we had our cinematography done by Arthur Jafa, who was Spike Lee's cinematographer and who also worked with Stanley Kubrick. So the film looks amazing and the score is by Geo Wyeth, who is a brilliant artist and musician. All of the funds that we raise from the IndieGoGo will go directly into the scoring of the film, the sound design, and the distribution. We have a deep intention to ensure that the film is shown in places that Sylvia and Marsha spent much of their lives: amongst our community, low income people of color who are queer, trans, and gender nonconforming.

Every dollar counts all the way up to $20,000, where there's a perk for an Executive Producer title. And Mya Taylor, who stars as Marsha, was in Tangerine, so we have a bundle donated by Sean Baker, the director of Tangerine, with autographed collectibles from Mya and Sean.

On the lower end of the spectrum, our cheapest perk is a digital download. We really want to make sure as many people see the film as possible. For $25 people can download the film and see how their support and huge generosity allowed for such a beautiful portrait of Marsha.

Why is this film important right now?
Wortzel: We really wanted to show community. Not essentialize it down to one moment or one person. More than just one individual, or one moment of resistance, there were many. Stonewall is just the most well known.

Gossett: A lot of stories are being centered on white trans people with a level of class access and privilege, and I think that what is really important to remember and know is that the people who allowed for that are people who were street queens, people who were homeless, people who were in and out of prison, people who were doing sex work, people who could never be assimilated into the mainstream. Because of that, they dealt with an enormous amount of shadiness and disrespect and violence in the LGBT movement as it tried to become more and more respectable.

This story seeks to intervene on the idea that we have to be respectable in order to matter.

So this story seeks to intervene on the idea that we have to be respectable in order to matter. We have to be white, or be outside of prison, or have a certain type of class access. Because we historically have seen, time and time again, that people who are navigating huge forms of violence have been consistently doing powerful acts of self-determination. I think it's really important to remember our history and how the past isn't past: It's actually playing out right now. If we're not talking about people in prison while we're talking about trans people, we're not talking about trans people.

Wortzel: One thing that feels really important to me is that organizing for queer and trans people has always been tied to organizing around police violence, around incarceration in our community, and making that tie very apparent because I think we've lost that connection today,

Gossett: And I think we're consistently trying to think about who our audience is, because we want everyone to see this film and the power of it. I'm unaware of a film that was shot specifically for an audience who would have shared space with Marsha and Sylvia—whether in jail, on the streets, or in a hotel room. I think so often the stories of trans people are for cis audiences, right? And/or there are really important smaller films that are for queer and trans people but not necessarily queer and trans people who are people of color, who are low income, or who are navigating structural violence especially. Trans women of color and gender nonconforming people of color are so not imagined as an audience right now that's worthy of beautiful art.

Do you see that changing?
Gossett: Definitely. I think this film is changing that. I see Laverne [Cox] and Janet [Mock]'s work, also Jen Richards. Miss June, who is a singer and performer, I think her work is really changing that. The Miss Major documentary, Major, I think is very specifically done in such a way to ensure that trans women of color coming out of prison will have access to that film, which is so important.