By Morgan M Page (Odofemi)
Making the rounds on your Facebook feed, Tumblr dash, or Twitter moment are hundreds of Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns asking for cash to fund art projects. I’m hard pressed to think of any that are nearly as exciting and groundbreaking as Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel’s Happy Birthday Marsha! - a short film about the everyday lives of Stonewall legends Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, two trans women of colour sex workers who helped change history. I sat down, in an internet sort of way, with screenwriter and co-director Reina Gossett to learn more about the upcoming film, the history behind it, and the powerful ways it all relates to our past, present, and future as trans and queer people.
MORGAN PAGE: Reina, I’ve been following your work for several years now, and as a lover of history, I’ve been particularly captivated by your groundbreaking work documenting the lives of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, much of which you’ve posted to your blog thespiritwas.tumblr.com. I’m wondering how you initially learned about them and came to do this work?
REINA GOSSETT: In 2005 I took part in the first Trans Day of Action, an annual day of action organized by Trans Justice of the Audre Lorde Project to highlight the issues facing trans and gender non conforming people of color in New York City. We were marching through the West Village and I was experiencing how the residents of that neighborhood were organizing against young low income LGBT people of color; the same community of people who helped give the West Village a name as a queer space (and therefore desirable neighborhood) were being targeted and policed. As I was getting more involved in the organizing around this I kept hearing about how Sylvia Rivera had an encampment on the Christopher Street pier in the mid 90s and how she was supportive of the young people organizing against police surveillance and resident antagonism in 2000. I remember asking people who knew her if this was the same Sylvia Rivera who helped lead the Stonewall Rebellion, and when learning that it was, being in awe over the span of time that she dedicated to activism. I was filled with inspiration and filled with questions. Something about her life made my own feel validated.
I’m not sure when I first heard about Marsha P. Johnson, but it was probably a little while later. I think the historical erasure of her happened in a different way that to me feels so similar to the attempted erasure of black lives from the days of the middle passage and chattel slavery to today. I remember hearing bits and pieces about Marsha, her early activism and then seeing amazing photos of her taken by Diane Davies and in old issues of Drag Magazine that Lee Brewester of Queens Liberation Front published. Later as I started to befriend Randy Wicker I came into contact with amazing footage that Randy has taken over the years of Marsha and Sylvia, much of which I’ve shared on my blog. Randy talks a lot about how Marsha’s legacy was nearly lost to history, to me another way of putting it is that the violence of erasure was organized against by people who recognized the value of Marsha’s life not only because of how her actions had huge consequences for the LGBT movement from Stonewall through AIDS activism, but because more and more people are recognizing historical erasure of marginalized lives as a form of violence to be organized against, that no one is disposable, certainly not people navigating immense and multiple forms of oppression.
MP: How much of the script of Happy Birthday Marsha! is based on what actually happened? How did you learn about that? And what was your process like filling in gaps that might’ve existed?
RG: The script for Happy Birthday Marsha! is centered on research I’ve been doing, including interviews with people who knew Marsha the best and were present in the Village during the time of the riots.
But it is informed with my experience going through archives that so often what we come to know as facts or what we come in contact with inside an archive happens through a violent discerning process of whose lives are valuable to record, whose actions are important to note. I wanted to tell a story that wasn’t constrained by what these archives tell us I can say about their lives. As the author Saidiya Hartman writes, I wanted to write a story “that exceeded the fictions of history…that constitute the archive and determine what can be said about the past. I longed to write a new story, one unfettered by the constraints of legal documents,” because a lot of times those legal documents and facts exist as obstacles to telling the stories of lives that navigate the violences of historical erasure.
With that in mind, I set out to share a fuller scope of our social history that extends beyond when we were simply only oppressed or acted incredibly exceptionally. I wanted to tell something much more complex that challenged the hierarchy of intelligible history and the archive that keeps our stories as trans and gender non-conforming people from ever surfacing in the first place.
I did this by locating the story in the intimate and everyday actions made by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson, and not to the actions & violences that happened to them. The story moves away from the more fact based work that I have done to record the lives of Sylvia, Marsha and STAR. More important to me than “who threw the first shot glass at the NYPD,” “who had a birthday party on what day” or even “who was present at what time and on what day during the days of the Stonewall rebellion” is giving space for the for the lives and relationships of people who have been treated as disposable when it comes to recounting history in general or even LGBT history to fill the screen and to be the focus, full of agency rather than simply victims of violences.
MP: I know that you’re quite involved in prison abolitionist community work. I’m wondering how both a sense of community and a politics of prison abolitionism informed or will inform the writing and creation of Happy Birthday Marsha?
RG: One of the ways we wanted to structure the story of Happy Birthday Marsha! was to keep the focus on Sylvia and Marsha without recreating the violent gaze of the police and prison, institutions that both had to deal with on a daily basis, well before the 1969 Stonewall riots. Both of Sylvia and Marsha recount years of violence from the police and developed brilliant analyses around the problem and how to organize around it.
Sylvia and Marsha consistently foregrounded the reality that police and prisons were primary predators for trans people, poor people, people of color, people with disabilities, people in the sex trade and LGBT people in general. From their actions at Stonewall to the organizing they did with and on behalf of incarcerated members of the Black Panther Party held at the Women’s House of Detention center to their takeover of New York University, which they held until the NYPD tactical police forcibly evicted them, to the incredible statement Sylvia and Marsha and other members of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries wrote that named the police as a source of violence for all LGBT people, Sylvia and Marsha put a huge spotlight on policing as a tool to control their lives and hinder their survival.
While Happy Birthday, Marsha! takes place before these things happened, as an origin story of two legendary figures and as a story of people already navigating and surviving police violence, the film will attempt to show how this organizing came from everyday choices - whether staying inside to avoid encounters or throwing bottles at the police to fight back - Sylvia and Marsha made in order to deal with the police and incarceration.
MP: Marsha and Sylvia have over the past couple of years, in no small part due to your own efforts and as well as those of others within trans and queer community, come to be sort of icons or Saints of trans communities in North America, particularly trans people of colour communities. I’m wondering if you have thoughts on why that is? What about Marsha’s and Sylvia’s stories, the story of STAR, makes them so pivotal to our understanding of our past, current, and future politics? What can we learn from their lives?
RG: I think we just saw that happen in the New Yorker with Michelle Goldberg’s article, which actually exists in a context of silencing, exile & violence that trans and gender non-conforming people have had to navigate within LGBT spaces for a long time. And the lives and work of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson and other self-identified street queens reflect both having to navigate those violences and surviving, fighting back and building relationships with each other in face of them. I think that is what a lot of people connect to when I share stories about the lives of Sylvia, Marsha and STAR.
Whether it was what happened at the 1973 NYC pride with Jean O’Leary and the Lesbian Feminist Liberation attacking Sylvia and whole communities of trans people or their organizing other street queens involved in the sex trade to provide housing and support, I think people are hungry for these stories that have had to face incredible erasure.
I think one challenge and what I hope to move this film beyond is that it’s easy to create uncomplicated stories of our history where they are only naming the times we were hurt or times we acted heroically. I want to tell a deeper and more intimate story than I got to through the essays and talks I’ve given about STAR and Sylvia and Marsha.
MP: How did Happy Birthday Marsha! come about? What’s your process been like working with your co-director Sasha Wortzel?
RG: Happy Birthday, Marsha! came out of my time researching, documenting and sharing Sylvia and Marsha’s legacies. I believe that increasing access to the powerful lineage of trans women of color is not only a way to resist the exclusion of trans women of color from the very movements we helped create, but an assertion that our lives are valuable beyond measure in a moment when violence against trans women of color continues to take more and more lives.
Sasha and I initially set off to create a documentary about their lives and developed it in Ira Sach’s Queer/Art/Mentorship program with filmmaker Kimberly Reed. As we started to do this, we thought it would actually be more powerful to create a film that had doc aspects but was a narrative piece. We thought having trans women of color playing trans lives with a screenplay written by a trans woman of color would be a historic way to tell the story of two larger than life figures. So Sasha and I set off to write it and, depending on the reception, a sequel titled Star People are Beautiful People.
MP: How can we support Happy Birthday Marsha?
RG: In order to begin work on producing Happy Birthday, Marsha!, Sasha and I must complete our fundraising goal of $25,000. We are well on our way, but need support from everyone who understands the importance of story and representation in claiming a lineage and practicing self-determination. This film, written, co-produced and co-directed by a trans woman of color, will be the first of its kind to reach a wide audience, but only with your help.
Sharing the Kickstarter with friends and your social (media) network is an invaluable way for people to support the project. For people who can donate we also really appreciate that too. If you want to support the visibility through your own blog or media platform we also really appreciate it. Thank you!