Commentary

Seeking justice: What happened to trans pioneer Marsha P. Johnson?

DF: Well, luckily, there was a good quantity of archival footage in which Marsha and Sylvia both narrated their own lives. I didn’t want to have a film filled with talking heads, academics, historians, contextualizing Marsha  and Sylvia. I wanted them to speak for themselves, to have a voice, to tell us who they were and what they wanted and what was really in their soul. There was enough footage I was able to unearth after two years of archival research.

JC: The film addresses the recent trends in violence against trans women of color. What is the message there? Is there a call to action?

DF: Absolutely. I think the film makes that call to action really plain. In a really important way, we all are responsible for Marsha’s death and we are all responsible for this current wave of crime against the community. We all have to own that and do something about it, individually and collectively. That’s, I think, the lesson we learn from the film.

JC: The film is going to be released on Netflix. How do you think distributing the film this way will impact viewership?

DF: I don’t know Netflix’s numbers off the top of my head but I’ll tell you this: On Oct. 6, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” is dropping in 190 countries simultaneously. It’s been translated into 18 languages from day one. In that way, Marsha is going global, which is exactly what she deserves. It’s the best possible platform for reaching into the furthest corners of the earth with this story of empowerment.

JC: In this LGBT History Month, what do you think the LGBT community of 2017 can learn by looking back on Marsha? What is her legacy?

DF: Her legacy is tremendous. She and Sylvia were the first to conceptualize the idea of a trans community. It was born from their minds, a theory they developed, and, in doing that, they set in motion a revolution in the way we understand gender.

That revolution is coming to full bloom now and would not be what it is today if it were not for them. All of us owe something to them for that revolution they touched off.

The film has shown at festivals around the world, and what I heard from people in the transgender community in particular is the importance of knowing how significant their foremothers were and how they fought what they fought for and what they achieved. The idea of there being heroes and heroines in the trans community is something in too-little supply.

These are definitely heroic figures and their stories deserve to be in the canon of other world-changing individuals. That’s an empowering development for the community, the transgender community in particular, but I think for the entire LGBT community.

Jen Colletta is editor of Philadelphia Gay News.

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