A couple of years ago, the author and director of the Academy Award-nominated “How To Survive a Plague,” David France, contacted me for his next project. We chatted a few times and then he arrived at my door with a complete film crew and research staff. He was going to spend the day filming me talking about my sister from Gay Liberation Front in New York, Marsha P. Johnson. Last week, France was kind enough to ask me to the Tribeca Film Festival for a showing of that film, now titled “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.”
It’s sort of a “documentary who done it,” since Johnson was found dead in the Hudson River, off of Christopher Street, in 1992. Officials claimed it was a suicide but the LGBT community felt that something else was at play — and, just like in other cities, Johnson’s death was marked as just another trans death by officials. Her death now takes on a life of its own with her spirit and memory leading a new struggle — to end violence against trans people and to bring those responsible for such violence to justice.
When France first called me, I was already impressed by his knowledge about Johnson, but the scope of it was way beyond any expectation. For me, Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were personal sisters in our well-spent youth as part of New York’s famed Gay Liberation Front. But that was 1969-71, a long time ago, and much history has taken place for all of us since.
The way France used the camera and old video to explain the story was amazing, and for any of us who called them sisters, it was emotional. To me, it always was Johnson’s laugh, which was infectious, but there was something else the film showcased — the class struggle within the community, and how that changed both Johnson and Rivera. The two are often referred to as the mothers of the trans movement, a title that can change you because of others’ expectations of who you really are. And they both also had their own demons to deal with. Rivera wanted to be a leader, but in the end couldn’t live up to the image others wished to create for her. Johnson was a symbol who asked for nothing more than to please people, and she had a generosity bigger then anyone else I’ve witnessed since; she had little to offer and literally would give you the shirt off her back — a spirit that is in short supply these days.
For those of us who see Johnson and Rivera as our sisters in the early days of “gay liberation” — and to this point had never looked at the entirety of their lives but saw them frozen at that pivotal time — the film showed the toll that time period took on them. It’s something that many of us who loved and worked with them will have to comprehend.