Marsha P. Johnson’s Life Isn’t White People’s Story to Tell
There are thousands of Black trans women who, if given the right resources, could have really educated us about the plight, successes and experiences of trans women of color.
By Dr. Jonathan P. Higgins
Last Wednesday Netflix released the documentary directed by David France, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. While the initial release was met with positive reception, the film’s validity was questioned upon learning that Reina Gossett, a trans woman of color and filmmaker, stated that the concept for the film was stolen from her. As a result many queer/trans people of color have been left wondering: Why are white, queer men so interested in telling the stories of trans Black people?
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#deepshare #realtruth this week while I'm borrowing money to pay rent, david france is releasing his multimillion dollar netflix deal on marsha p johnson. i'm still lost in the music trying to #pay_it_no_mind and reeling on how this movie came to be and make so much $ off of our lives and ideas. david got inspired to make this film from a grant application video that @sashawortzel & I made and sent to Kalamazoo/Arcus Foundation social justice center while he was visiting. He told the people who worked there -i shit you not- that he should be the one to do this film, got a grant from Sundance/Arcus using my language and research about STAR, got Vimeo to remove my video of Sylvia's critical "y'all better quiet down" speech, ripped off decades of my archival research that i experienced so much violence to get, had his staff call Sasha up at work to get our contacts then hired my and Sasha's *ADVISOR* to our Marsha film Kimberly Reed to be his producer. And that's just the shit I have the spoons to name. TRUST🥄THERE'S🥄SO🥄MUCH 🥄MORE🥄. This kind of extraction/excavation of black life, disabled life, poor life, trans life is so old and so deeply connected to the violence Marsha had to deal with throughout her life. So I feel so much rage and grief over all of this & STAR must have some serious level plan on moving through many—and clearly by any means necessary—to get the message out… So tonight I'm channeling high priestess energy to show me the honey throne cuz this storm queen is 😖😫😱
In a statement put out by France, he states that he felt for years that because of his connection to both Marsha and Sylvia, that he should be the one to tell the story around Marsha’s death. But the stories of the lives of queer and trans people of color are often columbused and the stories are often told from a lens that rarely captures the full picture of what it means to be marginalized.
It is not uncommon for QTPOC to have their stories stolen from them. It is not uncommon for white cisgender individuals to offer up their platform to supposedly assist QTPOC with telling their stories only for pivotal pieces of said story to be left out. This is not the first time that a white director profited off of Marsha P. Johnson’s story.
We saw this happen in 2015, when the film Stonewall was released by Roland Emmerich. Not only did the film leave out important moments related to the original story, it centered a cisgender white man and erased the actions of both Johnson and Rivera, as well as other QTPOC. In the beginning 2017, the same thing happened when writer and producer Dustin Lance Black released his work entitled, When We Rise, a television docudrama about LGBTQ rights.
While some might make the claim that race shouldn’t be the concern when telling the stories of LGBTQ rights, for many QTPOC the concern lies in the pieces of the struggle that go missing when queer white people get to write and direct our truth, and we cannot separate our race from our queerness — our experiences are linked.
In cases like the latest documentary centering on both Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, the greatest concern was why both of their stories left out talk about HIV/AIDS and how the crisis affected them as trans women of color. The film also failed to acknowledge the true effects of police brutality and how each of them became victims of an oppressive system that never recognized the struggles in their intersectional struggle.
At the core of this, the greater concern becomes the voices and experiences that get pushed to the side to make films like this. We have to understand that the personal will always be political and in the case of this documentary, it is both personal and political for Black and Brown trans women. We have to acknowledge how time and time again, privilege and issues related to the white savior complex keeps queer and trans people from telling their stories because of a lack of access to funding or support.
We never wanted nor needed David to tell this story — there are thousands of Black trans women who, if given the right resources, could have really educated us about the plight, successes and experiences of trans women of color.
The work that both Marsha and Sylvia did was in fact for Black and Brown trans women. We have to acknowledge how problematic it is that there are cisgender white people who are profiting off of their labor especially when Marsha and Sylvia’s labor wasn’t for said individuals who are writing and directing these films and documentaries.
Though this documentary is important in leading the conversation around the way QTPOC experience various forms of violence, queer white folks must acknowledge that not allowing queer and trans people of color the opportunities to tell these stories is perpetuating the same systems which keep us oppressed.
Author Bio: Dr. Jonathan P. Higgins is a speaker, writer and activist. His work focuses on the intersections of Black and queer identity and ways to eradicate systematic oppression. Follow him on Twitter: @DoctorJonPaul.
Featured Image: Reina Gossett by Jade Marks