Say their name.
It’s been the rallying cry behind the multitude of Black Lives Matter protests that have taken place over the past couple of weeks. The 2017 documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, brings that call to attention into hyperfocus.
June is Pride Month. And in places like Austin, Texas, and across the country, the LGBTQ community has already used its platform to bolster the voices of black LGBTQ and shifted their cause to a different, yet shared, struggle this month.
Sheldon Darnell, co-founder and president of Austin Black Pride, stressed the importance of taking Pride back to its roots to understand the overwhelming marginalization of black transgender people.
Those roots trace back to Marsha and Latin-American transgender activist Sylvia Rivera, the “mothers” at the forefront of the police brutality and equality protests that happened in New York outside of the Stonewall Inn in 1969.
Even after transgender people fought hand-in-hand with others in the LGBTQ community, they still faced marginalization within their own refuge.
To get a grasp of how marginalized trans minorities are, Rivera was booed at the Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally in 1973, which took place in New York. Yes, booed at an LGBTQ rally after declaring her outrage over the rights of transgender people being excluded from the proposed Gay Rights Bill, which didn’t pass until 1987.
Even with the historical context that you pick up, the documentary is more about the investigative journey taken by Victoria Cruz–Marsha’s and Sylvia’s friend and, at the time of filming, senior domestic violence counselor for the Anti-Violence Project.
There was a point during this documentary where I felt like they could’ve spent a little more time on Marsha’s involvement with the Stonewall riots instead of taking up minutes with Victoria’s phone calls that led to no new leads. What I did appreciate them spending time on was the terminology of “cold cases.”
Cold cases were being used in reference to whenever the death of a transgendered person went unknown or unsolved. Although Marsha’s death was determined to be a suicide, her lineage in the LGBTQ movement and the mob’s connection with the Stonewall Inn leaves Marsha’s death, like many other transgender people’s, a mystery with no resolution for transgender equality.
The Human Rights Campaign published an article in November 2019 reporting 26 deaths in the transgender and gender non-conforming community since the beginning of that same year. Ninety-one percent of them were black women.
This documentary is about more than just Marsha’s life. As Victoria is going over every last clue, trying to solve Marsha’s cold case, she’s simultaneously fighting in the honor of Islan Nettles, a black transgender woman who was killed in 2013. She’s constantly reminded throughout the documentary that she should know better than anyone the number of murders that go unsolved within the transgender community.
In the documentary’s title, life succeeds death. The transgender community continues its fight for equality both inside and outside the justice system, stepping up today to stand by the BLM movement. In both cases, justice often starts with standing in protest.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is available to stream on Netflix.
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