Pin It
Happy Birthday, Marsha!
Grace Dunham; Mya Taylor wears knitted dress by DiorPhotography Ethan James Green, Styling Tony Irvine

Happy Birthday, Marsha!

In New York in 1969, transgender women of colour ignited the gay liberation movement – in 2015, we meet the activist cast and crew determined to tell Marsha P. Johnson’s story

Taken from the winter 2015 issue of Dazed:

I had dinner with an old film professor last spring. After I pushed my plate back clean, he showed me a video he’d shot in the basement of his Greenwich Village apartment in the 80s. A black transgender woman wore flowers in her hair as she spoke to the camera. Though the footage was rough, I recognised the figure right away. It was Marsha P Johnson, and she was lost in the music that could be heard drifting through the basement – in fact, she’d been lost in the music ever since that night at the Stonewall Inn

For months, I’d been hearing Marsha’s name in New York. The principal figure in the 1969 Stonewall riots – the spontaneous protests that, beginning in Greenwich Village, ignited the global gay rights movement – emerged in cafe conversations, in the press, even on a poster I found tacked to some corkboard in more than one friend’s apartment. Big, curling pink letters spelled Happy Birthday, Marsha! across her face. Under that, the names of two filmmakers, Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel. They were in the midst of production on a film about the legend, so I decided to get in touch with them about my discovery. But the woman addressing the camera at the professor’s apartment was just one piece in the puzzle.

Now, at a time when transgender subject matter is deemed profitable, representation of the trans experience is primarily seen through the cisgender gaze. Hollywood renders trans history in broad strokes for cis audiences to consume – most recently, Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall was criticised for its white-washed interpretation and “straight-acting” casting decisions. The battle against police prejudice at Stonewall was led by trans women of colour like Marsha. Yet in the years that followed, history conveniently forgot them.

Happy Birthday, Marsha! is a tribute to the forgotten lives at the front line of LGBTQ freedoms. A timely meditation on the events leading up to the Stonewall riots, the film is a close collaboration between a black transgender female artist (Gossett) and a white cisgender female director (Wortzel), and their transgender and trans activist cast and crew. The grassroots production features Oscar hopeful Mya Taylor – fresh from her role in this year’s critically acclaimed Tangerine – as Marsha P Johnson, and Eve Lindley as Johnson’s friend and fellow radical, Sylvia Rivera. Writer Grace Dunham, bringing her trans resistance work to the screen, plays an androgynous tough guy named Junior. The gang reunited to discuss escaping the cis gaze, a world beyond labels and the example set by non-conforming trailblazers of a previous era. 

Why was it important to you to make this film now?

Sasha Wortzel: Initially we thought we were going to make a documentary. We began doing interviews with people who had very close relationships with Sylvia and Marsha, and we read everything we could. But we hit a wall when we realised that so much just wasn’t there, it hadn’t been recorded. Whose lives get valued, whose lives make it in the archive, who is worth recording?

Reina Gossett: I think we were hungry for these stories that were not being told which had to do with issues that queer and trans people are facing today – issues of violence, harassment, sex work, poverty and incarceration.

This is a trans narrative film outside of the cisgender, white male gaze. To what degree does an artist’s personal identity affect their approach to making art?

Grace Dunham: For a long time, a bunch of old assholes acted like the artistic position was one of distance and removed objectivity. But the work of so many radical trans artists and women of colour artists has shown us that so often, we can’t separate who we are from the art we make.

Sasha Wortzel: Ideally, down the line, things can be more open, and not necessarily tied to one’s identity. But we’re in a moment where that’s critical, in order to get to a place where we can move beyond identity politics.

Reina Gossett: We’re in this moment where so much of trans representation is not written by us, or the stories that cis people tell are designed for a cis audience. We’re never the intended people in the movie theatre.

Mya Taylor: I was talking to my manager and I said, ‘True enough, I am transgender. But that’s not all of me. I’m just a girl that happens to be transgender, so start giving me cisgender roles.’

Grace Dunham: Everyone, whether or not they know it, makes work about their experience and identity. It’s just that some people get to pretend like they don’t, and other people have their identity thrown in their face constantly.

Mya Taylor: I feel like I’m more connected to this role than I was in Tangerine. I know who Marsha was, and how she was. We had people who knew her come to the set. She gave her last to people in need, and that’s how I am too. I wanted to be as close to her as possible – I was so scared of missing a beat.

“I was talking to my manager and I said, ‘True enough, I am transgender. But that’s not all of me. I’m just a girl that happens to be transgender, so start giving me cisgender roles’” – Mya Taylor

Is it difficult as artists to challenge the dominant narrative? Does it take a lot out of you personally?

Sasha Wortzel: I remember one day when we were working on the film, I asked Reina, ‘Why is this so hard?’ We were facing so many obstacles. It was exhausting emotionally and physically.

Grace Dunham: If you’re trying hard to undo the myths you’ve been taught about success, recognition, and what does and doesn’t constitute art, it can be a full-time job just to ask those questions, let alone make things.

Reina Gossett: So many (trans) people have been killed this year. Marsha was found dead in the Hudson River after Pride (in 1992), an event that was only allowed to exist because of her actions at Stonewall. We’re in an intense moment of death, killing and mourning, but that also makes the ways in which we’re building community even more powerful.

How does it feel to make art that is also historical?

Grace Dunham: There were moments when it was like any project – logistics, money, rushing to get the shot and making sure everybody gets a slice of pizza. But there were also moments when it was just, like, all of us in a room looking so beautiful, channelling this other time and place that we have to be so grateful for.

Reina Gossett: We’re in serious debt to these people’s lives and their actions and energies. The imprints that are left of them. It feels like a serious thing, and that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun or joyful, but it’s real.

Grace Dunham: There were all these strange moments, like when you found that footage of Marsha, and that suddenly appeared in our lives and became part of the film. Or even filming scenes of the movie in places where Marsha had been. It felt otherworldly, transcendent... like time travel.

The civil rights issues of the 20th century seem to be coming to a head again now. What do you think movements for gay and women’s rights in the 60s and 70s achieved, and why does it feel like we’re still addressing these issues for the first time?

Grace Dunham: I think it seems like we’re still addressing these issues because racism, misogyny, and a deep fear and hatred of queer and trans people are laced into the very fabric of America. They always have been.

Mya Taylor: My main role model was Caroline Cossey – the Bond girl. She had her sex change and posed in Playboy and then they found out she was transgender. They outed her in the media and everyone was so horrible to her. We’re not the first to come out and do it.

Sasha Wortzel: I’m hoping we can re-examine these moments to look at how we can learn from them. Post-Stonewall, many middle class, white, lesbian and gay people fought for state-sanctioned acceptance and legal reform. But that only goes so far. It can only put a Band-Aid on, or cover a rupture in, capitalism for so long before it bursts open.

Reina Gossett: Our project is bringing feeling to a series of moments that happened during the late 60s and early 70s, when people were living in exile. The gay liberation movement was co-opted. A demand for liberation became a call for equality. Now is the perfect moment to revisit that.

It really feels like this is a turning point in the film industry. Do you think we will begin to see more projects made by transgender artists?

Reina Gossett: I’m excited about all the stories being made, even the small ones. Chris Vargas’s work around trans men being pregnant is so cool to me. The Miss Major and CeCe McDonald documentaries (Major! and FREE CeCe) are both going to be great. Her Story by Jennifer Richards is going to be really cool as well.

Sasha Wortzel: People are already creating things, we just don’t have enough outlets and resources to support that work. I don’t know how we make it happen without allocating more resources, educational opportunities and professional skill-building, and we can do that grassroots, with each other.

Grace Dunham: We’re seeing a lot of people making work about trans life because they think it’s hot and trendy and can make them money. The question is, are people going to redistribute resources and power? You can make work about trans and gender nonconforming people all you want, but that’s not going to change rampant unemployment in those communities.

Reina Gossett: I was part of a writing workshop with Jill Soloway, (which was created) as a way to hire a trans writer for the second season of Transparent. All the people in that room were, in many different ways, creating wonderful artistic work through a broad set of media.

“I see our bios side by side. Reina is a ‘black trans woman’, and mine starts ‘Sasha is an artist and filmmaker’... that is part of this whole process in which there is an assumption of whiteness and cisness, and everything else is defined in opposition to that ” – Sasha Wortzel

Labels feel very important right now, because of inequality, but will they always be? What is the future of identification?

Grace Dunham: Labels are a necessary part of taking back power, and asserting that these identities which people have tried to erase you for – tried to kill you for – are an essential part of who you are.

Mya Taylor: I feel like there’s an LGBTQ umbrella. Nothing offends me more than when I tell someone I am trans and they say, ‘That’s OK, I have a cousin that’s gay.’ That just boils me. There’s nothing that boils me more than that. How dare you put me in the same sentence as gay? My name and gender change is about to be complete, it makes me want to just live my life as a woman.

Sasha Wortzel: I see our bios side by side. Reina is a ‘black trans woman’, and mine starts ‘Sasha is an artist and filmmaker.’ I am not named as being white and cis, and that is part of this whole process in which there is an assumption of whiteness and cisness, and everything else is defined in opposition to that. It’s an interesting exercise to push yourself to make those definitions, and I think it’s actually part of the process to dismantle these categories, if that is the ultimate goal.

Grace Dunham: Ultimately, words fail us all the time. But they’re a part of asserting presence and power, to take back whatever ground we can.

Happy Birthday, Marsha! is out early 2016. You can still help fund the film's post production campaign here

Fashion by Tony Irvine, hair Shingo Shibata at The Wall Group, make-up Maud Laceppe at Streeters using NARS, fashion assistant Susan Walsh, hari assistant Shuhei Kadowaki, make-up assistant Roy Liu 

Subscribe to Dazed magazine here or pick up your copy from newsstands now