The Cold Case of an LGBTQ Pioneer Marsha P. Johnson

by Carolyn Simon

Marsha P. Johnson documentary examines the transgender icon’s activism — and the mysterious circumstances surrounding her death.

The Stonewall riots were a pivotal act of resistance for the LGBTQ community — and right in the thick of it was Marsha P. Johnson, “The Rosa Parks of the LGBTQ Movement.”

While some reports indicate that Johnson threw the first brick that led to the uprising, there’s no disputing her role in the fight for equality. But outside of the LGBTQ community, the stories of Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, a fellow LGBTQ pioneer and transgender woman of color, are rarely told. The pair were among a small group of people who started meeting while the ashes of Stonewall were still hot. They both founded Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries and later created the S.T.A.R. House, which provided food and shelter for LGBTQ youth. They were among founders of the Gay Liberation Front. 

They marched for justice, they organized, they resisted. Both died far too young — Johnson in 1992, under mysterious circumstances, and Rivera a decade later, of complications from liver cancer.

Their stories are being told today, in The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, a new documentary by director David France (How to Survive a Plague) — and to a much wider audience, thanks to a partnership with Netflix. 

Framed as a whodunit, the documentary traces Johnson’s life as an activist and a cultural icon. Her body was found floating in the Hudson River in July 1992 and her death was originally ruled a suicide by the New York Police Department. But Johnson is described by those who knew her as vivacious and upbeat and they rebut the notion that she would have taken her own life.

“Marsha’s political tool was happiness … she used happiness as a way to organize people, a way to motivate people, a way to support people who were in terrible need of support who were not getting it elsewhere,” said France. “That ability to use a strident cheeriness was remarkable and it’s what really set her apart from any other historical figure that I can think of.”

Using archival footage, interviews with friends and family members and a private investigation by transgender activist Victoria Cruz, who was determined to find justice for Johnson as the 25th anniversary of her death approached, the documentary probes other theories about Johnson’s death.

Was Johnson killed by the mafia? Was she being chased and either fell or jumped into the river and accidentally died? Police didn’t know — and didn’t care to find out.

In a chilling reminder of how little progress has been made, the investigation into Johnson’s death is juxtaposed against the brutal murder of Islan Nettles, a trans woman of color who was brutally beaten to death in New York in 2013. Her killer confessed and received a 12-year prison sentence.

“That was a case that had all the hallmarks of the problems of how society in general and how law enforcement and the justice community has been in particular dealing with problems of violence against the trans community,” France said. “To be a trans woman in society today is to be on the very, very outer margins of civic life.”

It’s something that Rivera recognized and fought against until the very end of her life. 

“Sylvia and Marsha were among mothers and fathers of movement, but they were also ejected from the movement in 1973 when the gathering leadership at the time determined that for the strategy that they were pursuing, it was important to look like everybody else. This is largely a white, male leadership — cisgender entirely,” said France. “They felt that if they jettisoned people who were challenging standards, they would have a better chance of gaining their rights. It was really a craven move that distanced the Ls and Gs from Ts. That was an injury to Sylvia and Marsha that Sylvia never really recovered from. She took that anger and disappointment with her to the grave.” 

Yet Johnson, Rivera, Cruz and countless others after them took up the charge to build bridges within the LGBTQ community. There is still so much more work to be done. At least 15 transgender people have been murdered in 2017 — almost all of them trans women of color. We must join together and take a stand against hate.

“The film is another example of our long tradition of resistance,” said France. “We see in Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera the fortitude of the human spirit and the ability to endure, to recoup, to reorganize and ultimately to gain victory … We do triumph. We will triumph.”

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson will begin airing on Netflix on October 6.