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The lives and political activism of
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera have always been a source of inspiration
for co-directors Sasha
Wortzel and Reina Gossett. Yet, many of us in the LGBTQ community are still
unaware of the central role that Johnson, Riveira and many other trans women of
color, gender non-conforming people and street
queens played in the early day and evolution of the movement.
With “Happy Birthday, Marsha!,” a hybrid
short film still looking for funding via Kickstarter, Wortzel and Gossett are
highlighting a particular moment in the lives of Marsha
P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, while also offering a new path to celebrate,
honor and reflect upon their vital political work and legacy.
RB: Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia
Rivera are known for their trailblazing political activism – and for being at
the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and for starting S.T.A.R., a group of street queens
that provided shelter for queer youth in New York City, among many other
accomplishments. But your film is focusing on an intimate moment in the lives
of Marsha and Sylvia. Why is that?
Wortzel and Gossett: We set out to share a fuller scope
of our social history that extends beyond when street queens, trans women of
color, poor people, and those doing sex work were oppressed or acted in
exceptional ways. We wanted to tell something much more complex, that
challenged the hierarchy of intelligible history and the archive that keeps our
stories as trans and gender non-conforming people from ever surfacing in the
this by locating the story in the intimate and every day actions made by Sylvia
Rivera and Marsha P Johnson, and not by the actions and violence that
happened to them. The story moves away from the more
fact-based work that I’ve done to record the lives of Sylvia, Marsha and STAR.
More important to me than “who threw the first shot glass at the NYPD,” or “who
had a birthday party on what day” or even “who was present at what time and on
what day during the days of the Stonewall rebellion,” is giving space for the
for the lives and relationships of people who have been treated as disposable.
And when it comes to recounting history in general, or even LGBT history, I
wanted to show that these characters had agency and were not simply victims of
RB: Can you describe the
friendship between Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera? Do we know when and how
they became friends?
Wortzel and Gossett: Sylvia and
Marsha met in Times Square in New York in the mid 1960s, when Sylvia, as a
12-year old, started to sell sex in order to survive. Marsha was working at
Child’s Restaurant, but would also do survival sex work. The two quickly became
friends, with Marsha helping to navigate the many risks and violence that trans
people at the time (and still today) have to face, including at the hands of
RB: How did you uncover some of
the primary source material that served as the background for this film?
Wortzel and Gossett: We’ve been
working on this film for a number of years, building relationships with and
interviewing people that knew Marsha and Sylvia best. We also have been
researching at a number of archives in NYC that hold extensive interviews,
notes and articles about Sylvia and Marsha written at the time of their
organizing in the early 70s.
RB: How are you re-creating New
York City during the summer of 1969 on a $25,000 budget?
Wortzel and Gossett: Our total
budget is actually closer to $40,000, which includes the cost of
post-production, but we chose to raise only a portion of the total budget on
Kickstarter. We struggled with the question of whether or not to crowdfund,
since there is such a proliferation of this type of fundraising, and we do not
want to drain our communities and social networks.
Ultimately we felt that it would
be difficult for two queer and trans filmmakers making a radical, hybrid, DIY
film about two transgender activist heroes to secure funding through other routes,
so we chose Kickstarter. Also Kickstarter does this powerful thing of building
an invested audience that is part of the process before filming may even begin.
We’ve now go over 400 people on board who believe in our vision and our rooting
for us. That feels so great, and we feel deep gratitude.
In terms of taking on the
challenge of recreating New York in 1969, we’ve chosen interiors as settings
for most of the action- spaces like Marsha’s apartment, Sylvia’s grandmother’s
place, an old hotel room, or the Stonewall Inn. We’ll be working with crew who
can aid us in art direction and costumes. We’ll also be using archival moving
image from that time period in creative and inventive ways.
RB: When did the two of you decide
to work on a project about Marsha and Sylvia together?
Wortzel and Gossett: We met one
another through our work with the Sylvia Rivera Project, and for years, we
collaborated on short films for the SRLP. Reina began groundbreaking work,
researching and documenting the lives of little known Sylvia Rivera and Marsha
P Johnson on her blog, and soon after we decided to make a documentary with her
In 2012, we were awarded a
fellowship with filmmaker Ira Sach’s Queer/ Art/ Mentorship, and, under the
guidance of Ira (Keep the Lights On, Love
is Strange) and Kimberly Reed (Prodigal
Sons), we wrote a script. The film we are making is hybrid, combining
compelling archival material and documentary footage with scripted, highly
stylized narrative scenes performed by actors. We like how this method of
blurring fiction and non-fiction allows us to use archival documents as a point
of departure to creatively re-imagine the events that took place that day.
RB: Both Marsha P. Johnson and
Sylvia Rivera overcame difficult upbringings and went on to become influential
(and highly effective) community leaders. Are you planning on continuing this
project and making more films about other moments in their lives?
Wortzel and Gossett: While we
are fully focused on producing Happy Birthday Marsha! right
now, the film is part
of a larger story we want to tell about their relationship, and the ways trans
women navigated violence and exile even within LGBT movements that they
So we have a feature screenplay
that traces the lives of Sylvia, Marsha and STAR, from the late 60s to the 90s,
titled Star People are Beautiful People. The film follows the
best friends as they navigate New York City fighting for their daily survival
and for inclusion in the gay liberation movement they made possible. It also
takes a hybrid combining narrative and documentary. If Happy Birthday,
Marsha! is well-received, we hope to secure funding to produce and
release our feature film shortly after.
RB: How does their work continues
to inspire what you do at Sylvia Rivera Law Project?
Wortzel and Gossett: In the early
70s Marsha P Johnson sat down to talk about the mission of STAR and how she
wanted to see it happen. She said:
I would like to see STAR with a
big bank account like we had before, and I’d like to see that STAR home
again…We’re going to be doing STAR dances, open a new STAR home, a STAR
telephone, 24 hours a day, a STAR recreation center. But this is after
our bank account is pretty well together. And plus we’re going to have a
bail fun for every transvestite that’s arrested, to see they get out on bail,
and see if we can get a STAR lawyer to help transvestites in court.
I believe the freedom dream
Marsha P Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and other members of STAR laid out is alive
and well, especially around ending the criminalization of trans and gender non-conforming
people of color. It inspires the work that SRLP does to spotlight and support
our incarcerated trans community members through SRLP’s Prisoner Advisory
Committee, it pushes our work forward to demand the end of criminalized
immigration proceedings, it drives our collaborations with the Audre Lorde
Project’s Trans Justice and other organizations fighting to repeal New York
State’s public health insurance regulation that specifically denies healthcare
coverage to trans people and it pushes us to make sure we are working to end
isolation that trans and gender non conforming people, especially trans women
of color face at the time when the violence against trans women of color is at
an all time high. It also encourages us to know that even against what seem
like always increasingly hard times, we have an incredible amount of collective
power to survive, fight back and build strong relationships with each