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 first place.
We did 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 violence.
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 the NYPD.
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 research.
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 started.
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 other.