When a celebrity dies, there is usually an outpouring of support and a collective mourning. This was the case even in the 90s, before social media was a part of our everyday lives. When a celebrity dies under suspicious circumstances, the police are typically more motivated to investigate. This was not the case with trans rights activist and New York icon Marsha P. Johnson. Johnson is the subject of the new Netflix documentary, The Death And Life of Marsha P. Johnson. The streaming service’s latest contribution to the true-crime genre is about an unsolved death that occurred 25 years ago, and shines light on a social problem that is just as bad today. The film does not skirt around the issue of who is to blame, either.
Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River on July 5, 1992, six days after she was reported missing by her friends following the annual Pride March. Her cause of death was documented as a suicide by police, a ruling that friends and other members of Johnson’s community fiercely rejected. Attempts to get the police to investigate her death were fruitless for 20 years, until it was finally reopened as an unsolved case. The Death And Life of Marsha P. Johnson follows the work of LGBT activist Victoria Cruz as she undertakes her own investigation into Johnson’s death, and tells a powerful story about the history of the LGBT movement, and the people it leaves behind, in the process.
Cruz and Johnson were both present at the Stonewall riots of 1969. They, along with other trans women like Sylvia Rivera, spent the entirety of their lives after that advocating on behalf of LGBT communities and embracing their identities in a New York City that was much less tolerant than it is now. Even though they were on the frontline and among the most impacted by issues like housing, employment, and violence, the broader LGBT community did not often return that embrace.
In one scene, a community advocate admonishes the “privileged” members of the gay community for protesting and marching for marriage equality but failing to show up for trans people. Archival audio footage from Johnson recounts the story of the first Pride Parade relegating the “transvestites” to the back of the parade. Rivera is booed by a crowd of LGBT people as she tries to address the rally. She was so disheartened by this that she left the movement. A mixture of transphobia and respectability called for trans women to often be rejected for their gender identity and performance.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 21 trans women have been murdered in the US in 2017. These incidents do not happen in a vacuum. They lack protections under the justice system, while discrimination in housing and employment make trans women more likely to be homeless and seek work in underground economies. Social stigma isolates them from family and friends, and the community that is supposed to advocate on their behalf does not.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is a stark example of the LGBT community being taken to task over its corporatisation and willful ignoring of its most marginalised communities. They, too, played a part in the conditions that caused Johnson’s death and life. I hope that in being called out, cis-LGBT people lean in, instead of looking away.