Connecting Stonewall to Baltimore: A conversation with some filmmakers exploring trans history

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What do you see when you think of the Stonewall riots of 1969? A group of filmmakers have set out to correct what you're probably picturing with Happy Birthday, Marsha!, a project that places transgender women of color and gender-nonconforming people back where they belong at the birth of the modern LGBT civil rights movement: the forefront.

I met with Reina Gossett (writer, director, producer), Sasha Wortzel (writer, director, producer), and Luisa Conlon (producer), in the back hall of Brooklyn's Kings County Saloon a couple of weeks ago. We spoke about their upcoming short film, which stars Mya Taylor as Marsha P. Johnson and Eve Lindley as Sylvia Rivera, challenging historical narratives, connecting Stonewall to Baltimore, and paying respectability politics no mind.


Fusion: Can you explain the premise of Happy Birthday, Marsha!?


Sasha Wortzel: The film follows Marsha "Pay It No Mind" Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and their friends in the hours leading up to the Stonewall riots. Marsha is throwing herself a birthday party, and none of her friends show up. She winds up at the Stonewall Inn, and that's where the riots take place. The riots are a part of the film, but the film's not about the riots. It's about all the microaggressions that these women encounter throughout the day that would drive someone to resist the police that night.

Fusion: While you were talking about following someone through their day leading up to a big event, I kept thinking about Fruitvale Station. Do you think that's a fair comparison?

Sasha: Yeah, absolutely.

Fusion: Was the birthday party actually something that happened on that day?

Reina Gossett: Marsha had a party, but it wasn't a birthday party.

Sasha: The birthday party's more of a metaphor.

Reina: Yeah, it's more of a metaphor for putting something new into the world, like how Stonewall is like the birth of the modern LGBT movement, you know?


Sasha: The script is based on real people and real events. We did a lot of archival research and talked to a lot of people that Sylvia and Marsha knew, but that source material is really just a point of departure for us.

Reina: We're trying to be truthful but not factual.

Fusion: It's weird, I feel like Stonewall is relatively unexplored onscreen.

Sasha: Well, I think it is explored, but only from a very particular perspective. There hasn't really been a story that explores Stonewall from the perspective of the trans women and street queens who were really instrumental in instigating the riots from the front lines.


Luisa Conlon: Where they are the protagonists in their own narrative.

Reina: Exactly.

Fusion: What made you want to create Happy Birthday, Marsha!?

Reina: I moved to New York 13 years ago, right after Sylvia Rivera passed away. It was a moment when people were doing more and more trans activism, and I started having relationships with a lot of the people Sylvia had relationships with. I was around such an incredibly rich history that was always being attacked and violated and, like, pushed aside for more mainstream LG—not even B—stories, and I was curious about how that reconciled with Sylvia Rivera being one of the people who started the Stonewall riots.


I also kept hearing about this other person, Marsha P. Johnson. The more I learned, the more I was like, "Wow, these people had a huge effect on the history of queer and trans social space, queer and trans parties, queer and trans activism, and they still faced deep forms of erasure."

Sasha: Similarly, I moved to New York in 2005, and I pretty quickly went to the Trans Day of Action and got involved with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. I was learning about Sylvia Rivera and how Pride started off as this really radical march that was headed up by trans and gender-nonconforming people, street kids, and people of color, and then it became this neoliberalized, corporatized Pride that I couldn't relate to.


Reina: Sasha and I started talking about what we could do about that as people who are into art and activism and sharing stories, so we started getting together about five years ago to figure out a way to share this profound story.

Sasha: These kinds of stories get erased, and Reina and I felt like they needed to be turned into something.


Reina: We did a ton of research into Marsha and Sylvia's activism, like how they started this organization called Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). But they were also artists and performers, like, they took over Christopher Street once with this play that was like the queer Alice in Wonderland. That was a real source of power, and these stories make me feel in touch with my own power.


Fusion: Is Happy Birthday Marsha! more of a straight documentary, or is there new footage in there?

Sasha: No, that's how it started out. We were going to weave archival scenes in with narrative scenes, but now it's really a narrative project. It's a short film, but we also see it as a pilot for a series.


Fusion: [momentarily speechless, jaw slightly dropped] Sorry, I just got really excited.

Sasha: [laughs] The film is kind of like a prequel, since it really just hits this one moment of Stonewall. There are so many rich textures to these characters' lives and there's so much material spanning from the '60s to the early '00s, so we just felt that this might be the best format to cover all that ground and reach people.


Fusion: So, if this serves as the pilot for a series, would that series still follow Sylvia and Marsha, or would you want to feature other characters?

Reina: That's definitely something we're figuring out. I think Stonewall was a moment, but there were also all of these other moments. In the '50s, there was the Cooper's Donuts riot in Los Angeles and the Compton's Cafeteria riot in San Francisco—all of these moments where people were just, like, saying "No!" to the level of policing and violence affecting them, so I think there's a lot to choose from.


Luisa: The media's shining spotlight on "trans" right now doesn't acknowledge this rich, rich, rich history and these rich, rich, rich instances that made this present moment possible. These stories haven't been explored, so I feel that our project could go in a million directions. That's why we're looking at the TV series angle—why limit yourself to a 90-minute film when these lives expanded in all of these different ways?

Sasha: There's a lot more visibility for trans people and trans people's lives right now, but not the harsh realities of what trans people—especially trans women of color—have to navigate. I'm interested in looking at Marsha and Sylvia's stories as a source of power, and I'm interested in drawing parallels between their stories and the present to create a dialogue about what still needs to change.


Luisa: We had this agreement that there would be no pretty bow at the end of this story—we weren't going to end Happy Birthday, Marsha! with, like, all of them waving flags because the story's definitely not over. This film is the opening chapter to something that's still happening.

Fusion: I'm curious if differences in language have been either an obstacle or a connective tool when trying to tell this story—like the terms Marsha and Sylvia would have used to identify themselves in their own time versus the terms they might use today.


Reina: That makes me think of this moment in the fall after Stonewall. Sylvia and Marsha and these folks did a sit-in at New York University. NYU was like, "No, we won't have gay dance parties," so somebody was like, "Uh uh, boo boo! We are gonna take over your stuff." They were sharing this space with people who identified as dykes, as lesbians, as faggots, as gay people, as transvestites. There was this moment that Sylvia had with someone who identified as a lesbian, who was like, "So, you're a drag queen?" And Sylvia was like, "No, I'm a transvestite."


The word "transvestite," and other terms like "street queen," had a really different connotation than they do now. Marsha once said, "I'm a transvestite, and I don't know what I am if I'm not a woman." Language was different and beautifully expansive in this really wonderful way, and I think it reflected the fact that not everyone embodied the medical narrative of being trans. Sometimes people used hormones, sometimes they didn't. Sometimes they had surgery, but sometimes they didn't.

Fusion: Do you think these linguistic changes over time have contributed to the erasure of this rich trans history you've been talking about?


Reina: No, I would say the erasure comes from the push to be "normal," Right now, there's a push to have trans be the new normal, like, "We're normal just like everyone else!" I think that normalization causes harm, especially to people who are already vulnerable to different kinds of violences.

Sasha: One thing people will see when they watch Happy Birthday, Marsha! is a wide range of gender presentations and a lot of different types of bodies, and I think that's a really important part of the film—not trying to define what's normal.


Fusion: Is it fair to say that combatting normative historical narratives is part of the Happy Birthday, Marsha! narrative itself?


Reina: It was really important for me to not have a small, very respectable narrative about what it means to be trans. Marsha did sex work, Marsha had different kinds of psychiatric disabilities, Marsha was poor a lot of the time, Marsha was homeless—these are a lot of the very specific reasons why Marsha was an activist and a performer and an artist.

Luisa: Remember, Stonewall was a riot. It wasn't clean, it wasn't pretty, and I've been guilty, just out of ignorance, of thinking that Stonewall was this flag-waving, pretty thing, and it just didn't happen that way. Look at Baltimore, and look at Stonewall. Making change isn't always clean.


Fusion: Is there a desire to connect what happens in Happy Birthday, Marsha! with present events, instead of having Stonewall walled off in, like, some hypothetical LGBT Rights History Museum?

Reina: Absolutely. There's been a lot of visibility on trans issues in the last year, but there's still so much violence committed against trans women. This one person, Mya Hall, was murdered by law enforcement in Baltimore right before the Baltimore riots. Policing has a gendered way of happening, a transphobic way of happening, and a racialized way of happening. All of those things were playing out at the Stonewall riots, and all of those things are playing out in 2015.


Fusion: I feel really silly—I just realized that I haven't asked you that much directly about the film itself.

Sasha: This is about the film.

Fusion: [laughs] Good point. You said that this bar we're sitting in, Kings County Saloon, is going to be your shoot location for Stonewall. Have you found your Sylvia and Marsha yet?


Luisa: Mya Taylor from Tangerine is going to be our Marsha, and then Eve Lindley, who was recently in Bruce Weber's Barneys campaign, is going to be Sylvia.


Sasha: From the beginning, we wanted to cast trans women and all types of gender-nonconforming people in this film. There just haven't been that many opportunities for trans people and trans women to be cast in onscreen roles. Even with this increased visibility, we see a lot of cis people playing trans women and men, and there are so many talented people we wanted to offer this opportunity to.

Fusion: To combat the whole idea that, "Well, there aren't any trans actors!"

Sasha: Which is not true.

Luisa: Yeah, it's this terrible cycle. And because of it, there are young kids who don't have anyone who is like them on TV or in movies, you know? And that means they're growing up with very few people—if anyone—they can look to and say, "Oh, I can grow up and do that."


Fusion: Is that why the casting announcement said "no formal acting experience required"?

Sasha: I think that cuts out a lot of people, and we wanted anybody who wanted to read for the role to feel comfortable about coming in.


Another goal of the film project that we're hoping to achieve will be to set up some sort of curriculum or web component so that educators and young people could access this archival material in a really accessible way.

Fusion: Does Happy Birthday, Marsha! have a release date?

Sasha: Probably early 2016.

Luisa: We're shooting for five days in June, and we'll basically just be editing after that. Hopefully, we'll be wrapped up by summer, and then we'll see what the next steps are.


Fusion: Have you decided on how you're going to release it?


Luisa: We're still waiting to see what's right for this project. People have asked us why we're making a short, and I think it's because there's so much flexibility. And it's not easy to fund projects about lesser known historical characters.

Sasha: Or to recreate 1969. It turns out it's really expensive.

Reina: You have no idea.

Luisa: Yeah, making 1969 look good is not cheap at all. But whether or not this short becomes the pilot to a series, I feel really confident that Reina and Sasha are the right people to do it. A lot of producers have come into this and been like, "Well, I've gotta get a famous person writer!" But it matters who tells people's stories, and I do think they're the right ones to do it.


Fusion: Over at the bar, Luisa told me that you were trying to get people like Kate Bornstein and Justin Vivian Bond to cameo in your Stonewall scene. What made you want to reach out to them?

Reina: I just think we're connected to what happened at Stonewall, and these people who are influencing this present moment, like Kate and Justin, are connected to Marsha and Sylvia, you know? It's not a separate thing—these histories are flowing through us all the time.


Sasha: I think we're all part of this legacy, and we're excited to have contemporary people who are activists and art-makers present in the film.

Luisa: It's just going to be a big ole party.

Reina: A big ole party, absolutely.

Luisa: Yeah, we just want to open it up to everyone, basically.

Reina: John Walker, 1969…

Fusion: I mean, if you need an extra…


Bad at filling out bios seeks same.