The Trans Icons You Should Know About

This month, as 2015’s LGBTQ Pride celebrations kick off around the world, trans activist Reina Gossett and filmmaker Sasha Wortzel begin production on Happy Birthday, Marsha!, a narrative short film celebrating trans justice pioneers and lifelong friends Marsha P. (“Pay It No Mind”) Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. The Ms. Blog caught up with Gossett, Wortzel and producer Luisa Conlon to chat about the film’s larger-than-life inspiration, the critical need to increase transgender visibility and the power in embracing our “weird, wonderful selves.” (Take a look at the film’s trailer below).

Both Marsha and Sylvia are rumored to have sparked the modern LGBT movement through their participation in New York’s historic 1969 Stonewall Riots. Who were they?

Reina Gossett: Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were two iconic people in the New York world of queer, transgender, non-conforming people, people of color, the LGBT movement who, [though] their contributions and their life’s work weren’t understood by the mainstream, worked tirelessly for LGBT people and queer and trans people. They were alive and around a lot of different and incredible struggles … Sylvia Rivera was really active in issues around poverty [and organizing around police brutality] in the late 90s and the early 2000s … [Marsha] was [also] a performer. She was in this really fun group [called] the Hot Peaches. They were [both] huge activists, but part of Marsha’s life work was about being an artist.

What about Marsha’s and Sylvia’s experiences as trans women and activists do you hope will resonate with today’s audiences?

RG: A few things, but I think one of them is they were doing something that was so far outside the norm in order to support people who faced a lot of violence and were vulnerable to kind of all these systems [and] that they had to be their full selves in order to do that. That’s always empowering to me. [My friend and Marsha’s peer] Egypt [tells] this story about how she had this interaction where Marsha just came up to her and [said], “Never let anyone make you normal or make you someone that you’re not.” I just thought that was so important to hear in this moment with the rise of visibility of trans people. It’s really important that we know that we don’t have to be normal in order to be powerful.

Also, the [film] is about the moments leading up to Stonewall, but it’s also really about now. There’s a lot of visibility happening for trans people including trans women of color, but this past year was [also] the highest documented homicide rate against trans women of color ever, so there’s these powerful things happening but also this violence, so I think it’s important for all of us to think about how those two are maybe intimately connected and entangled with each other.

Though the American trans movement has reached some significant milestones in recent years, reports of anti-transgender violence (like that Marsha is believed to have suffered) continue to climb. Why?

RG: I think part of what happens when there’s strategy to be really respectable or presentable is that people most vulnerable to these forms of violence—like people who are in prison and people who are doing sex work and people who are homeless—aren’t included when we’re talking about the issue. So if we’re not talking about the issues that are affecting people in prison or people who are homeless or disabled or doing sex work, then we can’t really come up with the strategies to stop that kind of violence against the community. So I think that there’s this moment where some us are like, “Oh, wait, we actually need to talk about our whole selves in order to do this work.” Early in 2015, [nearly] once a week [for seven weeks straight] there was a reported murder of a trans woman of color and so I think that’s just a real important reminder that visibility when it excludes people comes with a really intense cost.

Given Marsha and Sylvia’s iconic statuses in the 1960s and 1970s LGBT movement in New York, a film celebrating their contributions seems shamefully overdue. What’s taken so long?

RG: I think it’s a few reasons. One is that shortly after Stonewall there was this push for the gay and lesbian movement to secure… protections through legislation… and in order to do that… they would hold press [conferences] or meet with elected officials and people who didn’t fit these kind of rigid norms of who would be a respectable person. People who were doing sex work or people of color or people who were homeless or trans people were really made to feel very uncomfortable in the movement… [T]hey were really excluded and pushed out of the movement that they helped to create in order for that movement to secure very narrow demands through a narrow political process.

Also, I think it’s taken some time for people to… connect with these stories that have just faced a long time of erasure. It’s wonderful to see the kind of unfolding process that is happening during the production of this film. Egypt had so much to say about Marsha and I’ve known Egypt for a long time and the conversation about Marsha hadn’t really happened until this film, so it’s wonderful that everyone’s memories of these iconic people are coming out right now.

Employing narrative techniques, Happy Birthday, Marsha! reimagines the hours leading up the Stonewall Riots as Marsha, Sylvia and friends gather for Marsha’s birthday celebration. How does narrative filmmaking enhance Marsha’s story?

Luisa Conlon: It is the thing that people watch the most of. If you’re communicating a really, really historical moment and giving voices to people who are routinely suppressed, then I think it is something you have to put into people’s living rooms and I think that that’s something that happened with Transparent that was completely remarkable and everyone is rightfully bringing these stories into people’s homes and not normalizing people, but understanding them and [giving them value] and having the whole family [watch] it together and have discussions. That’s why I think it works really well.

Recently, Happy Birthday, Marsha! announced the casting of trans actors Mya Taylor and Eve Lindley as Marsha and Sylvia. How important was it to you to find trans women to fill these shoes?

Sasha Wortzel: From the beginning, it was very important to us that we cast trans women in these roles. There just haven’t been a lot of opportunities for these roles onscreen so that was definitely a commitment from the beginning. We also realized that a lot of people who might be the right fit for these roles might not have the same kind of formal acting backgrounds so we wanted to cast the net wide within our communities and put out a really open call asking specifically for Black and Latina trans women to audition [without] asking that anyone have any formal acting experience. Just getting the word of mouth out, we wound up finding a lot of really wonderful women to play these roles and then we happened to see Tangerine [which premiered at Sundance] and there was this amazing, talented actress, Mya Taylor, in it and we immediately knew she was probably an excellent fit so we did an audition and she nailed it. We’re so lucky to have her and the rest of our amazing, talented cast and crew.

Any plans to transition Happy Birthday, Marsha! into feature film in the future?

SW: We definitely see this as a larger project. This is just the beginning. We’re not sure what form it should take yet, [but] we’ve been thinking of this almost as a pilot for a series. There’s just so much material and so much ground to cover from the late ’60s to the early 2000s that we feel like maybe a series format could… bring it to a broader audience, but [for now] we’re just excited to make this one thing really beautiful and share it with the world.

What is your wish for the film?

RG: For me, I think it would be a wonderful thing if people came out of this film having permission to live their weird, wonderful selves and not having to [conform to] really rigid ways of being. It’s really powerful to be outside of a norm and making beauty in that together and figuring out the world together. In this film, the characters are people of color, they’re people who do sex work, they’re people who look fabulous and live for that and live to be with each other in a moment where it’s not tempered from all the violences that they face. The film grounds the current conversation about trans people historically [as well as] energetically… giving ourselves permission to be our whole selves and not just what is maybe our most respectable way of being … Any kind of process that supports other people feeling more powerful in their bodies and in themselves is well-worth it.

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Kitty Lindsay is a Ms. blogger and works at the Feminist Majority Foundation. She is also creator and host of Feminist Crush, a weekly podcast featuring conversations with feminist artists and activists. Follow her on Twitter!