Party 1: An established journalist, author, and filmmaker (white, gay, cisgender man). Party 2: A respected activist and independent scholar (black, transgender woman). Both parties decided, within the last decade, to make a documentary about one of the founding figures of the LGBTQ rights movement, Marsha P. Johnson. And for the past week, both have been embroiled in one of the most heated battles over identity, authorship, privilege, and storytelling that the queer community has seen in years.
David France’s project, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, premiered to much fanfare on Netflix on Oct. 6.* Reina Gossett’s has struggled to find a budget; indeed, the doc was scaled back drastically, reportedly due to concerns she and creative partner Sasha Wortzel had about competing with France for support. Their revised project, an experimental short, won’t be released in full until 2018. This latter film, Happy Birthday, Marsha!, has been in the news along with the premier of the former after Gossett accused France of stealing her ideas and research as well as blocking her film from the resources it needed to get made in a widely shared Instagram post. The specific allegations of direct plagiarism and funding subterfuge, which France strongly denied and from which Gossett seemed to quietly retreat in her subsequent op-ed for Teen Vogue, may not have legs. However, the question of why one film feasted as the other starved, and whether Gossett’s project might have had room to grow if it weren’t for France’s presence on the scene, remains pressing.
Who gets to create what, with whom, and how, is a subject of urgent daily importance in every artist’s life. Talent plays a part, but not a terribly large one. Hard work, determination, and belief in oneself are a bit more key. Absolutely essential is the ability to network as you build a career, and to sell yourself and your ideas to the people who hire, fund, distribute, and review. If these gatekeepers are mostly white, cisgender men (and they are), and the projects they approve are often based on one’s résumé and how well one has established oneself in this community of similar men, then inevitably you get a lot of established men of this sort making culture that is targeted at, or at least comfortable and unobjectionable to, their peers. It isn’t a ding on the reputation, talent, or worth of any particular white, cis man to say that this way of doing things is both arbitrary and unfair.
It is, however, the world we live in. But what if it wasn’t? What if, starting today, only trans people, especially black trans women, were allowed to make films, write books, or create television shows about their own communities for, say, the next five years? What if the white, cis men, no matter how talented or well-intentioned, had to sit down for a spell?
Unfair! Arbitrary! Fanciful! I will cheerfully stipulate to all three. It would be completely unfair to all the hardworking people who have built careers in the system we have now to capriciously set them aside based on their gender identity and race. But would it be more unfair than building an empire on colonial conquest and enslavement of others, which privileges whiteness and maleness even when it pretends to be meritocratic? Hard to say! The point of this thought experiment is not to adjudicate all of structural inequality, but instead to ask: What would trans folks come up with if given the chance to make culture about themselves? What unique values would their output demonstrate?
Such an exercise is inherently speculative, but a starting point might be found in these two Marsha films. France’s documentary is a direct, heavy work that’s structured as a true-crime search for answers about Johnson’s sudden, violent death in 1992. Happy Birthday, Marsha! is nothing like that. It’s an experimental, fictionalized vision of Johnson and sister activist Sylvia Rivera’s life in the hours leading up to the 1969 Stonewall riots, a pivotal moment in LGBTQ rights history in which both played a key role.* The short’s impressionistic trailer elicits a mixture of sadness and uplift, joy and deep pain. It’s not the sort of thing you see when you take your suggestions from Netflix, or even the sort of thing you hear about on NPR.
Gossett has spoken in interviews about wanting to make a film for the community of gender-nonconforming street people from which Marsha P. Johnson came—in other words, it’s not a movie that was made with white, cis people’s Netflix queues in mind. While France hopes to convince these people to care about the fate of a historical figure they may have overlooked, Gossett seems engaged in something closer to hagiography, meant to inspire and uplift poor queer folks living on the margins of society, as Marsha P. Johnson herself did. The original sin of the modern LGBTQ movement is to have used street people’s energy and desperation and fearlessness to start a movement, only to leave them behind. France and Gossett have two very different ideas of what it might look like to go back over that ground and try to make things right.
So, as in Happy Birthday, Marsha!, trans-led work would focus on trans life, rather than trans death. Death shadows most of the stories cis artists choose to tell about our lives, inspiring pity in cis audiences while reflecting fear and hopelessness back at a trans community where these things are already far too present. If trans people had the room to create for ourselves, we’d reach instead for the joy and beauty that can be found within trans life, and try to give it to one another as a gift. Instead of evoking pity, our work would evoke happiness and hope. Rather than sensationalizing our many tragedies, it would instead give us the strength to face them head on. As Gossett herself put it in the Teen Vogue piece:
I dreamt of making a film about Sylvia and Marsha’s life, to uplift and share their incredible work. I dreamt of a day that black trans women and the people who love us would come away from watching my film feeling more connected to ourselves and our sense of power and joy and feel more free in the face of struggle.
Work by trans artists would also value placing trans characters in community with other trans characters, rather than stranding our experiences on islands surrounded by cis folks. In trans made comics, like this one in Manic Pixie Nightmare Girls, trans characters are more often shown surrounded by other trans characters (as well as cis queer ones), creating communities of support and mutual aid. Although trans people are a small portion of the population, we find each other out of necessity and the desire not to be alone. Too many cis-made projects, even good ones, tell the story of a trans person in a cisgender world whose survival depends on cis people’s understanding, acceptance, or help. No wonder they so often end in death! Trans people’s lives can’t always wait for people to understand and accept them into an overwhelmingly cisgender world. The stories we told about our lives would reflect the communities we make and how we raise each other up.
Last, but not least, trans made work would not let police, mainstream LGBTQ organizations, or other vectors of systemic oppression serve as routes to salvation. In an interview about the controversy over France’s documentary, Elle Hearns (a black trans woman who helped to build the Black Lives Matter movement) is quoted telling Mother Jones, “Marsha’s work was around keeping poor people and trans people safe from the police. When black trans women tell our stories, our stories are much more reflective of our realities and the lives that we’ve lived as opposed to the very sanitized image that is often presented by white filmmakers and … white LGBT communities.” These sanitized images are the ones that allow white cis people to believe that their pity and interventions will be enough to transform the lives of trans people of color, when in reality, those things are of dubious use at best.
“If black trans women had made The Apprentice, everybody would have got a job,” a trans friend quipped when I outlined the thought experiment of trans folks owning cultural production for five years. I’m not sure about that, but I imagine that culture would go off in completely unexpected, weird, and perhaps uncomfortable directions, at least for those of us used to having our tastes catered to. It would unsettle us, provoke us, make us laugh at different jokes, accustom ourselves to different beats.
Allowing trans people to tell our own stories would be a step toward a successful trans activist movement that leaves no one behind, rejects respectability politics, and confronts the oppression that keeps trans people down head-on. We can’t bar cis people from making art about trans lives, and we shouldn’t even if we could. But if there’s one lesson we can take from this Marsha fracas, it’s that we need to make room for more trans people to take creative control. Not just for the creators’ sake, but because not doing so is depriving all of us of some fantastic, affirming art.
*Correction, Oct. 13, 2017: This piece originally misstated the name of David France's film. It also originally misspelled Sylvia Rivera's first name.