Marsha P Johnson


On Friday, October 6th, I settled in for a night of Netflix. But this night of Netflix would be epic, because Netflix had just released the documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, directed by David France. The film follows the investigation into pioneering sex working black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson’s 1992 death by members of the New York Anti-Violence project. It also chronicles the trial of the murderer of 21-year-old Islan Nettles, a young black trans-woman who was killed on August 17, 2013. After watching the documentary, I grabbed my phone and went on Facebook, and immediately saw a screenshot of a disturbing post on France’s documentary by Reina Gossett on her Instagram.

Reina Gossett is a black trans woman activist and writer as well as the producer of Happy Birthday Marsha. On her Instagram that day, Gossett spilled the tea and accused David France, a white cis-gay man, of using and being inspired by a grant she and Sasha Worzel wrote to Kalamazoo/Arcus Foundation Social Justice Center for a movie about Johnson—France volunteered at the foundation at the time. Gossett also accused him of plagiarizing their language and stealing their years of research on Johnson and Sylvia Rivera’s community organization STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and having her video of Rivera’s revolutionary and mainstream-gay-movement-critical 1973 “ y’all better quiet down” speech at the Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally removed from Vimeo. Gossett began her Instagram post by writing, “this week while I’m borrowing money to pay my rent, david france is releasing his multimillion dollar netflix deal on marsha p johnson.”

Author and activist Janet Mock hit to Twitter and tweeted out the screenshots of Gossett’s Instagram post. Mock stated that “[f]ilmmaker David France released a Netflix doc Friday about Marsha P. Johnson. It is based on Reina Gossett’s work”. Mock’s tweet garnered 1000s of retweets and likes, as well as a comment by France, which he had to write on an Apple note and screenshot to Twitter. (Sometimes 140 characters isn’t enough to explain your white privilege and entitlement.) France also released a further statement responding to Gossett’s Instagram post on The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson website. He states that he was friends with Marsha for a minute and he wanted to do a documentary about her around the time of her death but he had to focus on the AIDS epidemic at the time. He also claims that his work was not stolen from or inspired by Gossett’s research and film making. He goes on to acknowledge his privilege as a white cis gay male.

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Morgan M Page

Morgan M. Page, veteran Canadian trans and sex workers’ rights activist, artist, and writer, recently launched a new podcast focusing on Western trans history called One From The Vaults. Tits and Sass interviewed with her to coincide with the posting of the fourth episode of the podcast.

Two of the three episodes you have up so far have a lot of sex worker history as well as trans history content. Do you expect to encounter any backlash from trans activists who would rather whitewash the past? Can you talk a bit about the inextricable connection between trans history and sex worker history?

This was something I did purposefully. You might also notice that all three of the episode focus on trans women who are of color and/or Indigenous. I felt like I needed to begin my telling of trans history in a way that contradicts nearly every available trans history book on the market—by fronting sex workers and women of color. So often trans history starts with Christine Jorgensen, or in a post-Danish Girl world with Lili Elbe. Both of their stories are important, and I’ll cover them eventually, but to me the most moving parts of trans history speak to resistance and collective strength on the streets. Honestly, I thought I would get pushback on this, as I often have, especially when discussing the trans/sex work connection, but so far people have been enthusiastic.

Trans people’s history is tied up with sex work due to the variety of economic and cultural factors that have often made sex work the most viable option for trans survival. And it’s personal, too—my own history as a trans woman and as a sex worker are connected so closely that I cannot speak about one without the other. So often trans people seeking the supposed safety of respectability try to jettison our connections to prostitution, and while I understand this strategy and the emotions behind it, I can see that this comes at the cost of rejecting sex workers. And that rejection has profound implications for our life chances, which multiply exponentially for many trans sex workers of color.

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Marsha P Johnson, Stonewall riot participant, STAR House founder, ACT UP activist, and Black trans woman street sex worker. (Screenshot from "Pay It No Mind: The Life And Times of Marsha P Johnson")

Marsha P. Johnson, Stonewall participant, STAR House founder, ACT UP activist, Black trans woman, and street sex worker. (Screenshot from Pay It No Mind: The Life And Times of Marsha P. Johnson)

Like many of my LGBT peers and allies, I am grateful for the contributions made before and for the possibilities ahead. This summer, the Supreme Court acknowledged the humanity of LGBT individuals. And one of our pinnacle liberation symbols, New York City’s Stonewall Inn, the site of the 1969 Stonewall riots, was made a national landmark—all substantial markers of the rapidly increasing acceptance of LGBT individuals in mainstream America.

Over the past decades, important work to raise awareness and funds for the #gaymarriage movement has dominated the LGBT landscape. Each $1000-plate dinner and garden party brought together the well-dressed and privileged of the LGBT community to establish a strong presence against prejudiced, formidable foes. Many of these participants called on the ghost of Stonewall as an emblem of retaliation, reaction and unity. Simply by uttering the “S-word,” the President inspired LGBT people and their allies nationwide to have confidence to continue pushing for broad rights and protections. This summer our victory cry has been #lovewins.

But something is missing in all our gratitude. While it’s great that gay men and lesbians are building wedding registries, shopping at malls, and openly holding hands in places where it was previously forbidden, many of our most high profile spokespeople risk encouraging a spineless edit of history. We are so swift to lionize Stonewall and all of the early LGBT civil rights movement that the process has forced us to acquiesce to an acceptability politic which punishes many identities which represented the very heart and soul of our liberation mantras.

We must challenge our collective desire to strip a story that subverts a normative way of seeing the world. We as LGBT individuals and allies must tap our recent tragedies and triumphs to prevent our own story from disappearing into the exact same narrative most embraced by the bigots who used that norm against us.

The riots at Stonewall are, in fact, the perfect example. Conversations about its history selectively ignore significant components of the rioters’ identities, often including the vital presence of trans women (Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major, Marsha P. Johnson) and gay men but excluding the fact that many of these individuals were hustlers and street workers. Look for the biography of Sylvia Rivera, one of the most well-respected trans activists and Stonewall participants, and you will find her experience of street work excised. This, despite how sex work may have formed her only available opportunity at that time to afford to engage in her activist work. She was hardly the only trans woman of color involved in the sex industry supporting the riots. And then there were the hustlers, the young men working to support themselves after escaping to the city from lives that would have ended up in false marriages, depression, or, as it did for many, suicide or deaths by gay bashing. These were the people, harassed by the police to the point of exhaustion, willing to publicly engage as LGBT people at a time of great risk, the people who actually make up our liberation narrative.

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sxwrkrsuniteAny book that aspires to be the first history of the sex workers’ rights movement in the United States will inevitably face accusations of exclusion. But despite some unavoidable failures in representation, Mindy Chateauvert’s Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk, is a pretty damn good history of our movement. Still, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s critique in her review of the book—that male and genderqueer sex workers are given short shrift in Chateauvert’s work—is valid. Glancing references to Kirk Read and HOOK Online aside, the book is a bit of a hen party.

Then again, so is the movement it chronicles. Sex Workers Unite is a fairly accurate portrayal of our organizing, for better or worse. The index and the footnotes provided me with a comforting sense of familiarity as my eye skimmed over names well known to me, from Carol Leigh to Kate Zen. (Full disclosure: Tits and Sass posts were often cited, including one of my own.) At least, finally, in this text trans women sex workers are given the central role in our story that they’ve played in our activism. The book covers early movement trans heroines like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson in depth, documenting their participation in the Stonewall riot and their founding of STAR House, a community program serving queer and trans youth in the sex trades. They were also involved in the lesser known organization GLF (Gay Liberation Front), an anti-capitalist group that “made room for prostitutes and hustlers, including transwomen, straight and lesbian prostitutes, gay-for-pay hustlers and stone butch dyke pimps,” but hilariously enough, couldn’t come to a consensus on whether it was still okay to take money for sex after the revolution. Chateauvert follows this thread of trans history throughout, never failing to highlight trans women sex workers’ contributions to such integral activist projects as Women with a Vision, HIPS, and Washington DC’s Trans Empowerment Project, as well as their more general influence in shaping sex worker culture.

When I first picked up the book and noted the subtitle, I felt a brief pang of disappointment at the fact that our movement is still so little-known that the the two iconic events that bookend Chateauvert’s summation of our chronology in her title—Stonewall and Slutwalk—actually properly belong to other movements. But as I started to read, I was delighted to realize what the author had done by integrating our narrative with that of so many other struggles for social justice, reminding the reader of sex workers’ critical participation in so many movements over the decades. From GLBT/queer rights and feminism to AIDS activism and harm reduction, Sex Workers Unite makes it clear that you can’t really talk about the history of activism in the US without talking about us. The book tackles our invisibility in these integral roles—in its chapter on Stonewall, for example, it highlights the rarely mentioned fact that drug using trans sex workers were the key participants of the riot, and strips the respectability politics from the typical portrayal of Stonewall rioter Rivera, who is often remembered as a trans activist forebear but not so often revered for supporting her activism via street sex work.

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Melissa Gira Grant (Photo by Noah Kalina)

Melissa Gira Grant. (Photo by Noah Kalina)

Part one of this interview is here.

You encapsulate the tired terms of the sex worker debate, in which the token sex worker is asked reductifying questions ad nauseaum: Is sex work exploitative or empowering? Is it violence against women? How can we help women (always women, and always cis women, never sex working men or trans women) “exit” the industry? And so on. (I think back to a radio interview I did recently with a progressive, well-intentioned interviewer, which I thought was going to be about how anti­-traffickers hurt sex workers, but which turned out to be “Blind Date with a Hooker,” take #1001–what’s a nice girl like you doing in a movement like this?) You claim we should refuse to engage in these stale performances. But given that we often have no access to the public except through this media ritual, how do we change the terms of this conversation to our benefit?

It’s not easy to get around the debate, let me just start there. Here’s a few ways I try, with the gigantic caveat that these don’t apply to all opportunities. When I do speak in public about sex work, including to other members of the media, a line I draw right now—upfront—is that I don’t speak about my personal experiences in sex work. I’ll tell stories about what I’ve seen in my work as a journalist, and before that, I would tell stories about my work as an advocate or organizer. Just doing that can be enough to deflect the cliched kind of stuff, like wanting to know why you got into sex work, all the stuff that seems designed not to humanize you but to decide how “representative” you are. Depending on the outlet, you might even be able to turn that around. At the last debate I did agree to do, I turned to the anti-prostitution “side” and asked her, after she had insinuated that all sex workers had been abused as children, that I wondered what had happened in her own life, that had made her come to that conclusion. It was dramatic, but that was the point, and the whole room snapped to attention at the provocation—why was she allowed to ask those questions, and why wasn’t I?

I’ve also turned down opportunities when I thought I was being brought in to play a part or just stand in as a caricature. Sometimes that’s quite obvious when someone approaches you—like when a business news cable network wanted me to come on and argue why prostitution should be taxed and legalized, something I’ve never argued for, not that it prevented them from telling me what my argument would be. Sometimes it’s more subtle—like when you’ve been asked to do a panel and you realize that of everyone there, you are the only one who is a out as a sex worker, and now there’s quite a lot of weight on you to represent everything about sex work. It’s still a hustle, all of it. Sometimes you can turn the conversation around, and sometimes a producer has already decided how they are going to cast you. And if being public is something you want to do, you don’t have to do it alone. Red Umbrella Project has a guide for navigating the media and sex work, how to deal with combative interviews, how to package a soundbite, how to vet the media. And just as sex workers keep lists of bad clients, I encourage people to keep lists of bad media. Screen them, and check in with other sex workers—I’m still doing that, because odds are if some reporter just emailed everyone they could find online looking for a source on a story, you probably know someone else they emailed.

Or—another way around all of it is what you’re doing here—make your own. [READ MORE]

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