The Mysterious Case of Marsha P. Johnson: Suicide or Murder?
Reviewing the Netflix documentary titled The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
By Alisha Pinto
Marsha P. Johnson, black, queer, gender-non conforming, practicing Christian, lower socio economic background but she chose to take all the struggle in her stride and channelled it to the political actions with grace, warmth, her beautiful smile, flamboyant joy and that charisma .
Marsha P. Johnson was an activist, a drag performer for nearly three decades, pioneering hero for the transgender community in Greenwich Village. She was a important figure in a gay liberation movement which began at Stonewall Inn, 1969. This sparked the fire that fueled the first wave of the Gay Pride Movement in NYC. She was a model for Andy Warhol. She was usually homeless but provided for social and economic justice; for working on behalf of homeless street youth in the LGBTQ community.
As the English language hadn’t evolved the way it has now in Johnson’s lifetime, she usually used female pronouns for herself, sometimes simply using ‘queen’.
It was not easy in the 1970’s to live outside the socially defined sexual mainstream. Same-sex dancing in public was prohibited. The State Liquor Authority prohinited serving of alcohol to those who were gay. People could be charged with sexual deviancy for cross-dressing. Police enforcement was often whimsical and autocratic.
The following year after Stonewall Riots, Johnson joined fellow activist Sylvia Rivera in founding Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR, to advocate for young transgender people to house, clothe and feed them.
In her 1972 book, her wrote “to see gay people liberated and free and to have equal rights that other people have in America,” with her “gay brothers and sisters out of jail and on the streets again.”
In an interview, life was never easy with the last 2 years of her life suffering from AIDS alongside battling mental illness. Several days later her lifeless body floating in the Hudson river, and her death was quickly ruled a suicide, though questioned by friends and acquaintances as a murder.
The film highlights activist Victoria Cruz of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, who has been exploring the case, to get justice for Marsha. The investigation raises red flags about crimes, numerous murders and discrimination towards the LGBTQ community and police corruption.
Several mysteries remain unsolved and the definitive cause of death but Marsha P. Johnson’s legacy lives on. However, the case has been reopened but in the film the death of another trans woman of colour, the perpetrator is left off the hook by the judiciary with often getting a shorter sentence.
Director David France, the storytelling in the movie is a bit scattered but for every strong individual to stand up for the rights, they or another often die to protect the lives of those in their community. How many more undocumented cases/ deaths are yet to find justice and closure to those grieving families till we show respect and have equal rights.