Silver-tongued filmmaker and artist Reina Gossett modeled complexity and vulnerability when she revealed that noted director David France lifted major source material for his award-winning documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. The documentary is quite possibly the highest profile work ever released on Marsha P. Johnson, the foremother of the LGBTQ rights movement who sparked the legendary 1969 Stonewall Riots by throwing a shot glass and demanding liberation in a Greenwich Village tavern in New York.
On October 6, the day France released his documentary, Gossett defiantly published an Instagram post explaining the disparity between her financial status after years of working on her yet-to-be released film, Happy Birthday, Marsha! and his “multimillion-dollar Netflix deal.” She believed The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson was born from a “grant application video” that she and fellow artist Sasha Wortzel submitted to the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College.
“This kind of extraction/excavation of Black life, disabled life, poor life, trans life is so old and so deeply connected to the violence Marsha had to deal with throughout her life,” Gossett wrote. “So I feel so much rage and grief over all of this.” The accompanying selfie displayed her in #BlackGirlMagic form—tilting her head back with her eyes closed, fully exposing her shimmering emerald-green eyeshadow. It was if she was basking in the glow of the sun and “paying it no mind,” as Johnson’s iconic catchphrase commands. In the left corner of the portrait, a figure almost peeks over the frame. It’s a tattoo collage featuring Johnson herself.
Gossett’s piercing shot at the cisgender, white, well-connected and heavily resourced France mirrored, at least outwardly, Johnson’s life-long stone throwing at the status quo. Her accusations may have seemed out of the blue, but behind the scenes, there had been a long tussle between her and France.
“One of the things that’s so interesting is that this dynamic with David France had been playing out for a while. There were a number of egregious things over time,” Gossett said. “At moments, Sasha [Wortzel] or I would say that we should say something, but there was also a dynamic in which he had a lot of institutional power and closeness to power structures, recognition, and resources.”
By calling out France, the Happy Birthday, Marsha! filmmaker moved from documentarian to subject. Her David-and-Goliath moment fell within a larger context of accountability during the first official year of the Donald Trump era. From women organizing en masse against the predator-in-chief and the ever-violent patriarchy to widespread discussions on white supremacy and systems of privilege and power, her vulnerable and risky admission came during a time of rapid raising of consciousness.
“I think  included a lot of stuff being unearthed or made plain around what harms and violences are happening in private, intimate ways and publicly without everyone knowing it,” Gossett said in a phone call. “A lot of people are coming out and sharing truths in all different kinds of ways. I shared something that was very hurtful and violating and happened not just to me. I put it out there and had people respond to it in ways I never dreamed of.”
A bevy of trans activists and artists expressed their long-held doubts on the conception and production of The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson while others simply showed disappointment. Most notably, trans author and activist Janet Mock amplified Gossett’s claims in a comment on her Instagram post. She wrote, “I love you, Reina. You remain my heroine. Thank you for introducing us to ourselves with your vital life-giving work. You’ve helped me and I’m sure thousands better see ourselves. I love you.”
For many, Happy Birthday, Marsha! was the people’s choice since it had been financially backed through crowdfunding and featured numerous trans actors, including Spirit Award–winning Mya Taylor. Given Gossett’s presence in the trans community as an organizer and public scholar, transparency around her project was much greater than France’s. With Happy Birthday, Marsha!, Gossett drew on community power—something that was instilled in her at a young age.
Social justice has been stitched into the fabric of Gossett’s family for generations. Both of her parents were community organizers: Her mother, Maureen Ridge, worked with unions such as Service Employees International Union, and her father, George Gossett, worked with The Invaders, a Memphis-based Black power activist group inspired by the Black Panther Party. She carries stories from her parents and grandparents about their time in the civil rights and Black freedom movements with every step she takes. She further credits her politicization to George’s interactions with state institutions in her hometown of Roxbury, Massachusetts.
“I got involved [with social justice] when my dad had a disability and multiple psychiatric illnesses. For long periods of time, he was frequently in [psychiatric] hospitals and prison,” she said. “Right around when [former President Bill] Clinton cut welfare, there was increased criminalization of poor people. Friends in my neighborhood would ask why they’d see my dad at the [psychiatric] hospital.
“I felt shame around visiting my dad in [those facilities] and dealing with what that meant.”
When Gossett enrolled in Columbia University and moved to New York City in 2002, her activism became more deeply informed by the experiences of people who were or had been incarcerated. She was greatly involved in transforming campus culture, but always knew there was greater work to be done beyond the ivory tower of academia. One of the ways she kept a foot on the ground was by teaching creative writing classes at the infamous and inhumane Rikers Island. Though she was thriving in many ways, her father continued to struggle.
So often when we seek out mainstream representation or inclusion, we have to leave so much of our beautiful selves at the door. Naming those exclusions and violences is key.
“My dad passed away in 2010 in a violent and sad way. He passed away in a field and wasn’t found for many months. No one knows how he died,” Gossett said. “It was really a story of Memphis and Black life in the United States. Part of my art is really around experiences of loss and grief and dealing with how people heal around violences. We can’t even talk about them because they’re so heavy.”
There are stark parallels between the deaths of Gossett’s father and Johnson. Both dedicated much of their lives to lifting the veil off of harmful power structures through their organizing work, suffered the neglect of their needs due to systemic anti-Blackness and died under mysterious circumstances. On July 6, 1992, Johnson’s body was found in New York City’s Hudson River. Although investigators ruled her death a suicide, her family, friends, and community have longed called for a deeper investigation.
“The circumstances of Marsha’s death really remind me a lot of my dad’s death. It’s also like a lot of Black folks’ deaths. It’s clear that structural abandonment of services and care in the United States is causing so many of our deaths,” she said. “It’s a part of so many people’s stories who are deemed not worthy of tending.”
After graduating from Columbia, Gossett delved into the progressive LGBTQ nonprofit world. She worked as the director of the Welfare Organizing Project at Queers for Economic Justice, where she produced A Fabulous Attitude, a documentary on low-income LGBTQ New Yorkers surviving inequality and thriving despite enormous obstacles. She was also the director for membership at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SLRP). Gossett mixed this experience with her growing passion for video blogging.
In a 2015 interview on Mock’s former MSNBC show, SoPOPular!, Gossett shared how Johnson’s own art-fueled activism encouraged her to pursue filmmaking as a natural extension of her own work. “Marsha was an activist and also an important performer. She was in a group called Hot Peaches. She wore flowers hats and had this aesthetic that was its own kind of activism. I think [trans people’s] art is its own kind of activism,” Gossett said. “[Making Happy Birthday, Marsha!] was a moment for me to just get lost in the beauty of filming and storytelling.”
While bridging the gaps between academia, activism, and art is at the core of Gossett’s work, connecting the current movement of resistance and liberation to historical moments is also key. She doesn’t believe that we need to rewrite our politics, but tap into the power of historical figures like Johnson and living legends like Miss Major Griffin-Gracy. She believes more needs to be done to elevate the people most targeted by the prison-industrial complex, particularly mass incarceration, HIV criminalization, and anti–sex work legislation.
“Without demands for the most vulnerable, this moment of increased visibility is only ever going to be tied to increased killing. I think the two are so tied together. In my experience, for a long time before the trans tipping point, we had a set of really radical demands, and they were inescapable,” she said. “Our survival was a demand in and of itself. I think it’s really important to always name that it’s all of us or none of us. If it’s going to be all of us, we need to always center and demand the things that will affect the most vulnerable of us.”
In 2014, writer Katy Steinmetz referred to Black trans actress Laverne Cox as an “unlikely icon” when she appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. If that was the “tipping point” for trans representation, we are in a much different era now. Actresses such as Amiyah Scott, Jen Richards, and Angelica Ross have made breakthroughs on the small screen while Mock was recently announced as a producer and writer for Pose, a Ryan Murphy–produced ’80s-era drama that is slated to feature the most trans series regulars ever for an American television. Gossett wants us to grapple with what it means to live in a time where trans narratives seem more mainstream than ever before.
“I think we’re at an interesting point where we are moving with a lot of beautiful contradictions. [We are] seeking to disrupt and be unruly to assimilation into structures and systems that are not for us and aren’t doing anything for us. It’s violating and harming us,” Gossett said. “As I have more of a platform and visibility, it’s important to be constantly naming structures and systems and the violence of assimilation. What about dis-respectability?”
“So often when we seek out mainstream representation or inclusion, we have to leave so much of our beautiful selves as the door. Naming those exclusions and violences is so key.”
It is not lost on Gossett that as she has been elevated in this current boom in entertainment and media for trans people, it has also been one of the deadliest times on record for people on the ground. In 2017, the average age of Black trans victims was 30 years old. Beyond her cultural work, she wants to remind others of the historic radicalism of the trans community and that even in the contradictions of survival and success in a capitalist system, the liberatory intentions and actions must be ever-present.
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Towards the end of 2017, Gossett’s shine emanated as her work was feverishly boosted. In November, she accepted the Queer Art Prize for Recent Work for The Personal Things, a short, animated film featuring voice-over by Griffin-Gracy. There’s no doubt that Happy Birthday, Marsha!, which is slated for a 2018 release, will receive similar accolades. With much care, the film’s team is brainstorming on the most fitting way to honor Johnson’s legacy and involve the community.
With an air of powerful defiance against a world that still devalues Black trans power, Gossett hopes her work will be just one brick in the long road to liberation.
“It takes me being in space with other Black trans people to have a collective imagination around reparations. In order for that to keep happening, we must demand a shift from the prison-industrial complex. We can’t fully shift space when so many of us are incarcerated just for surviving and living. We need adequate housing or safety to even go outside of our housing,” she said. “That imagination happens upon the ground of our ancestors. It’s got to happen in a way that doesn’t leave anyone out. In the center are Black trans people who are disabled, undocumented, formerly or currently incarcerated.”