Who Owns Marsha P. Johnson's Story?

Still via Netflix

Hours after Netflix released the documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson last Friday, director/trans activist/researcher Reina Gossett claimed the film was unfairly profiting off her ideas and work. The Netflix doc, directed by David France (whose 2012 doc How To Survive a Plague was nominated for an Academy Award), concerns LGBTQ civil rights pioneers Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, whom also are the focus of an as-yet-incomplete short film Gossett has been working on with Sasha Wortzel for several years, Happy Birthday Marsha! (It’s crucial to note that Rivera identified as transgender before her death in 2002, and that Johnson, who died in 1992 before the word transgender was really embraced discursively, identified as gay, a transvestite, and a drag queen. Nonetheless, both are considered by many as icons in the trans community.)

On Instagram, Gossett, a black trans woman, accused France, a queer cisgender white man, of “extraction/excavation of black life, disabled life, poor life, trans life,” and shared a litany of serious accusations directed at France:


Gossett’s claims were amplified by Janet Mock, who posted several times on Twitter (and once on Instagram) about them, claiming France’s documentary was “based on Gossett’s work.” Gossett furthermore and rather eloquently wrote about her experience making her movie in an op-ed published Wednesday on Teen Vogue. She did not repeat many of the specific allegations she had shared on Instagram, but she did describe her experience of systematic disparity when attempting to make her own documentary about Marsha P. Johnson.

Wrote Gossett:

David France’s documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, premiered on Netflix last October 6 while the one I envisioned with Sasha did not get made. We had applied for a grant to at least one of the same foundations that France, a white cisgender gay man, had applied to, but it was his film that got funding and not ours. Long before France’s film premiered, Sasha and I had decided to change course and make a short narrative film instead of a documentary.

On Twitter, Facebook, and in a phone interview with Jezebel, France acknowledged the disparity Gossett wrote about. To Jezebel, he said he was aware that some of the funders who gave him money for his project denied Gossett and Wortzel money for theirs and he knows “beyond any question” that his privilege facilitated the completion of his project. “White supremacy and transphobia create a barrier to entry for that community to tell their own stories,” he said.

France, though, disputes many of the specific claims about him and his work in Gossett’s Instagram post. While he acknowledges that “there are truths” in it and that Gossett’s anger is “righteous” with a “solid foundation,” he says that many of her details are false.


To Jezebel, France provided a Word file suggesting he’d been batting around the idea of making a movie about Marsha P. Johnson years before he visited Kalamazoo College in May 2013. He forwarded emails suggesting that he was at one point on speaking terms with Wortzel about her and Gossett’s movie, something Gossett has yet to acknowledge publicly. At press time, Gossett and Wortzel had still not responded to Jezebel’s questions regarding Gossett’s allegations and her relationship with those involved in The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. Interviews with those close to France’s production, copyright holders of the footage of Sylvia Rivera mentioned by Gossett in her post, and unrelated parties backed up France’s claims while casting doubt on some of Gossett’s.

It seems that there are multiple threads here that are tangled: There’s Gossett’s personal experience and frustration, which she cannot be denied, and then there are the things she said about France, for which hard evidence exists to confirm or deny. One thread should not negate another, and both are worth paying careful attention to. After several attempts to get Gossett on record, she responded that she’d be “happy to talk” to Jezebel for this story, and even sent some leads our way. A follow-up email from Gossett, as well as one from Wortzel, acknowledged receipt of our queries and suggested their answers were forthcoming but multiple deadlines came and went without either director providing answers to our questions. The request for a phone call went unanswered, as well.


In his social media posts, France, who’s also a journalist, claimed to have been working on a story about Johnson’s death soon after it occurred in 1992. “Marsha had been a friend of mine, and her story fell to me to report. I started investigating right away, but with no active leads and the exploding AIDS crisis in New York, I let the story slip away,” he wrote, refuting Gossett’s claim that she provided his inspiration. He forwarded a Word document to Jezebel that purportedly archived an email thread between him and collaborator David Kennedy, who died in 2015. In it, France and Kennedy discuss upcoming projects they could pitch to HBO or Lifetime. The emails’ stamps span February-June 2009. But because it is a Word document (France says his email server doesn’t hold an archive, thus he pasted it into a blank document), it’s not exactly conclusive evidence. (The metadata on the Word file dates the file back to April 24, 2011—over two years before France visited Kalamazoo College, where Gossett alleged he learned of, and ripped off, her project. Such metadata is also alterable although not as easily so as, say, cut-and-pasted text.)

According to France’s account, he developed the project over the next several years. He said that as he was wrapping up work on How To Survive a Plague in 2011, he had been keeping a board listing potential future projects. A documentary about Johnson and Rivera was always at the top of his list, he claimed.


“I remember back in 2011, when we were working on How To Survive a Plague that Marsha was part of the whole discussion,” said Plague/Death and Life editor Tyler H. Walk. Walk said that France pointed out Johnson while they were combing through the archival footage of various marches and ACT UP demonstrations for use in Plague.

He added that at the start of production of The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, “we busted out the old footage from the How To Survive a Plague drives and hunted around from footage of that we had of Marsha already.” An additional France staffer who no longer works with him confirmed in an email that a project focused on Johnson and Rivera was “always” on France’s list of potential post-Plague projects.


France said it was during his May 2013 visit to Kalamazoo College that he learned of Reina Gossett’s own Marsha P. Johnson project (with co-director Sasha Wortzel) through Jaime Grant, who was then a director at the school’s Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership. (Grant did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story).

Regarding Gossett’s claim that France was inspired by her Kalamazoo/Arcus grant application, France says that he has never seen any of Gossett’s writing “or any of her work product from her research over years—the history of STAR and the history and/or Marsha or Sylvia.”


When contacted by Jezebel for comment, Mia Henry, the Arcus Center at Kalamazoo College’s current executive director, explained that Gossett’s submission was not actually a grant application as she claimed:

Although Reina Gossett uses the term “grant application” in her post, our 2013 Global Prize was a competition in which 188 projects submitted 8-minute videos for consideration. We, unlike the Arcus Foundation, do not give out grants to groups outside of the college.

No one currently working at the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College can speculate as to if/how David France obtained Reina and Sasha’s video submission for the Global Prize.


France says shortly after “in 2013 or early 2014,” he talked to Gossett about their projects.

“We spoke specifically about what I wanted to do and determined that there was no conflict,” he said. “And then I said, ‘But we should be working together because we are both in the business of the legacy of Marsha and Sylvia. And I proposed that we meet and we never did meet. She didn’t accept the proposal.’”


This account of France and Gossett/Wortzel being aware of each other’s projects and, at least temporarily, at peace with the idea of both of them co-existing was corroborated by author/academic/Death and Life advisor Susan Stryker in a Facebook post on Sunday, in which she also expressed sadness and disturbance at France’s misdeeds alleged by Gossett:


Stryker wrote: “When I was asked a couple of years ago to be in a community advisory group for David France’s film, I checked in with Reina and Sasha to see how they felt about the project, and got the message back that ‘These are very different projects, what we are doing is very different from what they are doing, we’re in communication with them, we have no problem with you advising them.’”

Indeed, a survey of the two projects’ trailers portend very different products. Though Johnson is a focal point of France’s film, its primary subject is Victoria Cruz, a trans woman who worked at the Anti-Violence Project. Cruz’s investigation of Johnson’s still-unsolved death takes up the most screen time. Meanwhile, Gossett and Wortzel’s film is described on its website as “a film about iconic transgender artist and activist, Marsha ‘Pay it No Mind’ Johnson and her life in the hours before she ignited the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City.”


France says he always envisioned his project existing side-by-side with Gossett and Wortzel’s, a la Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America and Ryan Murphy’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. To help facilitate this, he introduced Gossett and Wortzel to one of his funders and Death and Life producer Joy Tomchin, who says she gave Gossett and Wortzel money for their film (she thinks it was $10,000 but concedes it may have been $5,000). An email thread forwarded to Jezebel included a message from former Happy Birthday, Marsha! producer Luisa Conlon, who thanked Tomchin for her donation. “We are so so honored to have your support, and truly inspired by your generosity,” wrote Conlon. Wortzel followed up with an email also thanking Tomchin. “We are very excited to move forward and to continue to be in touch with you and David about the progress of our films,” wrote Wortzel on May 6, 2015. Tomchin says her association with Gossett prompted her to donate to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, where Gossett was working at the time. A rep from SRLP confirmed that Tomchin is one of their donors.

Tomchin also said that France’s Johnson project had been gestating long before anyone was in touch with Gossett and Wortzel and that all parties were aware of each other’s work. Tomchin said that at some point, though, she got the feeling that Gossett and Wortzel began to view Tomchin and France as competitors and that eventually they lost touch. Tomchin described herself as “hurt” by Gossett’s allegations.


“They’re not happy that we’re out there, they’re not happy that our film is successful,” said Tomchin. “They could do their film and finish it, but it’s been years. I don’t know if they’ll ever finish it. I hope they do. I think it’s important.”

In addition to the money that Tomchin provided, Gossett and Wortzel raised tens of thousands of dollars on various crowdfunding platforms: $26,022 was raised in 2014 via Kickstarter, and a 2015 Indiegogo campaign brought in $35,700. And that’s just what’s publicly available. Tomchin said she never knew what the Happy Birthday, Marsha! budget was.


France flatly denied Gossett’s claim that he was responsible for getting footage of Sylvia Rivera’s speech at the Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally in 1973 removed from her Vimeo channel. Gossett does not own the rights to this footage, as she admitted in a tweet from earlier this year, and as such her upload was vulnerable to copyright claims:


And indeed, on the page where Gossett’s upload once sat is a notice from Vimeo explaining that it was removed because of a third-party notification from the Lesbians Organized for Video Experience (L.O.V.E.) Collective. When reached for comment via email, L.O.V.E.’s Tracy Fitz confirmed that they hold the licensing rights, and France licensed their footage for Death and Life. Fitz also said that Retro Report inquired about licensing the Sylvia Rivera footage in question before France and mentioned Gossett’s upload then. Fitz wrote that she did discuss illegal uploads of L.O.V.E. property with France, and that he provided L.O.V.E. with digitized copies of the footage he licensed from them. “We get our collection funded for digitizing, we take down illegal use,” wrote Fitz.

“No he did not get me to get Reina to take down Sylvia,” added Fitz.

“I have been scouring both YouTube and Vimeo to find unauthorized video on line to have it removed,” wrote L.O.V.E.’s Barbara Jabaily in a follow-up email on the same thread. “David had nothing to do with it.”


Gossett also claimed on Twitter that without her upload of Rivera’s speech, France’s film wouldn’t exist:


France pointed out that Rivera’s speech has been “in the zeitgeist since the ’70s,” when it was excerpted in the obscure queer film from 1974 A Very Natural Thing. France said his first exposure to it came via the 1995 PBS documentary The Question of Equalitythe footage appears about 43 minutes into that doc’s first part.

On Tuesday, Kamran Shahraray, who briefly worked on The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson from June to August 2016, published a lengthy statement via Google Docs, in which they alleged that videos of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson from Reina Gossett’s Vimeo were downloaded onto research hard drives used by France and his team. Shahraray wrote:

As someone “who knows the archives better than anyone else here” by David’s own admission, Reina’s account confirms many suspicions that had come up for me whilst going through the archival footage and research. Reina’s entire Vimeo was on the hard drives, down to the exact resolution and clip length and her name appeared throughout other materials. Based on what I have seen, undoubtedly someone at some point made heavy usage of her work and research, and to say this didn’t happen is a bold-faced lie which flies in the face of all available evidence.


By phone, Shahraray told Jezebel that a rare video of Rivera being interviewed in Fort Greene Park prompted them to search its source, which led them to Gossett’s Vimeo page, where it is uploaded. From there they checked the remaining videos on Gossett’s page with those that had been downloaded by France’s research team and found the resolutions/clip lengths matched. Shahraray also says Gossett’s allegations about France’s practice have been circulating within New York queer and trans people of color activist circles for a while.

“None of the handful of videos on [Gossett’s] page uniquely informed my work,” said France, who said he was able to track down footage that Gossett had uploaded via other sources. He says none of Gossett’s footage is on his hard drive archives and besides, “none of that stuff that was of significance to our project was available uniquely there.” France also added that Shahraray’s employment had been “discontinued, which is why [they] state why [they] were on the film for a very short time.” He declined to explain the reason behind Shahraray’s termination.


There have been other allegations against France. On Sunay Queens College professor Amy Herzog posted on Faceboook that France had used footage belonging to College of Staten Island, CUNY professor Tara Mateik’s without permission or attribution. France says the footage in question was included in Death and Life on fair-use grounds. In a statement, Herzog referenced an email to France that Mateik posted on Facebook, questioned the fair-use claim, and described the moral dilemma over the licensing of the footage in question:

The question on the minds of collective members in considering France’s request was not one of “owning” the footage or the story. It was concern that this material would be exploited without respect for the activists that worked so hard to represent their community and their history responsibly, collectively. The hubris of claiming “fair use” to footage over and against the concerns of those who created it says a great deal about the ethical framework by which France’s team approaches their subject matter.”


And another Google Document, written by Mariah Lopez, the executive director of STARR, who was filmed for Death and Life but does not appear in the finished film, alleges France engaged in “disturbing instances of predatory, manipulative journalistic tactics on his part.” (STARR stands for Strategic Trans Alliance for Radical Reform, while Johnson and Rivera’s organization STAR stood for Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Nonetheless, STARR claims to be an effective reboot of STAR and its Facebook page notes that Rivera and Johnson founded it in 1970).

Lopez, a trans woman of black and Latinx heritage, though, takes issue with Gossett as well. “People knowingly trying to exclude STARR and at the same time profit off of Sylvia and Marsha are going to have a problem,” said Lopez in an impassioned phone conversation. Throughout, Lopez referred to Rivera as her mother and talked about her deep bond with Rivera before she died. In her Google doc, she accused Gossett of “falsely claiming that she is somehow entitled to either credit of some kind or financial compensation for work she’s done around Marsha’s legacy, or the film’s beginning stages.”


Lopez says she has not viewed The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson but that she will have to “someday.” I asked Lopez if she has a problem with a white cisgender man directing a movie about the stories of trans women of color, an argument that has come up several times in the controversy surrounding Gossett’s claims about France’s film, and Lopez said, “Yes, yes, and yes.” As to why then she participated in a film that she had basic philosophical problems with, she told me, “I thought I had a better chance of getting him to tell the truth if I was closer.”

Lopez also took issue with Gossett’s archiving and posting of material concerning Johnson and Rivera. Lopez accused Gossett of “elitist, educational privilege” (Gossett’s Wikipedia page says she attended Columbia University) and said Gossett was acting “for profit” in disseminating the historical documents she excavated. Her argument sounded not unlike that which Gossett leveled against France.


“He’s just a bigger, more powerful, more hideous, insidious version of [Gossett],” said Lopez. “They’re both wrong!”

France acknowledges that he interviewed Lopez for Death and Life but discontinued their professional association, too, for reasons that he would not specify on the record. He denies the specific claims made in her Google doc, too.


As for Gossett’s claim that France signed a “multimillion dollar deal” with Netflix, France denies that, too. “I can say that it cost us more to make the film than we got from Netflix,” he said. “Considerably more, and has left me in debt.”

What France did not dispute is that he hired Kimberly Reed, who did indeed work with Gossett and Wortzel and, per France’s account, consulted with Gossett, Wortzel, other advisors, and director Ira Sachs (whose Queer Art program enlisted Gossett and Wortzel as 2012-13 fellows) before taking the job with France. (Reed and Sachs did not respond to request for comment.) He said he assumes that his researchers contacted Wortzel, per Gossett’s claim, as they “turned over every stone.”


France said he “would never” say, “I’m the one to tell this story,” per Gossett’s claim. “I think many people are the ones to tell her story,” he said. “The history is so important that we need it interpreted from multiple perspectives. We need to get it into the history books. My work over time has been focused on this idea that LGBTQ history has been kept from history books. That it’s not just an oral tradition among us, that it is a major part of the story of human history, that our stories are American stories, our stories are world history stories, and they deserve to be treated that way.”

“I came out in the ’70s, when there was no true representation of gay people in culture,” he said. “We weren’t in mainstream films, we weren’t in history books, we weren’t on television, we weren’t in newspapers. I know what it’s like to be shut out of culture. And I know what it’s like to be angry about that, I know what it’s like to struggle against that as an artist and storyteller. I feel all of that in Reina’s anger now.”


In addition to Gossett and Wortzel, I have also reached out to Janet Mock. This post will be updated if and when they return my requests.

Note: An earlier version of this article did not use Kamran Shahraray’s preferred pronouns of they/them. It has been updated to include them. Jezebel regrets the error. Additionally, an earlier version of this posted stated that an interview request had been sent to Amy Herzog; It was her partner that her Facebook post referred to, Tara Mateik, that had been contacted. A statement from Herzog has been added to this post.

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Rich Juzwiak

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.