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On Transgender Remembrance Day

November 20 was Transgender Remembrance Day. I regret I’m not sure that this day existed before now. I found that the day has been around for over 20 years — long enough that I should have known about it. This week, I saw this year’s emblem for the Remembrance, edified that the Biden-Harris Transition lent their support to the cause. That moved me, but it was another reminder, along with constant reports in the media, that transgender killings occur and that and these killings are not solved. And there is always a clear suggestion that the killings are grounded in hate, carried out with the worst expression of discrimination. Why is there a world where a particular group of people has invited upon them such scorn? Sadly, hate sometimes lingers; it gets passed down from generations. Too often, it never goes away.

The Biden-Harris Transition supports the memory of the victims of transgender violence.

The day after Transgender Remembrance Day, I spent the morning watching David France’s film, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.” It’s a smart movie unwinding a story within a story. (I realized in the middle that I had seen it before, but I kept watching.) It’s an excellent yarn – a broader LGBT history enwraps and intertwines smaller, disheartening developments into the unsolved investigation into Marsha’s death -a project undertaken by activist Victoria Cruz with the Anti-Violence Project. Interspersed are recorded appearances of Sylvia Rivera, who was a gay and transgender warrior, proud of her activism and honest in repeated her experience’s horrors. One sees her get booed as she takes the stage in Washington Square Park on no less than Gay Pride Day. She interrupts and tells the audience, all of whom presumably support gay rights, demonstrating such anti-trans bias, to fuck the hell off. If you watch the film, you witness atrocities like this, a heckling by a gay rights audience! – preserved on video; but the narrative absorbs and these moments feel as if they occur in real-time, as they surely could be.

At the end of the film, David France reports that Sylvia died of liver cancer; he interposes pictures of Sylvia, head in a turban, among her friends in her final months. (She had a fantastic head of hair, as the snapshot I took (below) demonstrates.) The moment in the film where the narrator reports her death is a poignant artistic counterbalance to the tragic parts, like Rivera’s banishment from a shack (no words constructed in fig leaf can substitute). It was all she had, a wooden construction at the old West Side Train Yards on the Upper West Side. Sylvia knows she has to leave and does with dignified anger, but she’s indignant that the NYPD refers to her dispossession as a “clearing” rather than an “eviction.” It would be too extreme to repeat the mantra that there are “no winners, only losers” in this film. But it would be fair to say that the losses outnumber the wins by a disappointing margin.

In 1992, those halcyon days were coming to an end; Giuliani would soon be elected mayor, race-baiting voters with impunity. Someone found Marsha P. Johnson in the water off the Christopher Street Pier. To be precise, the Pier (or “The Piers,”) is a group of unused quays and (then) dilapidated warehouses fallen into disuse. The City converted them into a park, and the new park remains a gathering place, a safe space for LGBT people of color, as well as others. In the seventies, it had been a playground for white gay men of privilege. By the nineties, these men started the flock toward Chelsea (which, like the Village, one can no longer consider a Gayborhood.) “Death and Life” suggests that Marsha might have fallen from the creaky planks of one of the decrepit buildings then into the water. Once, the planks held tons of inventory. Now, minor remnants remain. I once took a gander at the rotting innards where one could look down, straight into the Hudson. The idea that Marsha, in 1992, could have stepped on a broken plank and fallen into the water is a plausible theory. 

However, the film notes that still uncertain is whether Marsha died before or after she entered the water. If this lack of clarity makes a difference to the plot is only vaguely explored – and explored only in the language of conspiracy theory with notes of Mob, Syndicate and Mafia. Ms. Cruz explores the question with other players around at the time: Was Marsha shot and thrown in the water? It is impossible to say, but the idea seems unlikely. Yes, the Mob ran the gay bars, including Stonewall, at least until the eighties. But why anyone would want to kill Marsha is hard to fathom. She was an activist, a social butterfly; she was pleasant and harmless. But there lies the rub: In most cases of transgender killings, one might say the exact same thing. 

The film notes, however, that still uncertain is whether Marsha died before or after she entered the water. If this lack of clarity makes a difference to the plot is only vaguely explored – and then in the language of conspiracy theory involving the Mafia. The question is explored: Was Marsha shot and thrown in the water? It is impossible to say, but it seems implausible. Yes, the Mob ran the gay bars, including Stonewall, back then. But why anyone would want to kill Marsha is hard to fathom. She was an activist, a social butterfly; she was pleasant and harmless. But there enlies the rub: In most cases of transgender killing, one might say the exact same thing.

In Marsha’s life, Christopher Street was a center of gay activity within the West Village, a full-on Gayborhood. Gay guys and transgender women (and certainly lesbians and transmen) would walk from Christopher Street Pier to Sixth Avenue, where the action and sense of community petered out. So, when you got to the end, you might turn around and work the catwalk in the opposite way. Even during the first decade of the HIV crisis, the feeling on Christopher Street was always buoyant. Christopher Street on Gay Pride Day was a true celebration until police barriers and corporatization ruined the experience. Before that, every year, I made my way to Christopher Street, squeezed through the crowds, watched the parade in short, slow spurts, ran into people, met guys, and had a standing dinner date with a friend at a cheap Thai place. Sometimes I went to the Pier Dance, never with the same person. It was a homecoming and I took many photos. Below is a snapshot of Sylvia Rivera, on Pride Day in 1993. The lighting was awful, but it’s a photo of Silvia Rivera © Gregory Antollino; that means something to me. Her stance displays valor. The job of a portraitist is to capture emotion. I think I did that, but if only the lighting had been better – or if only I had been a better photographer.

Back in Marsha’s and Sylvia’s day (the seventies and eighties), the gay activity in the Village was friendly; you could even call it profuse – but only in the very best sense of that word. Queer action emanated around Christopher Street. Every bar had its particular vibe, and one knew where one wanted to go – or not. The energy on the sidewalks was Out-and-Proud, people walking in and among queer-owned establishments, and others like the iconic Village Cigars. Now one can reasonably say that the West Village has a suggestion of an undertone of a gay vibe. Back then, it was the gay capital of New York City, the East Coast, and – along with The Castro – the country, probably the world. Back then, many who felt the protection of The West Village Community – whether in actuality or imaginatively – would develop confidence. I once saw a button there that read, “How dare you presume I’m a Heterosexual?” I waited for the first time I could say that to someone. For me, the opportunity never arose, or maybe I chickened out, or, confident to be myself, smartened up.

The movie sticks you with the pain of two transgender women – and let’s not forget the third, Victoria Cruz, the investigator with the Anti-Violence Project. She is assigned – or chooses – to take on Marsha’s case decades after Marsha’s death. Cruz is weary; she expresses a proper level of frustration and uses the tools in her possession to fight the bureaucracy. But it overwhelms her, leading her to dead ends and hostile voices. Her face reads worry, exhaustion, disappointment. Her quest suggests that the final insult in her inability to account for the cause of Johnson’s death was the result of the marginalization that Ms. Cruz, Rivera, Johnson, and so many others have suffered. One can complain, reasonably, that someone should have collected better evidence at the proper time. In the present, however, it’s too big to ask to solve someone’s death, let alone determine if the death was a homicide. Twenty years later, with little evidence, one can’t expect any justice. Maybe someone could confess with convincing details, but that’s a hopeless thread on which to hang, so unlikely and indeterminate. I took Cruz’s frustration as coming from a person who had so often experienced discrimination that she expected it had occurred. It seems as though she can no longer ascertain when discrimination occurs and when not..

The film does not end happily for anyone (except a lover of great storytelling). Mr. France, the film-maker (whose other great work is “How to Survive a Plague”), is smart in shaping the stories of Marsha’s death and Sylvia Rivera’s too-painful painful life. In the end, the viewer is clear that Marsha’s death – already a tragedy – cannot be proved a homicide, let alone pinned on a person in the pursuit of justice. Celebrity Medical Examiner Michael Baden makes an appearance at the end of the film. One could think, as I did, that his appearance was disappointing– an HBO huckster who seems to turn possibilities as to how Marsha died into probabilities – and just with the kind and learned tone of his voice. But perhaps that is what everyone needs: to know that the cause of Marsha P. Johnson’s Death is a fact that, owing to lack of evidence, are forever unknowable. Meanwhile, to know, as we do, that there is a need for Transgender Remembrance Day – and that this day needs to carry into the future – is a statement for change, to put it mildly.

Below, photos from Gay Pride, 1993, 2000, 2008, 2017, 2019 in New York, London, and Lisbon.   

On YouTube there is a video recounting the experienced of my memorable client, Temmie Thames, a woman of charisma and perspicacity. I saw the discrimination she suffered as a trans woman. Temmie remained a client on sundry matters for a few years after the original matter for which she hired me. In 2017, she, too, died under tragic circumstances.

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