Queer Film Fest 2020: ‘Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson’ and ‘Wigstock’

Happy Pride! In today’s post, we look back at one of Stonewall’s key figures and, in lieu of partying together in person, we celebrate with a beloved drag festival.

The Stonewall Uprising began 51 years ago today after the police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York City. There was nothing new about that — the cops raided gay bars frequently because of repressive laws about gay conduct, and also because they were assholes. This night was different, though. Crowds formed outside as the police waited for paddy wagons to haul off the bar patrons they had decided to arrest, including (legend has it, at least) a butch, biracial lesbian named Stormé DeLarverie, who asked the onlookers “Why don’t you guys do something?” as she was being pushed inside the wagon.

All hell broke loose. Beer bottles and coins (a sarcastic response to rumors that Stonewall owners hadn’t paid off the cops as usual) went flying, and officers wound up barricading themselves inside the bar as the queers revolted. “We all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this kind of shit,” participant Michael Fader told David Carter for the 2004 book Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution. “We weren’t going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around—it’s like standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way, and that’s what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we’re going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren’t going to go away. And we didn’t.”

The riots continued a second night, but by then, word had spread and now thousands of people had gathered on Christopher Street. The polite protest model set by the Mattachine Society since the 1950s was overturned, and gay liberation finally began making real progress.

In the middle of it all was Marsha P. (“Pay it no mind”) Johnson, a black drag queen who, at least according to legend, threw a shot glass and yelled “I got my civil rights,” later called “the shot glass that was heard around the world.” It’s impossible to know how true that story is, or the rumor that she also threw a brick at a cop, but multiple people corroborated that she climbed a lamppost and dropped a bag, packing a brick inside, onto a cop car and smashed its windshield.

Marsha joined the Gay Liberation Front and took part in the Christopher Street Liberation Day rally on June 28, 1970, the first anniversary of the uprising and the first official Pride celebration. She later helped start STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with her friend Sylvia Rivera. Though fellow activists wanted to minimize the presence of drag queens and other (what we’d now call) transgender people, Marsha stayed at the forefront, despite ongoing battles with mental illness and the difficulties of living on the street.

In 1992, shortly after that year’s Pride parade, Marsha’s body was found floating in the Hudson River. Though police quickly ruled it a suicide, her friends and other community activists never believed it.

The ongoing fight to find out what exactly happened to Marsha is examined in the fascinating 2017 Netflix documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson by David France (How to Survive a Plague), which elevates Marsha (and Sylvia, for that matter) to folk-hero status while also exploring the theories surrounding her death. Though it courted a great deal of controversy when it was released, the film succeeds in its primary mission of helping ensure (for now, at least) that Marsha and her contributions to the queer rights struggle would not be forgotten.

“Marsha P. Johnson could be perceived as the most marginalized of people — black, queer, gender-nonconforming, poor,” Susan Stryker, an associate professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona, said in Marsha’s overdue New York Times obituary. “You might expect a person in such a position to be fragile, brutalized, beaten down. Instead, Marsha had this joie de vivre, a capacity to find joy in a world of suffering. She channeled it into political action, and did it with a kind of fierceness, grace and whimsy, with a loopy, absurdist reaction to it all.”

Marsha gets a name check in Wigstock: The Movie, a vivacious 1995 documentary about The Lady Bunny‘s NYC drag festival held on Labor Day for about 20 years. In a scene shot just a couple of years after Marsha’s death, RuPaul is interviewed in a diner between performances at the festival about the festival’s move to the Hudson River piers, not far from Marsha’s final resting place:

Ru kind of uncomfortably chuckles when she passes along the rumor that Marsha had been murdered, like she’s not wanting to make a formal accusation, but she gives Marsha credit for throwing that first brick at Stonewall.

It’s probably Ru’s presence that helped get Wigstock mainstream attention when it was released. At the time, Ru was still flying high on the success of “Supermodel (You Better Work)” and was easily the most famous drag queen in the country — though, clearly, drag queens hadn’t yet taken over pop culture like they have since the 2009 premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Already, though, you can see Ru being totally on brand, as in some stage banter when she encourages everyone to try drag themselves: “You really get to see this part of them that you knew was there. … It’s like the picture becomes clear as to who their personality is and who they are as a person. It’s really amazing. That’s why I recommend that everyone, and I mean everyone within the sound of my voice: Go out, get a wig, a pair of heels — pantyhose, if you will — and strut yourself, girlfriend.”

But Ru’s just one of many famous faces popping up in Wigstock: Bunny, of course, along with Deee-Lite, Debbie Harry, Crystal Waters, Lypsinka, Candis Cayne and, in a sensationally audacious performance, Leigh Bowery.

As you see, the acts at Wigstock are generally less mainstream-friendly than you see from Ru’s girls (though, to their credit, they are still defiantly daring to be themselves in a world that’s still only catching up to that). The greater diversity of mainstream and experimental acts kind of makes this documentary feel like a mix of Drag Race and the Boulet Brothers’ Dragula, and it still serves as a good reminder that drag is transgressive at heart.

Wigstock folded in 2005, but Bunny brought it back in 2018, as seen in the HBO documentary Wig, also recommended viewing, though keep in mind that it’s a little bitter about the mainstreaming of drag and doesn’t do as good of a job exploring what’s new and fresh about the current generation.

Up next: Portrait of a Lady on Fire and All About My Mother

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