Was LGBTQ Icon Marsha P. Johnson Killed Because of Her Activism?
Despite the years of adversity faced by self-described drag queen and activist Marsha P. Johnson — a participant in the Stonewall riots and an icon of New York City’s LGBTQ community — she is mostly remembered for her joy.
“She threw off all convention and re-invented life, really, around unhindered self-expression,” says filmmaker David France, who met Johnson soon after he moved from the Midwest to N.Y.C., where she was a “fixture” of the gay scene.
A familiar face along Manhattan’s Christopher Street, where she was often wreathed with flowers, Johnson is regarded as a key figure in the political movement for LGBTQ equality, catalyzed by the Stonewall riots in the summer of 1969.
She and friend Sylvia Rivera founded STAR, one of the world’s first trans-rights organizations, in 1970. And, according to France, both were initial members of the Gay Liberation Front following Stonewall.
“There was a generosity and capaciousness in both of them that they gave to people who they perceived as less fortunate than themselves,” says University of Arizona professor Susan Stryker, author of Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution.
“By speaking out against the power structures that tried to hold them down and being fabulous in the process — fierce and fabulous and unafraid — and speaking truth to power and taking care of those members of their community they saw being less fortunate than themselves, that is why they had a legacy,” Stryker says. “Because they spoke out. Because they held their turf.”
So how did Johnson end up floating dead in the Hudson River?
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It’s a question without a known answer: More than 25 years after Johnson’s body was pulled from the water on July 6, 1992, France tells PEOPLE the case remains inactive at the New York Police Department.
According to the medical examiner’s office, Johnson drowned, though the manner of her death is still “undetermined,” after police initially described it as a suicide. (Detectives were not available to discuss the investigation and a spokesman with the district attorney’s office declined to comment.)
But Johnson has not been forgotten: On Oct. 6, Netflix will release France’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, a documentary (exclusively previewed above) which follows Victoria Cruz, a retired counselor with the Anti-Violence Project, as she examines the case anew. In the film, Cruz seeks out witnesses and friends and digs through old documents in her search for the truth.
“We didn’t know what to expect or who was going to answer the door,” says Cruz, 71, of making the film. “But you got to do what you got to do if you want the story told.”
France, 58, tells PEOPLE the unsolved mystery weighed on him personally: He had originally been assigned to cover Johnson’s death in 1992, while working as a reporter at The Village Voice, but was pulled away while writing about the HIV/AIDS crisis.
“The case went cold and no one had gone back to look at it,” France says.
He and Cruz spent months digging into what really happened to Johnson, and their work — which they say has been turned over to the FBI — raises the possibility that she was targeted because of her activism or else may have been the victim of various anti-LGBTQ forces.
The documentary expands on this idea, using Johnson’s death so long ago to illustrate enduring violence against transgender people, especially those of color.
“Who is really to blame for these murders?” says Grey’s Anatomy actress Sara Ramirez, who executive-produced the film. “Could it be that we as a society are ultimately to blame?”
Al Michaels, Johnson’s nephew, tells PEOPLE his family grieved by “trying to get justice for Marsha.”
He says he believes she was chased to her death in the water — an act he likens to murder — but acknowledges how difficult such a belief is to prove.
With Netflix’s new film, however, Johnson’s legacy will reach millions, which is its own comfort. He says, “You’re never going to find out who killed , but you can keep the legacy going and make this world a better place.”