Why it’s important to remember that the Rosa Parks of the gay liberation movement was HIV positive

A 1970 photo of Marsha P. Johnson handing out flyers in support of Gay Students at NYU.
A 1970 photo of Marsha P. Johnson handing out flyers in support of Gay Students at NYU.
Image: Reuters/Diana Davies-NYPL/Handout
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She was the Rosa Parks of the gay liberation movement—a black, trans woman who stood as one of the vanguards of New York City’s Stonewall Riots.

Marsha P. Johnson should be regarded as an American icon. And in some regards she is—as highlighted in a new Netflix documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. The film explores her life and unseemly death in a riveting, hyper-sensational manner reminiscent of a true crime drama. But a close viewing of the documentary reveals a curious omission by the filmmaker, David France, regarding one of the most important aspects of Johnson’s life at the time of her death.

She was HIV positive.

Though it is fantastic to have a mainstream documentary on Johnson, France’s film has been met with significant criticism from within the LGBTQ community. For those unfamiliar with Marsha P. Johnson, she was known as the “Mayor of Christopher Street” in New York’s West Village neighborhood. When the gay liberation movement burst open in June 1969, Johnson was at ground zero—launching the Gay Liberation Front, and later in 1972 the first ever shelter for gay and trans youth: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) house, with Sylvia Rivera. Johnson was known as a spirited, kind, and caring person throughout New York City’s LGBTQ community. Throughout her life, she never shied away from standing up for equal rights. Therefore, it was an incredible shock to the community, when after missing for six days, on July 6, 1992, Johnson’s dead body was found floating in the Hudson River, by the West Village Piers. At the time of her death Johnson was 46 years of age.

The main criticism of the film, on which much has already been written, is that David France appropriated the idea and content of the film from artist Reina Gossett, who is herself a black, trans woman; and her collaborator, Sasha Wortzel. Gossett and Wortzel claim that instead of aiding them to obtain a platform to complete the film* that they had been working on, titled Happy Birthday Marsha, France took their ideas and used his platform to make the film himself. France has refuted this claim.* This is absolutely a problem, one that seems to repeat over and over again. However, more careful analysis of the documentary reveals that France omitted Johnson’s HIV status, as well. This is something that has significant harmful impacts on marginalized communities, where increased rates of HIV infection is a growing concern.

After viewing the film, one is left wondering why France, the director of the Oscar nominated HIV/AIDS documentary How to Survive a Plague, excludes the fact that at the time of her death, Johnson was living with HIV/AIDS, or that she was a member of the revolutionary HIV/AIDS activist group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), as an organizer and a marshal. This omission has significant implications. Via the erasure of this component of Johnson’s identity, France validates and sustains ignorance of the immense rise in HIV infection rates within minority communities, in the US.

In considering the above, I am reminded of the iconic protest poster, created in 1986, by the Silence = Death collective. The poster was intended to raise the public’s consciousness regarding the HIV/AIDS crisis. Due to its concise composition, via the use of a fuchsia triangle, on a jet-black background, with the words Silence = Death, written in large, white, sans-serif font, the poster communicated an urgent message. During WWII, the Nazi’s had used an upside down, light pink, triangle to mark sexual and gender nonconforming persons within concentration camps. By using symbolism steeped in historical significance, the collective successfully alerted viewers to the fact that their government was idly standing by, and apathetically watching, as thousands of people perished from AIDS—just as they had, during the onset of the Holocaust.

In our current social landscape, many historically marginalized groups are refusing to stay silent in the face of adversity. As a result, we are witnessing some minor shifts within our cultural landscape. Most significantly against men who have used their positions of power to inflict psychological, physical, or sexual harm and abuse. Speaking out works, to draw attention to the problem. But, what does staying silent do? To answer this question, I would like to draw on an analogy from my day-to-day context as an educator.

Each time I hear a derogatory term uttered by a student, I have a choice, to say something, or to stay silent, in the face of the utterance. If I choose to stay silent, by default, I demonstrate complacency and approval. If I selectively address certain terms, and not others, I demonstrate that certain forms of discrimination are not ok, while others are.  However, as an educator, I have a responsibility, and the trust of the public, for the safety and validation of all students. As such, I must make the difficult decision to address all derogatory language that I hear. In my view, to be silent in the face of injustice, is to give permission for its existence, resulting in promotion of the injustice.

Many gains have been made in the field of HIV/AIDS as a result of courageous folks speaking out, via their actions and activism, during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s. It is because of their efforts, that HIV is no longer a death sentence. Though there is no vaccine or cure, significant scientific achievements have been made in the prevention and treatment of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Three of the most significant of these are:

  • Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), which is the consumption of daily antiretroviral medicine (ART), to prevent HIV infection.
  • Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), effective within a 72-hour window, is the consumption of ART, to prevent infection, post potential exposure to the virus.
  • The adoption of Prevention Access Campaign’s scientifically informed message, “Undetectable = Untransmittable,” (U=U) by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC). The message of U=U is that HIV-positive individuals, who are on successful ongoing ARV treatment, and are able to sustain an undetectable viral load (meaning, less than 200 copies/ml of the virus are present in their blood), are no longer at risk of transmitting HIV.

As significant as these achievements are; it is also imperative to note that not everyone has equal access to HIV prevention and treatment options. HIV/AIDS related stigma is immensely pervasive. HIV nondisclosure is heavily criminalized. And, as the CDC notes, though overall HIV infection and diagnosis rates have declined, “progress has been uneven.” In fact, rates have increased amongst black and Latin gay and bisexual men.

Inaccessible treatment and prevention options, stigma, criminalization, and increased infection rates among marginalized communities, do not happen in a vacuum. These injustices are directly tied to the erasure of HIV/AIDS’s impact from narratives of persons like Marsha P. Johnson. I wish I could give David France the benefit of my doubt, and say, via his omission, he did not intend to deem the topic of HIV, and the struggles that Marsha P. Johnson would have faced, as a black, trans woman with HIV, as insignificant and unworthy of addressing in his documentary. However, given that he has previously directed a documentary on the topic of HIV/AIDS, and the harm he has allegedly inflicted on a trans person of color, I cannot extend him such an offering.

Since 1988, December 1 has been designated as World AIDS Day, by the World Health Organization. The day is intended to commemorate and raise awareness of the impact of HIV/AIDS throughout the world. I urge us to take up the call, put forth by Silence = Death, over thirty-one years ago by recognizing that HIV/AIDS is still a major problem within our society. And, due to the erasure of accounts and narratives, especially those of HIV-positive persons of color, and increasing loss of LGBTQ cultural and community spaces, HIV/AIDS is progressively becoming a disease that many have to work through in isolation.

*Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article omitted a phrase and a link that would have made clear that Gossett and Wortzel’s claim about France’s role in their project is their own, and not that of the author of this article, and that France refutes their claim. Additionally, the film Happy Birthday Marsha was incorrectly called a documentary.