‘Heartbreaking’ story of transgender activist changed their life – Vincy Chan on Netflix’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
- Hong Kong non-binary transgender musician Vincy Chan Wan-hei recently watched Netflix documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
- The ‘heartbreaking’ film doesn’t ‘just comment on the lives of trans women of colour in New York but on what we as a society value generally’, they say
Netflix documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017), directed by David France, chronicles the life of the eponymous American transgender activist, as well as trans activist Victoria Cruz’s investigation into her suspicious 1992 death, ruled a suicide by police. It also highlights the continued violent death toll among trans women today, and the community’s struggles to get justice.
Vincy Chan Wan-hei, Hong Kong non-binary transgender musician, illustrator and founder of the Gamut Project, which focuses on community building for queer and trans people of colour, tells Richard Lord how it changed their life.
I saw it pretty recently. It had been on my to-watch list for a while, but I knew it was going to be pretty heavy. It took me a while to bite the bullet. At a time when I wasn’t going out much, I remember setting an afternoon aside to watch it, just in case I needed to take care of myself afterwards.
I think it was the Netflix algorithm that recommended it to me. I have a lot of similar documentaries saved.
I’d read a lot about Marsha P. Johnson’s work around Stonewall (Johnson was one of the leaders of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which had a transformative effect on the United States’ LGBTQ community) and helping trans sex workers, but I didn’t know much about the way she’d died.
For me, it isn’t just the way she died but the fact that the community is still trying to find justice for her years later. When we talk about justice, it’s easier to attain for some people than others. For a trans woman of colour, you’re very far from being able to achieve that.
When Victoria Cruz was doing her research, she didn’t receive help. It just goes to show that no matter how long ago it might have been or how many people are trying to bring cases to light, there are still certain sections of society that are denied justice.
I’m someone who isn’t directly affected by trans misogyny but have received what you might call splash damage from people who might have thought I was a trans woman. I got a sense of how terrible it can be for trans women.
It’s something that isn’t talked about enough. Maybe in Hong Kong, where we think about violence less as something that’s physical than somewhere like the US, it’s easy to forgot that this sort of violence still has material consequences for trans people.
In the film, we see (Johnson’s friend and fellow activist) Sylvia Rivera being homeless, even after all she’s done for the community. That was heartbreaking for me.
I see elders in our community in Hong Kong who, because they spend so much time advocating for the community, don’t have a stable income, and they’re struggling. It makes me sad, seeing that happening time and time again across space and time.