The Independent Filmmaker Working To Fight Erasure

Director Tourmaline on telling nuanced stories from the transgender community
September 11, 2018, 4:15pm
Photo by Miranda Barnes

Activist, writer, and filmmaker Tourmaline, formerly known as Reina Gossett, makes work to highlight the stories of people who have traditionally been pushed into the background. Her subjects and inspiration are almost exclusively transgender women and men whose everyday acts make a big impact. These include Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender activist and the subject of Tourmaline’s most recently released film, Happy Birthday, Marsha! , and Miss Major, a transgender activist who helped pioneer the modern trans movement, featured in Tourmaline’s 2016 animated short, The Personal Things.


We asked Tourmaline about trans visibility, her recently published anthology, and why small acts of resistance are so important.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo by Miranda Barnes

On the erasure of Marsha P. Johnson and other trans activists
Historical erasure of trans people and trans activists is part of the transphobia we must resist daily. I remember hearing bits and pieces about Marsha and her early activism, and I also saw some of the amazing photos of her taken by Diane Davies and published in old issues of Drag Magazine. Later, I came into contact with footage of her that [LGBTQ activist] Randy Wicker had taken over the years—much of which I’ve shared on my blog. Randy often discussed how Marsha’s legacy was nearly lost to history. More and more, people are recognizing the historical erasure of marginalized lives as a form of violence to be organized against, and that no one is disposable—certainly not people navigating deep and multiple forms of oppression.

On the community effort surrounding Happy Birthday, Marsha!
The end credits of Happy Birthday, Marsha! are massive because it’s been such a community-supported endeavor. For years, I received messages from people who knew Marsha who were eager to share their stories. Hundreds of people donated time and money to our production, researchers led me to obscure archives, friends of Marsha’s welcomed me into their homes, and Janet Mock—who had me on her show So POPular! in 2015—publicly supported us. The debut screening at Brooklyn Academy of Music and the upcoming shows at The Kitchen in New York City both sold out in less than a day; that is overwhelming and humbling. After such a long journey, it’s an incredibly moving experience to screen Happy Birthday, Marsha! to the world.

Photo by Miranda Barnes

On her anthology Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility
Trap Door came from friends and peers asking questions about visibility and how it might act as a trap: Why aren’t trans women [profiting financially more] when Hollywood-led trans stories are making coin at the box office? Why have we seen a dramatic rise in violence against trans and non-binary people of color at the same moment when they’ve started to see increased visibility onscreen and in electoral politics? This is a really urgent matter. Trap Door brings together some brilliant people from the trans community to answer those questions.

"I wouldn’t be a filmmaker and artist if representation wasn’t such a powerful tool."

On visibility and representation
Visibility is complicated and often filled with contradictions. I wouldn’t be a filmmaker and artist if representation wasn’t such a powerful tool. I want Pose [the FX network show with the largest transgender cast to date] to win all the Emmys and Golden Globes! When Lorna Simpson profiled me in Vogue, I was touched and honored that an artist whose work deeply influenced mine wanted to write about me. And it meant a lot to me for my work to be covered by the New York Times—even as I was I was being evicted from my apartment. The power of being reflected by big platforms has had a huge impact on me.

On the importance of small, personal acts of resistance
What I draw on most in my work happens in the shadows, rather than in the gaze of large institutions or the state. Small personal acts of resistance and refusal—like Miss Major changing the gender on all of her IDs back to female to male, or Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera creating a care collective for homeless trans women—have created space for us to come together and support one another. At a time of heightened violence, just by hanging out with each other and taking care of each other, we are doing revolutionary work. We are modeling the world we want to actually live in.

25 Strong is a new series highlighting people who have broken barriers and changed culture in 2018. Created with Reebok.