Johnson, a groundbreaking LGBTQ activist, was found dead in 1992 and her case remains open
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, who was part of a community advisory group for the film.
“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 [that] 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 with N.Y.C. police.
According to the medical examiner’s office, Johnson drowned. But the manner of her death is still “undetermined” after, France says, police initially described it as a suicide — which her friends and family reject. (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.
Hours before her body was found in 1992, according to Cruz, Johnson was reportedly seen fleeing two men down 22nd Street toward the water.
France and Cruz spent months digging into what really happened to to her, and their work — which they say has been turned over to the FBI — raises the possibility that she was targeted by the mafia or rogue police 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.”
Though he says she had a history of mental health issues, he believes Johnson was chased to her death in the water — an act he likens to murder. Still, he acknowledges how difficult such a belief is to prove.
With Netflix’s new film, however, Johnson’s story will reach millions, which is its own comfort.
“You’re never going to find out who killed [her],” Michaels says, “but you can keep the legacy going and make this world a better place.”