Feminist Hero Friday: Transgender Activist Miss Major
by Abaki Beck
“I’m old, I’m bitter, and I’m angry. Y’all didn’t treat us right then and ya’ll don’t treat us right now.”
Happy Black History Month! Our Feminist Hero this week is Miss Major Griffin-Gracy (often just referred to as Miss Major), a renowned transgender rights and prison abolition activist. She was involved in the Stonewall Riots, which helped catalyze the mainstream LGBTQ rights movement, and for decades, she has fought for the empowerment, safety, and rights of transgender women of color. She is bold in her vision for justice and unafraid to call out bullshit - especially the regular exclusion of transgender rights in social justice platforms and in the mainstream gay community.
Miss Major was born in Chicago, and lived there until college. When she was kicked out of two colleges for expressing her gender, she moved to New York City. During her life, like many transgender people of color, Miss Major was a sex worker and incarcerated. Transgender people have higher incarceration rates than the rest of the population, and often face brutal transphobic violence within prison. Of this systemic violence, Miss Major noted:
“We can’t get jobs, we’re not allowed to go to school, we’re unemployable, so how do you pay rent? Buy food? Get clean clothes – new clothes? We have to live outside the law! So we’ve adjusted to that and we’re doing it. Don’t persecute us because you forced us to do this, you know? Back up off of us and change these laws and work with us.”
Today, she continues to be an advocate for prison abolition and for finding solutions based on harm reduction, not incarceration. She currently serves as the Executive Director Emeritus of the Trans GenderVariant Intersex Justice Project, an organization which works to empower transgender women of color and their families who are are or were incarcerated or are targeted by the police.
Miss Major has been involved with community organizing and activism for decades, and was present at Stonewall bar the night the riots against police started in 1969. At the time, it was common for police to patrol gay and trans bars, attempting to assert control over them. For example, Miss Major noted that when police came to a bar, people of the same gender would have to sit a certain distance from each other, stop dancing with each other; essentially, the police forced them to perform or assimilate to hetersexuality. That night at Stonewall was not planned, but instead was out of exhaustion of police violence against the queer community. When police came, no one moved away from each other, and instead fought back. It lasted three nights and was in many ways a turning point for the LGBTQ rights movement. However, Miss Major argues that the imagery and history of Stonewall was whitewashed and co-opted by gay people, though it was primarily trans people of color who were present during the riots. For example, a 2015 film called Stonewall, about the riots, cast a white cis-gender gay man as the main character - in fact, as the first person to incite the police. This kind of exclusion is not only silencing but dangerous. Miss Major said:
“Today we still as transgender people do not get the respect from the gay community that we deserve. It gets annoying that these gay people are like ‘Oh, Stonewall! And faint and all this shit. What about the transgender people who were there, and fighting? We were there! Acknowledge that. I’m glad that I’ve finally gotten to an age where I can just tell them to fuck off.”
She discussed her memories of the Stonewall Riots in this Trans Oral History Project interview:
Most recently, Miss Major starred in a documentary titled MAJOR! The film, which has won 19 best documentary awards and has been shown at over 60 film festivals. It is currently making it’s way through a tour of community centers, prioritizing screenings at organizations run by trans women of color. The film aims to be “an investigation into critical issues of how the Prison Industrial Complex represents a wide-spread and systematic civil rights violation, as well as a historical portrait of diverse LGBT communities, told with love and humor, and personalized through the lens of a vibrant and charismatic woman.”
Today, we celebrate Miss Major’s relentless fight for justice and safety for transgender communities. Transgender rights - and the specific, intersecting violences facing transgender people - must be included in a more than superficial way to truly support community justice. This means going beyond representation in media and recognizing that fighting against police brutality and incarceration - indeed, the criminalization of transgender existence - is urgent and necessary.