The ‘no-fucks given elder’ reflects on her time at the Stonewall Riots, the West’s new wave of anti-transness, and her long-awaited new memoir Miss Major Speaks
“People put so much into seeing Stonewall as a symbol,” says Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, the community leader and Black trans revolutionary, now in her 80s, who was there on the day of the 1976 riots, often considered the birth of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. For her, Stonewall just felt like another of the many police raids on the gay bars of New York’s East Village. Or at least it did, until those in the Stonewall Inn that night decided to resist. Riot cops showed up, and suddenly everyone was fighting. “The night of Stonewall is how people talk about it,” she says, “but it was more like a week.” Of all the “crap” she’s heard over the years – “someone threw a high heel” or “someone threw a molotov cocktail”, she can’t comment, because the whole incident was mayhem. But one thing is for sure, she says: “The fags took Stonewall from us before the firefighters could get a hose to put out the fires all through the Village.”
Miss Major’s new book, Miss Major Speaks, is full of memories and myth debunking like this. Over her five decades and more in activism, she has been part of a series of organisations defending trans people’s right to exist, but her most impactful work is perhaps the interpersonal work of being just a phone call away to other Black trans women who, like her, have faced systemic injustices from employment discrimination to a heightened risk of incarceration, as well as the immediate threat of street-level violence – especially in the US, a country where dozens of Black trans women are killed every year. “Mother” doesn’t quite cut it; Major has played the role of lifeline and saviour to countless trans daughters.
The book takes the shape of a series of conversations with her colleague, the writer Toshio Meronek, who is also an activist (focusing on housing and queer politics in the Bay Area) and the producer of the podcast Sad Francisco. “Writing a memoir-type book was never on my radar – people had asked before but a book felt like it was so final. I’m not done yet! So I thought, if they’re going write a book about me they can do it when I‘m dead,” Major tells Dazed. “Toshio, he had been there working with me for ten years and I knew he was a writer and I knew he wouldn’t take my words and try to twist them into something else. He’d asked me and finally, I said yes.”
Their conversations wind from her early days growing up in Chicago, to living in New York City at the time of Stonewall, to her later years in California moving between San Diego and the Bay Area, working partly in HIV care. It tracks her frontline learnings from community work, sex work, and her experiences of incarceration both in prison and in mental health facilities – all of which are recounted in her “take no prisoners” tone. She is what writer and trans rights activist Janet Mock calls a “no-fucks given elder”. Here, Major reflects on the books and some of the lessons within its pages.
You’ve been there in the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement since it began. In your early years as an activist, you joined the Mattachine Society in the 1950s. In the book, you’re pretty damning of them. Why did you join, and were there good and bad things about the organisation?
Miss Major: I joined because the guy who talked to me [and encouraged me to join] was fine. It’s funny, all that I did to get close to guys, and I’m in a space right now where there’s nothing but lesbians around me. [Major’s closest friends in Little Rock, Arkansas, and people who work with her happen to be lesbians.]
There were good things about the Mattachines… they wanted the world to understand what gay people were, that it wasn’t something to be afraid of. The bad thing was they tried to assimilate us and make us act straight. That just didn’t make any sense to me. It might have worked for gay people then, but for trans women, a lot of us are bigger than your average bear. I’m sorry, but some of us you can see coming from a mile away [and this was a time when even fewer people had access to hormones]. So assimilation just wasn’t on the table. And I was there in the Chicago chapter – I heard other chapters were more or less hell-bent on assimilating.
Overall it wasn’t for me. But the basic idea was wonderful. If it had really taken hold back then, we might be in a different place today.
There’s a chapter in the book ‘Stonewall didn’t happen’ – can you explain what you mean by this phrase?
Miss Major: For a lot of us girls, Stonewall didn’t change a thing – it was just another night downtown because the raids were so frequent. Then afterwards, it’s not as if they decided the next week that we should be given jobs, or the ability to get a degree, or suddenly we have a show on Netflix, you know what I mean? So what did it change? They’re still murdering us today; police will still use any excuse to arrest us if they see us in public and decide they want to give us a hard time. That’s what I mean when I say Stonewall might as well not have happened. Of course, people like to have a symbol and that’s fine. But what we were fighting for, what we were fighting against, there’s a lot that still needs to change.
The book – and your experiences – demonstrate the idea that you need to “appear trans to be trans” to medical professionals. For instance, you talk about the doctor who wanted trans girls to look a certain way before he’d treat them, which doesn’t take into account access to hormones (particularly during incarceration) and is also bound up with race. This still exists today, while some trans people think people who do not medically or physically transition are almost undermining those who do… what do you think about this?
Miss Major: Younger girls can spend so much of their time and their paychecks on what they’re going to have done. Baby, I’m here to tell you that we’re never done. You can keep tweaking and nipping and tucking all you want, but it comes down to being OK with who you are underneath. So in a sense, it’s a human thing more so than a medical or a physical thing.
People need to accept you at your word. If you feel you are a transgender woman, you’re trans. Whether or not you have tits, it doesn’t matter. It’s about what you feel inside and know to be true.
“Younger girls can spend so much of their time and their paychecks on what they’re going to have done. Baby, I’m here to tell you that we’re never done. You can keep tweaking and nipping and tucking all you want, but it comes down to being OK with who you are underneath” – Miss Major
One thing that recurred throughout the book and stood out to me is not only your efforts personally and professionally to care for people living with HIV, but also trans people’s contribution to that more broadly. Could you say more about this contribution? It also feels like we still hear little about it, except maybe on Pose.
Miss Major: I think people don’t know how much us girls and a lot of the lesbians – transgender or otherwise – don’t get their due. We were there when nobody wanted to touch the guys who came down with the disease. I think it would be wonderful if more people knew. At the time, there was such a stigma against the virus and then there was the stigma against us... Don’t even start with the trans sex workers who ended up with the disease. And so a stigma on top of a stigma on top of a stigma, you can guess why we didn't make the honorable mentions as far as that history goes.
I got together a little group of gurls – mostly ones I knew from the Village – and we started going into the apartments of guys who got the disease, and whose family and friends were too afraid to touch them. Because in the beginning, nobody knew how it was spread. We were sex workers, not nurses, but we knew how to care for someone – 90 per cent of the job of a sex worker is listening, so we listened to what the guys needed and knew what to do. We called it Angels of Care.
What is the importance of building houses or sanctuaries for gurls?
Miss Major: Ceyenne [Doroshow] is doing it in New York and I think it’s wonderful. Toshio found out about a place in the Netherlands, outside Amsterdam, where some of the kids who didn’t feel welcome at home started a place for themselves. They called it House of Major.
Before there were grants or agencies or nonprofits, we had to make them on our own houses for gurls with no money. We made it work. You have to listen to what people need and go from there. [We came up with] a blueprint that’s a place to relax, relieve your mind and meditate. Most of my gurls are just trying to survive, so a place to rest and get yourself together is what gurls need sometimes. They don’t necessarily need classes and shit – sometimes they just need to spend a few days away from the rut they’re in and think about how they’re going to get out of it. And then they need to go back and fight like hell.
You have inspired and given hope to a great number of people over the years, are there any activists or community organisers who had this impact on you?
Miss Major: Big Black, he’s in the book. He was my neighbour in solitary at Dannemora prison, a Black Panther and an organiser of the Attica Prison Riot. He was a mentor to me and to Ceyenne Doroshow. He taught me we all struggle, and it doesn’t do any good to spend too long thinking about who is suffering more or less if you want to get some kind of movement off the ground. He taught me the prison industrial complex is like an octopus – it catches Black people and immigrants, homeless people and poor kids, and many other working-class people. If we don’t save all of us, none of us are saved.
Also, Alex Lee who started TGIJP – The Transgender Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project – back in 2003, he’s one who doesn’t get his due. The TGIJP is a San Francisco-based nonprofit organisation working to end human rights abuses against trans, intersex and gender-variant people, particularly trans women of colour in California prisons and detention centres. When I was working with them it was more like a family than a nonprofit, it was something that was for the gurls.
You write about ‘gays and lesbians not giving a shit about trans people until five years ago’ – can you expand on that? How does that feel to you?
Miss Major: Some of them do get it but unfortunately, others don’t. If I knew how to change it, I would, but at this point I could live to 150 and not know the answer. I would presume that some of it has to do with them feeling like they’re at the bottom of the totem pole. So they search far and wide to find the only people who could possibly fit beneath them on the totem pole. So… us.
It feels horrible and you can’t help it, so a lot of us have had to make a habit of sleeping with one eye open when there’s a gay guy in the room. It’s not like this just started. Marsha [P Johnson], Sylvia [Rivera], when they were running themselves ragged and trying to do something for this quote-unquote LGBTQ+ movement and the guys were tearing them to pieces… if these are my allies, well, I’ll take my chance with my enemies because at least my enemies might have enough decency to stab me in the front.
“We all struggle, and it doesn’t do any good to spend too long thinking about who is suffering more or less if you want to get some kind of movement off the ground”
What can gays and lesbians can actually do to support trans people more in the face of this disillusionment with surface-level support… You mentioned earlier ‘there’s a lot that still needs to change’ – what’s most urgent?
Miss Major: Talk to us… ask us what we need. 99 per cent of the time it’s going to be the things that all of us need, like a roof over our heads, and some food to fill us up.
The wave of anti-transness that‘s taking over the country here in the US, I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. I’d like to blow them all up, the people doing it, but we can’t so we hold on to the fact that last time they tried to blame us for every damn thing, we had fewer allies by our side. They think they can kill us? They can’t get everyone who we love, and everyone who loves us.
Miss Major Speaks is now out in paperback with Verso