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Queer History Days - TWPride
From your friendly local gay historian, Fujai
June 10 - Miss Major
Born in Chicago, United States, in the early 1940s
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, known to most as Miss Major, and to thousands across the United States simply as "Mama," is one of the most important figures in modern United States Queer history. And yet she is so often left out of even our own stories due to prejudice against trans folks. She was at the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969, survived New York State prisons, and has lived her entire life fighting for the lives of Black trans women who have survived police violence and incarceration. She is truly one of the most incredible people on the planet. I don't have the words to describe what an inspiration she is, so I won't worry too much about it.
Born in Chicago, she has said that it was generally a nice place to grow up, with its drag balls and jazz bars, minus the fact that she couldn't go anywhere alone because of how she presented. After being kicked out of her parents' house, she moved to New York, and began working as a showgirl and sex worker, among other jobs, to pay rent. It was here that she learned how little the rest of society cared for her and her friends. She learned that the only way to stay safe was to protect each other, since no one else was going to do it for them. June 1969, she was hanging out at the Stonewall Inn, one of the relatively few bars that welcomed trans folks. That night, no one moved when the cops tried to clear the building out. As Miss Major said of the fight's suddenness, "all I know is all of a sudden you were fighting for your f*ucking existence."
That's not the event that truly opened her eyes, however. She was sentenced to five years in prison for theft, and was sent to Dannemora State Prison (a men's facility) in far upstate New York. It was here that she met Frank "Big Black" Smith and other leaders of the Attica prison riots. Big Black and the others were some of the few who acknowledged her for herself. He taught her not only how to give herself the respect she deserved, but changed the way she viewed the world. He encouraged her to learn about African-American history, the state of the world, and develop an understanding of the systems that kept Black, and especially Black trans folks oppressed in order to successfully oppose it. It was here that she truly began her career in caring for others.
After getting out of Dannemora, only to be sent back twice on fabricated parole violations, Miss Major moved to California, where she hoped to provide a better life for her son, whom she had with a long-term girlfriend. In San Diego and the Bay area, she grew and built communities to help incarcerated Black trans women escape the prison-industrial complex. Working with multiple organizations over three decades, she helped house, feed, clothe, find healthcare, provide emotional and financial support, and so much more to thousands trans folks—she became the mother that so few had.
The contributions Miss Major has made and is still making to both the broader trans community and the community in San Francisco cannot be overstated. She has spent most of her life as an unyielding fighter for the trans peoples' right to exist. In a country where the life expectancy of a Black trans woman can be as low as 35 (due to systemic racism and inequality, and one of the highest murder rates in the country), she has survived nearly 80 years and has built a community of love unlike any other. She has constantly and rightfully criticized the mainstream LGBT movement for shunning trans folks from the community and ignoring their struggles. While cis Queer folks were fighting for the right to marry, they paid little attention to trans folks' fight for the right to exist.
Above all of her accomplishments and legacies stands the incredible amount of love in Miss Major's heart. She has changed the lives of hundreds and thousands of people by simply telling them they are loved. Miss Major is, undoubtedly, one of the most important Queer elders out there. She's lived a long, hard live in the hopes that Black trans women today can live as long as she has.
I very highly recommend you learn more about Miss Major's life and her accomplishments. I also recommend you donate to her retirement fund if you're able to help her recover from a stroke last summer.
Some further resources on Miss Major:
Major! A documentary on Miss Major's life ($4 on Vimeo, may also be available at your local library) - I highly recommend you watch this film, it may just change your life.
TransVisionaries: How Miss Major Helped Spark the Modern Trans Movement interview with Them.
Trans Icon Miss Major: 'We've Got to Reclaim Who the F*uck We Are' interview with Vice.
Miss Major: The Bay Area's Trans Formative Matriarch from SFWeekly
Interviews from the Trans Oral History Project