13 Legendary Transgender Pioneers on Survival, Resilience, and Joy
Zackary Drucker asks Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Victoria Cruz, Sandy Stone, and other trans forebears about their pasts and our future. Their stories, many of which have been on the margins of society, are a guide to survival.
Jackie Shane (L), photo courtesy of Jackie Shane; Sabel Samone-Loreca (C), photo by Bethany Mollenkof; Sheri Payne, photo by Chelsea Ross.
Read more from our Trans Legends oral history project, a growing archive of interviews with transgender icons and pioneers.
On a recent afternoon, I sat holding the hand of legendary glamour queen Alexis Del Lago on her 80th birthday, her jungle red nails shaped to points by the attendants at her Los Angeles nursing home. She was slipping into late-stage Parkinson’s, and started speaking to me mostly in Spanish, forgetting that she’s always spoken to me in English. She admired my ombre manicure— “topaz” she purred—and recalled a queen criticizing her once for having genteel hands. Alexis told the queen she would sink her nails into her throat. This is the last coherent anecdote she was able to communicate to me, an impression of feuding with another queen lingering to the end.
Three years ago, in another nursing home just down the block, I sat holding the equally legendary Holly Woodlawn’s hand in her final days. As her irregular breathing made me wonder if she would pass in my company, I felt a cavalcade of memories and energy pass between us, generating heat like a deck of cards being shuffled into my hand.
I met Holly and Alexis more than 10 years ago. The two were lifelong sisters and competitors; they were both born in Puerto Rico, and both migrated to New York as teenagers, then to Los Angeles later in life. Alexis moved to New York City in the late 1950s to study fashion, and Holly came by way of hitchhiking, a teenage runaway headed for Time’s Square in the early 1960s. While Holly’s journey is famously immortalized in the lyrics of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” and her legacy preserved in iconic underground films, Alexis’s influence is harder to locate in our sparsely recorded history of trans people. Rather than competing for Andy Warhol’s attention, Alexis opted for theatrical roles in John Vaccaro’s Theatre of the Ridiculous, Scott Whitman plays, and in Jack Smith films. She was a muse to French-American photographer Gilles Larrain and appears on the new cover of his photo book IDOLS, featuring trans legends from NYC in the 1970s.
In the wake of the devastating HIV/AIDS crisis, and long after the nihilistic days of Studio 54 or the high society hob-bobbing at the Factory, Holly moved to Los Angeles, and Alexis followed soon after. Alexis and Holly shared similar orbits, but fought constantly, going several years at a time without speaking. During one of those lapses, I recall seeing Alexis make a grand appearance at a birthday party of Holly’s, and, with the flash of a cape, disappearing minutes later.
Holly and Alexis’ paths were always crossing, even serendipitously landing them in the same nursing home for a brief period after Alexis took a fall. On one visit, I arrived to find Holly looking side to side, making sure the coast was clear, and in a hushed tone of exasperation spilling: "Alexis is here!” Yet when Holly fell ill, all the competitiveness dissolved: Alexis was banging down the door to get into her hospital room, to see her “Holly Lola.”
I recall Holly, in a rare moment of appreciation and with the full flair of an after-school special, musing, “YOU… are… our future.”
“You are our future,” I mirrored, wanting her to know that I could see my future self in her and that her survival enabled my survival.
As an artist and transgender woman of the next generation, building relationships with trans legends has given me the opportunity to project myself into the future and bestowed upon me strategies for survival that I could not have gotten anywhere else. These relationships remind me that I am just one of many in the generations-long struggle for the rights of trans, nonbinary, and gender diverse people. If I’m fortunate to live to an advanced age, I hope that a young person will be by my side, so I can look into their eyes and see that our work continues; that the sacrifices we made and the constant obstacles to our well-being were for the greater good of our people; that we paid it forward into the future.
With this initial installment of Broadly’s Trans Legends oral history project, which I’ve led as a contributing editor to the site, we are shining a light on trans resilience by gathering stories and wisdom from 13 trans women who have been witness to—and key characters in—decades of LGBTQ history. By connecting across generations, we become time travelers, casting light on our own possible futures, and feeling the reverberations of our pasts. And amid the very real threats and dangers that trans people face, we remind ourselves that our stories are not merely ones about death and violence.
Because Transgender Day of Remembrance observes the murder of almost entirely trans women of color, for this feature, I chose to interview trans femmes who could speak to survival. All have seen lives fraught with pain, and many have seen sisters lost to violence. Through community and perseverance, they have made it through—but not everyone is so lucky. Their stories, many of which have been on the margins of society, are a guide for survival.
Some legends I sought were retired and turned down being interviewed because they were no longer interested in public life. One legend, whom I met through my grandmother Flawless Sabrina, spoke to me at length but did not want to be named or featured in this piece because a young trans woman of color had been murdered in her neighborhood, and she was wary of being outed and targeted herself.
As I researched this project, I wound up with almost 100 names of trans women spread across the United States. These interviews are the tip of the iceberg.
Whether we know the names of our predecessors or not, they are touching us, they are within us, infusing our DNA with strength, celebrating our every victory, and reinforcing us through every injustice.
Sometimes I hear the faint verses of “Walk on the Wild Side” while rolling my shopping cart through a grocery store or sitting in a doctor’s office. Lou Reed‘s baritone voice narrating my Aunt Holly’s inception: “Holly came from Miami FLA, hitchhiked way across the USA, plucked her eyebrows on the way, shaved her legs, then he was a she. She said ‘hey babe, take a walk on the wild side…” People around me are unaware of who Holly Woodlawn was, let alone that this song about a trans pioneer was written almost 50 years ago. Whether we know the names of our predecessors or not, they are touching us, they are within us, infusing our DNA with strength, celebrating our every victory, and reinforcing us through every injustice.
Below, read quotes from each of our 13 interviews, which will be released in full throughout the rest of 2018.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is a Stonewall veteran civil rights advocate from Chicago who has confronted the institutionalization and imprisonment of transgender women throughout her life. Miss Major moved to NYC in the early 1960s, and was a sex worker for years for survival. In New York, she met Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. But Miss Major wasn’t around for the years following the Stonewall riots; she was sentenced to five years in prison after an altercation with the police. Miss Major has spent forty years in activism, fighting against the prison system, racism, and transphobia in the United States. She is an award winning leader in social justice, and recently founded the organization House of Griffin-Gracy in Little Rock, Arkansas.
ON INTUITION: As an older person, I really have learned to follow those [instinctual] indications. Because I don’t know it all, and you have to trust in something. For me, it’s been a guiding light. When I haven’t listened, I end up in prison or beat up. So now when it says something, I go oh, okay and follow it.
Since I’ve been here [in Little Rock, Arkansas], it’s been absolutely wonderful. I feel as if I am in a position to be of benefit to my trans and gender nonconforming people who live in the South itself. It’s not just about Arkansas, it's about the entire South. Because the community down here is living in the late fifties, and this is 2018. A lot of the things that are going on on the coast—like New York or San Francisco, LA—these young ladies and young gentlemen here don't have a lot of those benefits, like they're not out in the daytime. They're not holding legitimate, tax paying jobs, because people aren’t hiring them.
So what I've done is I've started an organization down here that I got a non-profit status, so that I can help the girls, and train them, and teach them how to negotiate through this world and the society and maintain some modicum of safety and strength and resilience—so that we can resist the bullshit and we can rebel against the crap that is holding us down. We used to accept this crap of: We're not worthy, and we shouldn't exist, like this government is trying to push down our throats. So we've got to be bold, and we’ve got to reclaim who the fuck we are and let these people realize, before they came along, we were honored and worshipped and appreciated and adored. And if this world was going to get its act together, they have to support and put in the front to lead this revolution with the people who are the most oppressed, which is my Black transgender community.
Sabel Samone-Loreca’s journey from being diagnosed with HIV to becoming a leading advocate for people living with HIV/AIDs was long and unlikely. She moved to California in the early 90s, believing she had just three years to live. But Samone-Loreca survived, and turned her fierce compassion for others into activism. In California, she began a new chapter of her life, founding HIV support groups and working with ACT UP in San Francisco, while having several groundbreaking moments, like becoming the first out trans woman to be married in California. Her late husband Luis A. Loreca was a youth advocate, and died of cancer at 35 in 2005. Ms. Samone-Loreca is currently a Supervisor at Community Partners, a barista at Starbucks, and training for NSAM Certified Personal Trainer at EVERYBODY gym in Los Angeles.
ON SURVIVAL: I know it’s dark in them corners some days, I know you wanna close all the windows and doors and just be in the dark, but if you just wait and hold on, just a little longer, the light comes through. Like I said: I’ve had a Black president, I’ve had a woman run for president, I’ve had all these things in my life change, and manifest. I see all the kids—I get a chance to see the kids that I work with as a case manager. I’ve seen them grow and develop. Seeing them go through college and have that—ten years from now, it’s gonna be a whole different world for us.
ON RECOVERY: I was going to a program called WAR (Women Against Rape), and my doctor asked, “What can I do to make your life better? What can I do to make you happy?” I told him I wanted to transition, but I didn’t know what that meant and what that looked like. One day he made me sit down, and we looked at the computer screen, and we saw seven or eight types of hormones. He wrote me a script out for every one of ‘em. He said, “Now as long as you stay clean and you get your shit together, I’ll continue to write you a script.” I have never had a script cancelled.
Read Sabel Samone-Loreca's full interview here.
Judy Bowen is a transgender activist who started two transgender support organizations in New York City in the early years after the riots at the Stonewall Inn. But Bowen was raised in the South in a religious home, and worked as a reporter for an evangelical newspaper. She was unable to conceal her transgender identity in her youth, and found support from her mother after an attempted suicide. Bowen moved to New York after witnessing racist and transphobic violence in Knoxville. She worried that if she stayed, she would be killed. In New York, Bowen lived in Greenwich Village before the Stonewall riots, and found joy in a community filled with trans people. She was an organizer and community activist, as well as a patient of the famous pioneer of transgender medicine, Harry Benjamin. She eventually moved to Las Vegas and is a veteran of the rich trans history of NYC in the mid-twentieth century.
ON FRIENDSHIP: Well, I learned a lot from Marsha P Johnson. I was 5’4” at the time, now I’m 5’2”. Marsha was a big, tall, Black drag queen transsexual and she was not afraid. I used to watch her before I started talking to her. We were both virgos, she was born in 1945, and we would go and have coffee sometimes together, and we would talk about the police, and she just wasn’t afraid. In other words, we’re born with a reality that we should be able to express ourselves openly and freely without being punished, and it’s getting worse because of the president. You should have the right to be who you are and not ashamed of it.
ON ACTIVISM: The police were really, really bad. The first time I got arrested, I was at a club in Long Island, and I was running for a beauty contest, and the police raided the place and took everybody to jail. I had bruises that lasted three months. I lived on Christopher Street, just below the Stonewall, during the time when people were rising up and saying, “We’re not gonna take this anymore.” It was basically the trans [people] that were being hit the most by the police. That was my salvation. We moved between the Village to Times Square, which was really the big red light district. I was working in Times Square at a club called the Tango Room. [The Stonewall uprising] lasted for several nights, but it was just down the block. I could barely get to my apartment, it was two blocks away. I’ve always been an activist.
Chilli Pepper is a Chicago legend who professionally performed as a “female impersonator” for several decades. Pepper gained fame in the 70s as an early icon in the trans community. She was also a leader in HIV/AIDS advocacy in the 1980s, speaking on nationally broadcast talk shows like Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey.
ON LEGACY: If you're kind to each other—just trying to make it better for yourself and for the ones who come after you—that's all that you can do, really. If you're just kind and trying to put all that other stuff aside and just be friends and try to keep a peaceful life, it could be really gorgeous. For us, from the people who came before any of us, it was even tougher. [Our trans ancestors] made it gorgeous for us. They passed that on, we just don't know how much of it gets passed on. We're not aware of that. But I'm sure, for their time, they were going through a lot of heartaches and all that trying to be who they are. As time goes on, hopefully people or just this earth will let you be who you are. That's all you can ask for—to be allowed to live whatever your show is until the music stops.
Felicia “Flames” Elizondo is a San Francisco-based activist, historian, entertainer, diva, Vietnam War veteran, and long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS. She was a regular patron of San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria, the site of the historic 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot. She is featured in Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria, a 2005 documentary co-directed and produced by Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman.
ON COMMUNITY: There was an embarcadero right next to the YMCA [in San Francisco] where all the service men used to come and party. When you walked up Market Street, you would walk into the Tenderloin [District], and it was like La La Land. I mean, we could be who we were and not worry. That was where the girls used to wear the makeup, the hair—whatever needed to get.
I was there at a very young age, and my girlfriends—all those queens from San Jose—came to San Francisco and started being hair fairies. The only way that they could make money is by selling drugs or selling themselves, because they wouldn't hire us. You couldn't work in San Francisco because a lot of people would be jealous and out you. You know what I mean?
Compton's Cafeteria [in the Tenderloin District] was the center of the universe for us. It was a place where we could make sure that we had lived through the night, that we could see the friends. It was like a society club—cheap food, cheap coffee, cheap breakfast. Windows on both sides; on one corner of Taylor Street, and the other corner of Turk Street was nothing but windows. You could see who was coming in, who was coming out, and who was there and who wasn't. A lot of times ... Compton's was a revolving door.
Read our full interview with Felicia here.
Sheri Payne was born and raised in Chicago. Since the 80s, she has been a performer at Chicago’s legendary night club the Baton, which has been around since 1969. She is a pillar in her community, considered a mother to many.
ON SELF-ESTEEM: Talk to somebody if you feel insecure and don't think you know everything. That's my advice [for younger trans girls]. Don't think that you know everything, because you are young. We can teach you things, how to prevent some things, and be honest!
Girls, don’t take yourselves too seriously. If you aren’t going to transition all the way, embrace your fishiness and keep on movin! Be proud of the fact that people know you weren’t born as a girl. Nothing wrong with that! You should embrace it. I’m loving some of these young girls embrace the fact that they were born trans. That's who I am. So embrace this, stop running from it. I don't run from it.
Read our full interview with Sheri here.
Victoria Cruz grew up in Puerto Rico and Brooklyn, finding solace in the LGBT community in downtown Manhattan. She came of age in the NYC nightlife scene, and was friends with transgender civil rights leaders Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. In 2017, Cruz gained mainstream attention for her role in the documentary film, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, in which she investigates the troubling circumstances surrounding Johnson’s death. Cruz lived through the criminalization of cross-dressing and is a survivor of addiction and sexual violence. Her life experience eventually brought her to the Anti-Violence Project, where she began as a volunteer and eventually became a senior domestic violence counselor. Today she is retired, but continues to advocate for the transgender community and remains an outspoken activist fighting to end violence against transgender women of color.
ON RESISTANCE: In the 60s, you know, it was unheard of because if you got caught in drag, you got taken to jail, even though the next day it was thrown out of court. You understand? I was lucky enough that I was short and passed. And don’t forget, you weren’t allowed to give alcohol to homosexuals. That was the law.
You know that bar Julius [in New York City]? Back in the early ‘69, in May of ‘69, [they] had the “sip in.” They went into Julius, they said they were homosexuals and they wanted a drink. They called that the “sip in.” And then the next month, Stonewall happened. So, people were getting tired of that nonsense with the police and getting arrested when they raided bars and things like that. Don’t forget: the Black movement, and the women’s movement, was all up and going. And it was time for the gay movement to start.
Ceyenne Doroshow is a leader in advocacy, and the founder of the organization G.L.I.T.S., which provides holistic care to transgender sex workers. Doroshow, a lifetime New Yorker, sits on multiple boards for the LGBT community and speaks out on the lack of opportunity for trans women in society. Doroshow is the daughter of the late drag queen Flawless Sabrina (aka Jack Doroshow), and is the co-author of her own cookbook, Cooking in Heels. Doroshow has also worked in film, from the HBO series Oz, to iconic transgender documentaries, like Major!
ON REPRESENTATION: When you're faced against abuse, tell somebody. When you're finding an obstacle to make it through—and I mean make it through society, through school—reach out, educate yourself. As community, we need to uplift the younger generation to be everything we couldn't. That means I want to see images of us in everything. I want to see us in media, I want to see us as lawyers, doctors, judges, politicians, congressmen, there needs to be more reflections of us out here for us to be taken serious.
ON TRUTH: Every now and then, I would run into people that know me from childhood, and they would say, "Oh, I heard you were dead." Well who said that? “Your family.” And I'm thinking, what? I said, "Sweetie, I'm not dead. Apparently you see what I am." So that's why it was easier for me to be dead, than tell you the truth. I'm living in my truth.
Listen to a clip from Ceyenne Doroshow's interview, here.
Jackie Shane burst onto the scene as an R&B musician in the 1960s. After getting her start in music with a traveling carnival, she went on to release her album Any Other Way in 1967. Shane had been living as a woman since her teen years in the 1950s, when it was still illegal to cross-dress in many states. Her life story reads like a film: encounters with the mob, kidnapping, and a personal disappearance that left people thinking she was murdered for years. The last decade has seen an emerging interest in her life’s work. Shane currently lives in Nashville.
ON AUTONOMY: I let nothing get in the way, hindering my life. Nothing. I never have. ... You can’t change your nature, Zack, and as long as you follow your rules, going in your direction, you won’t have a problem. It’s when you allow those who would eat away at your foundation and make it crumble around you, that you lose. But as long as you can say to whoever, “This is my life, and I will live it the way that I choose, I’m not gonna tell you how you should live. I’m going to say to you, you do your thing, I do mine.” Even if we’re friends.
This is how I have lived, for as long as I can remember. I live with my convictions. I don’t cry and moan and kick and complain. I do what I feel I should do. Not what someone says I should do, but what Jackie knows is best for Jackie. And if you don’t know what is best for you—find out. Find out by pulling away from the crowd. As I’ve said to people, most people are carbon-copies. But until you have broke yourself from that flow of following the leader, and putting yourself in your own flow, you will never know who you are.
Read our full interview with Jackie Shane here.
Karina Samala is an award-decorated performer who commands the stage for transgender beauty pageants as well as an activist working for transgender equality in the United States. Today, Samala presides as President of the Board of Directors for the Imperial Court of Los Angeles—a chapter of one of the country’s oldest LGBT organizations, founded in 1965. She is also the producer of Queen USA and Queen of the Universe, two large trans beauty pageants. Samala also works in politics and advocacy, helping the LAPD to improve police interactions with trans people, and serving various LGBT community organizations, like the Transgender Advisory Board of West Hollywood.
ON RESILIENCE: We need to unite. We have to work with each other in order to survive, and there are a lot more of us out there than we think. For us to survive, we have to stick together. We should also be on the streets, to participate in demonstrations, so they know that we’re here and we’re working with them. Also, vote! Tell everyone to vote. We need everyone out there to help us! We need to honor transgender people. Especially all those who died; we must fight for them. We need to vote the right people into office who will help us. That’s very important. We have lots of work to do. We need to build a free world for everyone to be respected and to improve the quality of life and space for all transgender people.
Read our full interview with Karina here.
Sandy Stone is an academic theorist, author, and artist whose academic contributions to gender theory helped lay the foundation for the modern field of transgender studies. She is also an artist with roots in Olivia Records, a leading radical feminist organization and music collective of the 1970s. Stone’s role in Olivia Records became a major topic in 1979 when radical feminist Janice Raymond wrote The Transsexual Empire, one of the most infamous texts attacking transgender people. Stone was specifically mentioned and accused of dividing the women’s movement; her life was subsequently put in jeopardy, and in 1987 she wrote, The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-Transsexual Manifesto. Stone’s work dismantled the theory professed by Raymond, and was an inspiration to the transgender generation of the time. Today, Stone is a working academic in Texas and California.
ON SAFETY: As I began to explore further in a community of women, I ran into women circles and all-women groups who did other things. That was just as interesting. I discovered—of course as everybody knows now, but it was such a revelation then—that you could be a woman without stereotyping anything, without encountering traditional cis female culture at all. Particularly, when I got to Olivia [Records] and discovered that there were lesbian safe houses across the United States, and that you could travel from coast to coast and never encounter someone presenting as male, like a wonderful parallel subculture—or superculture. Everywhere. A rhizome all over the country. For a while, I inhabited that rhizome.
Listen to a clip from Sandy Stone's interview, here.
In the 1960s, Tiffany Arieagus was walking in civil rights marches with her mother. That experience gave her a sense of political purpose, and shaped the way that she perceived her role in the world. Arieagus is an internationally practiced entertainer, and has performed in South America, Canada, Mexico, and the United States, collecting nearly 50 titles in transgender beauty pageants. She has also worked in the film industry. As the supervisor for a housing case management program, today she serves communities living with HIV/AIDS. Arieagus continues to work in service of others, and sharing her lifetime of professional entertainment to the world.
ON AGENCY: You have a chance to change history; do it. You have a chance to make your life better; do it. But you can't just make your life better by making money, because you can have all the money in the world and be the loneliest person in the world. You can have all the money in the world and be unhappy. You can have all the money in the world and have to hide in your house because your neighbors won't let you out without gawking at you. So how change this? You stand up and you speak. You let your voice be heard. You help others to know they have the power, too, because it's holding hands, linking, talking, and spreading the word that there is power within, and power in numbers. And that's what I wish.
So many times we have gay pride parade, you have different events and you'll see the boys, the lesbians, the nonbinary, the youth; but when it comes to the girls, there's only a few. And [they’re] basically entertainers, because everybody else wants to be hidden under the radar. It doesn't matter how beautiful you are, how convincing you are. We cannot fool everybody. So let's not waste time trying to fool anybody. Let's be true to ourselves. That's coming from an old woman.
Read our full interview with Tiffany here.
Mia Yamamoto is a leading criminal defense attorney in California, with roots in the public defender’s office and a private practice since 1985. She was born in 1943 in a Japanese internment camp in Arizona, and later served in the Vietnam war before attending law school out of a desire to contribute to the civil rights movement. She has received numerous awards for her work and is recognized as an important legal advocate for LGBT people and marginalized racial groups.
ON SOLIDARITY: What I feel like what I have to do is be visible as possible, because we’re being targeted not just by bigots, but by the president of the United States. I’ve been in solidarity with the people he’s been targeting since he’s been targeting them. I’ve thought, I am Muslim, I am a Jew, I’m black, I’m a woman — anyone he’s been after. We aren’t late to the party. He’s been going after trans people lately, but he’s been going after other groups I identify with a lot longer. Those are the people I have to care about, because they don’t get cared about enough by the people who are privileged—who, you know, are able to make a living. They are struggling and are reliant on people like me to care about them and have the ability to advocate for them. … Like even any refugee that ends up at our border, they are our brothers and sisters in need. They are our responsibility and our obligation. Everyone of us who benefits [from] the joys of citizenship should be paying heed to the moral aspect of what it means to be American.
Read our full interview with Mia here.
Additional reporting by Diana Tourjée.