This interview is part of Broadly's Trans Legends oral history project. Read more here.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is a Stonewall Uprising 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 out of necessity. In New York, she met Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, who played key roles in the Stonewall riots. 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, Arizona.
How did you discover Little Rock, and how did you end up living there?
The documentary [about my life, Major!] came out three years ago. They were showing it here, and there was a group of trans girls here who wanted me to come out. I try to go wherever my girls need me, so I came to meet them. After the documentary, there was such a nice aura and feeling to the city—which had nothing to do with the people or folks that I met.
As an ex-hooker and ex-convict and ex-this-and-that, I had certain rules that I had lived by ever since my release from prison. One of the interesting things about Little Rock was, when I got here, I didn't follow those rules like I typically do—little things like, I used to always sit with my back against the wall, or in a corner, so no one could sneak up on me behind me. Yeah, I got paranoid from the abuses that we suffer, you know, we don't want anybody to just run up on us trans people—being cautious like that. I've lived my life like that. Here, I went out to have a drink and stuff after the documentary and wound up sitting in the middle of the restaurant and didn't give it a second thought. When I got back to my hotel, it freaked me right the fuck out. I thought to myself, What the heck is your problem sitting in the middle of that goddamn restaurant?
When I got back in California, I thought, That was really weird that I came out here and did that two times for no reason. So I went back to spend a couple days to see what it’s really like, meet some people. One of my sons told me, “You’ve never tested the waters as long as I’ve been alive; you always just jump right on off the bridge.” So, that weekend, we both got in the car, and we drove here.
Wow, so that was four years ago?
We’ve been here three. It’s the powers that be. As an older person, I really have learned to follow those indications. 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, 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. The community down here is living in the late 50s, and this is 2018, you know, 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. They're not out in the daytime. They're not holding legitimate, tax-paying jobs, because people aren’t hiring them.
I've started an organization down here that 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 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. We've got to revolt, 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. If this world is going to get its act together, they have to support and put in the front to lead this revolution the people who are the most oppressed, which is my Black transgender community.
"We've got to revolt, 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."
You lived in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. You gravitated towards urban areas, which have always been the safest options.
[In cities,] we can be in public, but not be seen. It's a matter of, if we can't hide any longer—especially with this idiot running the country —we have to remain visible. They have to see us, they have to know that we're not going no-fucking-where, that we've been here ever since God made man and woman, and they have to get over it. I don't need their permission to exist, I exist in spite of them. I want you to train and teach and love on and create families within my community and gender non-conforming people, so that we can understand that we have a culture, we have a history, we have a reason to be here. We have a purpose. We're entitled to be loved, and seek happiness, and share that with the people that we care about. Blood isn't the only connection that we can have to one another. I want the younger members to understand that things haven't always been like this. I couldn’t go out in the daytime when I was younger and just do what I needed to do or walk safely through the streets. A lot of interesting things have happened over the years that have made it a little bit better. It's still not where it should be. We are still not accepted straight across the board—there are still hoops to go through. It's like, “Oh, if you put this on and you do this, then we’ll think about accepting you.” Bullshit! You accept me because of who I am and I'm breathing just like you are.
You've always been led by your intuition. We don't talk in the community enough about the importance of intuition. There are many circumstances in which, especially for trans women engaging in sex work, folks have to shut down their intuition. How has your intuition led your life?
You don't get into [listening to your intuition] enough whereby you are subjugated to it, like it’s running your life. You have to learn to take these things in stride and to utilize the things that are important to you and let go of the bullshit that isn't. Once we do that, we open up ourselves to the things in the universe that we have absolutely no concept about. We don't know everything, and this existence that we have doesn't have to be the only existence. One of the things that I thought about when I was looking at the sky: All that space, all those thousands of miles of stuff, and we're it? No, I don't think so.
It's like following the Bible, or religion, or people who get involved with cults. It's a matter of taking any of those things in stride and using the things about them that give you the strength to move forward, carry on, get up in the morning and feel as if, What a wonderful day it is that you're getting a chance to live again, to share and be a part of someone else's life—and to carry that on, move it forward, reach down and help people understand and learn who they are, who they can be, what things are possible and out there for them, and how to negotiate that and make it all worthwhile.
It's so interesting that you survived the 60s and 70s and feel like you're revisiting those earlier chapters of your life in Little Rock today. Do you feel like the obstacles are different now? This election especially illuminated how much of a divide there is between rural and urban America. How do we build bridges between trans folks with more influence and power in coastal cities and folks in places with less protection?
As a community, we have to get ourselves together first. You can't be a fractionalized group of people with the animosity and the pain and hurt that we go through and put it on another transgender person because we don't have the ability or can't get to the people who are doing the oppressing. Once we can get it together and unite amongst ourselves and realize the force that we can have and maintain, that the voices together is stronger than the voice alone—we have to work on that on a daily basis by getting to the point where we realize that we are family. You know, there's not a million of us. Like, when they had that Million Man March. But we can make a difference by standing strong and being united with the people who believe in us, who advocate for us, who support and love us for who we are, to get together a good, strong voice. And making sure that the people who support us don't try to lead us. We have to be ourselves. It's got to be us that takes this to the forefront. Because they're not transgender, [cis people] don't understand really what all of our issues are, and as scary as they are. With all the similarities, it’s those differences that make us unique, makes us individuals. So, we have to learn to appreciate those to respect them, and if you want respect, you’re going to have to give it.
"We have to give people the room to be who they are, the courage to change and alter and grow."
The rest of the world thinks that they can just beat us down and crush us, and we’re going to just snap in two. We won’t snap in two. One of the interesting things about all that crap that my friends and I went through as young people in the 60s: If any of that would have worked and had really made things better, Trump wouldn't be president in 2016. No, because people would be respectful and be caring and thinking about other people. We would work together. We would be a voice for change, a voice for positivity, a voice for good. Hate, viciousness, suspicion, and fear conjure up all these horrible things that shouldn't be happening. It shouldn't exist today. We've gone through too much shit to get here. I'm hoping it will make us more resilient, because [Trump] is so demonistic in his point of view. We can do it. There's a lot of us out there with good hearts, and people who are not us that genuinely care about us.
We can do so many productive things with anger and really be propelled in the face of injustice. The base of your politic is love, which is such an incredible gift to our community and to the entire world. Our opposition is fueled by a combination of anger and hate, though.
One of the things that my grandmother told me is: “Hate is like quicksand.” It's all-consuming. Once you get involved with that, it's going to suck you in and envelop you. We have to give people the room to be who they are, the courage to change and alter and grow. It’s kind of like plants: You gotta give it sun and water and let it develop as it needs to. Don't tie it down and make it grow the way you want. When I look at bonsai trees, they're so pretty to look at, but it's so hurtful to think of what we've done to them. We’ve done and stopped them from being what their full potential could be. I think of our community when I see them. Some of them adjust and look happy—they're pretty to look at. And some of them feel sad to me. I’ve even cried, child. It’s just like, Goddammit, Major, you big mush.
I love that openness, though, you’re keeping the child inside you alive.
We have to, girl, because if we don’t, we lose the meaning. We have to take the time in our activism, and in our fight and our struggles, to be treated and considered equal. We still have to take the time to appreciate the smell of a beautiful rose, to be somewhere where the smell of fresh grass tingles your nostrils and makes you dream, relax, chill. If we become so cold and brutal and harmful and fearful of that next moment, that next day, what’s turning that next corner, it gets to a point of, Well, what's it all for? Why go to the next corner? Why get up, why go outside? Well, because different things can happen when you do, and the world is a wonderful place. And yeah, it's fucking hard. But, damn it, every now and then, something comes along that just tingles you to your toes, you know? It can be any number of things. The hand of a friend on your shoulder when you’re not feeling good. A smile from a total stranger that is warm and genuine and open, and that caresses your heart from whatever distance they are from you. Those make it worth getting up. Those make it worth fighting for who we are and believing in ourselves.
In this conversation, there is this theme of both being lifted up by friendships with your trans sisters, and also the kind of rejection that we inflict on one another. It's a theme in a lot of the conversations I’m having for the Trans Legends project—relationships between trans women, how mean we can be to each other. Ultimately, the [trans community] is the only thing that sustains us, because men come and go, and cis people don't always quite get it. What is the history of that—the tension and the anger between trans people?
There’s so many things today that are politically correct that didn't exist when I was growing up. A lot of the time, you feel so alone and cut off, and there's no one in the world like you, until you meet somebody else and go, Oh, wow, there's two of us. And then you all meet somebody else. You get to the point of realizing that there’s a community of us—a whole underground faction hiding away from straight people that has its own little corner of the world unto itself. When you get into that, the different things that you do to survive and get along alter from what you’re used to—being raised by cis parents and going to school around a bunch of little straight kids. What we used to do, during the time of reading each other and stuff, was an entertaining thing that we would do together amongst friends, you know? Today, it's more vicious; it's hurtful and damaging. Words, to me, are way more dangerous than somebody just coming up and kicking my ass. Because I'll heal, but words, you don't get over.
The culture among us has become being overly protective of ourselves and not of people around us. Now, people can be the most vicious, nasty, conniving, horrible people that they want in their homes at two in the morning, on their computer or their cell phone, and there are no repercussions. There's nobody being held accountable, and that has unleashed this sense of autonomy to whereby, well, they can't be touched—things don't apply to them anymore.
"The culture among us has become being overly protective of ourselves and not of people around us."
The only way in my mind to get that to change is by working with the community—one on one, one on one, one on one—to create a sense of security within ourselves, belief in who we are, trust in our abilities to handle and be okay and open ourselves up to the other parts of the community. I mean, it's so ridiculous for girls on hormones to not want to have anything to do with girls not on hormones. Trans men who get their breasts taken off and don't want to deal with the trans men who haven't had breast reduction surgery. [There are] so many boxes that we wind up putting ourselves in, because straight people have been trying to stick us in one with all this terminology.
When I grew up, we just thought we were sissies who liked to wear dresses, you know? We didn’t have “transgender.” That didn’t happen until the late 60s. Now, they want to ban the word! Some girls don’t want to be called “trannies.” Ooookay. “Don’t call me a ‘sheman.’” Well, bitch, she got titties and a dick. We don’t love ourselves first. We love what we feel we are before we start to appreciate who we are. You can't go forward until you start to realize where you came from. And so for me, I want to help the community get to that point of understanding so that it’s not so horrible to be a trans person, so we don't have to fight ourselves and fight everybody else. I want us to accept who we are, then move forward.
Who was the first trans person you met?
I don't remember her name, but I remember her look. I was 12, and I ran into her in Chicago on the elevator train. I would see her every morning going to class, and we would always just look at each other, never say anything. And one day, I think it was raining, I got on really wet, and she offered me a napkin to dry my face with, and we finally sat and talked. And it was just the most amazing thing. So one day she said to me, “So, are you a little sissy?” I looked around and no one was listening. I said, “yeah.” She said, “me too.” Our friendship developed, and through her, I met a couple of other young girls and stuff, and it grew from there. Those kinds of meetings, and those bonds that you get, wake you up to the challenges of living and the joy of what it can be.
When I was 18 years old, I’d just moved to New York City, and hadn't seen many trans people. I'd seen maybe one trans person in my life, and she worked at the Vintage Clothing Store in Syracuse, New York, where I grew up. I was riding the train in the middle of the night, and there was these two women. I noticed that one of them had bigger hands and bigger features... I didn't even compute that she was trans, but there was something about her and the way that she saw me, and the way that she acknowledged me. And before getting off the train, she said, “Good night,” and “Get home safe.” I didn't realize until later that it was Sylvia Rivera. And that one of the earliest encounters I had was this kind of unspoken exchange with her in the middle of the night on the subway. I have felt so touched in my life by her legacy. Whether I had been on the train with her that night or not, I feel like I would have been touched by her regardless.
Yeah things like that are so much bigger than we are. That’s so cool.
You've had so many different chapters. You have this whole showgirl history also. Sometimes I wonder if that kind of creative outlet—being on stage, being adored, being seen and loved by an audience—is also one of the things that has seen us through.
Well, yeah, the thing about that is, as long as you don't take that and, I don't know—we’re not drag queens, you know what I mean? And one of the interesting things is, the gay community accepts [drag queens] with open arms, but in the process of doing that, they treat them like men do women. They segregate them to whatever their whim is and not necessarily what she might want. And so there's this tendency to get wrapped up in that and make that your whole existence. And for us as trans women, this is our life, this is who we are as people. This isn't something that we're doing for the fun of it. We're doing this because this is how we express who we are. This is how we love ourselves, how we show the world who we are. So it's really an interesting prospect in the sense of getting it together to be who we are and do the things that we do.
You know, in the beginning, as you're starting out and discovering who you are and how to express yourself, you have to try different things, different facets of yourself—like a diamond, different cuts, different angles—so that you can go and be and do things that suit who you are, the things that make you real, keep you comfortable, and make you happy. On top of all that, we got to be happy. If transitioning is too much drama, and too aggravating, child, you need to be doing something else. Because even with all the bullshit and the angst and the roller coaster rides, there’s still a pleasure in it that can’t be beat because you’re getting a chance to be your true self.
Yeah, absolutely. So many of the legends I’ve talked to have mentioned being incarcerated, but you have really dedicated your life to prison abolition, to helping the girls out who are on the inside. I'm just wondering if you could elaborate a little bit on that?
Well, you know, from when I was living in New York before I went to prison, I was always concerned about my friends and the girls who were working the street with me. We worked over on 8th Avenue because none of the trans girls could work over on Broadway. There was always this fight between the biological women and us about where we could be, because technically we were a lovely bunch of bitches.
"It's hard to see what's going on if you walking in the middle of a storm."
The interesting thing is, by the time I got to prison, and I was talking to Frank Smith [the inmate leader of the Attica prison uprising], I realized the stuff we were doing to try to keep the girls safe was good, but it wasn’t enough. We didn’t have enough information about what harm was being done to us, and until you understand how oppression works, where it’s coming from, and what it means, it’s really hard to fight it because you didn’t understand what the fight is all about.
In order to defeat something, you have to know what it is. He explained that to me, and he gave me books and things to read to bring me up to understanding how the society worked, how long it had been like this, and what little things that you can do in order to change it, so that you could make it better for the people coming up behind you. For me, it was important because there's going to be lots of other young girls coming up behind me who I don't want to go through this hurt and aggravation and sadness that I've had to go through in order to get here. He was so instrumental in making me aware of that and giving me the opportunity to learn and grow and look out for my community; to provide a sense of safety for them, a place to go and be safe and speak who you need to speak to, and use your mind. He was a very wonderful man.
Who are the biggest teachers in your life?
There are different ones, but when I was in the Jewel Box Review, there was a comedian there. She would just give me a little bits of advice on how to get along with the other girls in the show, what things to do to keep myself safe and out of harm's way. And you find that along this road of life that you have, there will be different people that pop up as your life needs them, and can give you little pieces of wisdom or advice that if you adhere to it, can make your next journey better, safer, and clearer. It's hard to see what's going on if you walking in the middle of a storm.
There's been lots of them off and on. There's been girls that I've met who have since passed away who, just knowing them changed or made me a better person—from talking with them and sharing their existences. One of the interesting things, when I was doing a lot of what groups and stuff like that—in these meetings, one of the things that I found interesting to do within the community is getting the girls to explain where their names came from. What incident or what person helped them get the name that they have chosen to live by? That has the tendency to bring folks back to reality—to let go of the drama and the existence that they are clinging to for life, and relaxing for a moment, and sharing a moment of their lives that's personal and warm. That has the tendency to create bonds and friendships, because all of our paths are different, but all of our goals are the same.