“I’d like for the girls to get a chance to be who they are. For young transgender people to go to school, learn like everyone else does, and then get out there and live their lives, not afraid or thinking that the only solution for them is death.” – Miss Major Griffin-Gracy
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy (1940-)
Members of the LGBT community are often left out of Black History Month celebrations, despite their important contributions to African American culture and social progress. Someone who deserves to be celebrated while she’s alive is Miss Major Griffin-Gracy. Born on the South Side of Chicago in 1940, Miss Major is a well-known activist and community leader for transgender rights. She is most known for her role in the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, as well as being a founding leader of the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, an organization dedicated to supporting and advocating for the rights of transgender, gender variant, and intersex people held in prison, jail, and detention centers.
Miss Major came out to her parents as what we would today refer to as transgender (someone whose gender identity is different from the one they were assigned at birth) as a teenager in the 1950s. During her youth, she participated in Chicago’s drag balls, which she described as a “phenomenal” social event “like going to the Oscars today.”[i] Unfortunately, her early embrace of her identity also made her a target of harassment and mistreatment. After being expelled from two colleges for wearing feminine clothes, she left Chicago and moved to New York City.
Miss Major’s activism started during her time in New York. Like many transgender women, pervasive discrimination meant that she and many of her peers lived in poverty, and often depended on illicit sources of income to survive. The experiences Miss Major had during this time — working in illicit industries, police abuse, homelessness, lack of medical care, and rampant anti-trans violence — informed her activism for decades to come. In 1969, a flashpoint occurred during a police raid at a bar called the Stonewall Inn, where she and other patrons sparked and led what came to be known as the Stonewall riots (often considered the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement). One year later, Miss Major was sentenced to four years at a prison in Dannemora, NY, for an incident unrelated to the riots. There, she refined her understanding of prisons, anti-trans oppression, and how to advocate for her community, through a transformative friendship with a fellow inmate who participated in the famous Attica prison uprising of 1971. From that point forward, her activism took on a new direction and vigor.
Released from prison in 1974, Miss Major moved to California in 1978 and quickly began organizing community grassroots efforts. After first working at a food bank, she moved on to providing direct services to transgender women coping with addiction, homelessness, or incarceration. When the AIDS epidemic reached California, she provided health care and funeral services for people affected by HIV/AIDS while also serving with organizations addressing the crisis. In 2003, she began working with the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), eventually serving as its executive director for ten years. During her time at TGIJP and into the present day, her work has been dedicated to supporting and advocating for imprisoned transgender women, particularly trans women of color. She is recognized as a trailblazer in the effort to raise awareness about how transgender women are mistreated within the criminal justice system, and often speaks out about police brutality and the criminalization of trans people.
Miss Major emphasizes that her activism is rooted in community, stressing how important it is for trans women to take care of each other while living in a society where their lives are undervalued. Her compassion for others means that she constantly works with young trans women of color to build their self-esteem and train the next generation of leaders, and will often go out of her way to pay for necessities like hotel rooms when women can’t afford shelter. Because of her years of service to the community, Miss Major is revered for her wisdom, tenacity, and outsized impact on LGBT rights movements.
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