'You’ve got to fight for what you want:’ Miss Major on the future of trans liberation

'You’ve got to fight for what you want:’ Miss Major on the future of trans liberation

From Stonewall to the AIDS crisis to present day struggles, Black trans elder and activist Miss Major has seen it all. Here, the legend of the movement discusses her new book on her life.

“Of course I have regrets – who doesn’t have regrets? But I’ve outlived them. I’m still fuckin’ here,” Miss Major says.

Miss Major’s life is a story of struggle and survival. A Black trans elder and activist for more than five decades, she’s been through it all, from being arrested for sex work to stealing cars and protesting against police violence at the 1969 Stonewall riots, to caring for gay men abandoned by their families during the 1980s AIDS crisis. Along the way, she’s become a mother and mentor to countless queer and trans people. And after a lifetime of fighting for jobs, healthcare and safety for trans women of colour – or “the gurls,” as she calls them – Miss Major is now rightly regarded as a living legend.

In her new book, Miss Major Speaks: Conversations With a Black Trans Revolutionary, she is outspoken about the failures of the modern LGBTQ+ movement to improve the lot of trans women of colour, and the need for trans people to fight for liberation by any means necessary. The book traces Miss Major’s life path over three-quarters of a century, from a middle-class childhood to a political education in solitary confinement, and offers – with sage wit – advice to younger generations of marginalised people fighting for liberation.

Speaking to Huck over Zoom from her home, the House of GG – the Griffin-Gracy Educational Retreat & Historical Center – in Little Rock, Arkansas, Miss Major says she wrote the book partly because she felt that younger trans people “need the opportunity to get to know me,” and hopes that readers will “come to their own conclusions, and then call me, you know?” Friend and co-author Toshie Meronek, who’s sitting beside Miss Major on the call, asks if we should print Miss Major’s phone number. The two erupt into laughter. Before she became ill following two strokes in 2019, Miss Major spent “most of the time talking on the phone” to people she freely gave her number out to – her gurls – providing love and support, or emailing them. The book’s title is cribbed from her old email address, missmajorspeaks@gmail.com, which is widely available and was often published in queer media stories about her.

The book takes the form of an intimate back-and-forth fireside chat. “I had been recording her conversations with other people for a long time, and finally just started recording ours – some over the phone and some when she moved to Arkansas from Oakland,” Meronek explains.

“I love Arkansas,” Miss Major adds. “It’s a red state but they mind their own business with people here, so they don’t give me any hassle. I’m very comfortable here. And now I have the grounds set up and I have flowers all over, I’m going nowhere.”

Born in Chicago in 1946, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy was sent to a private college in Minnesota after graduating high school at 16. She left a few months later when her roomate discovered her suitcase of femme clothing and returned to her parents in Chicago, leaving again at 19 when her mother declared the city wasn’t big enough for both of them. Miss Major and a friend stole a car and headed for New York, but were arrested for speeding before leaving Chicago. She spent six months in prison, though that wouldn’t prevent her love of cars from becoming a lifelong obsession. Today, she has a 70 Cadillac that’s currently “in a shop getting fixed up.”

When Miss Major finally arrived in New York, she got a job in a morgue. “The experience didn’t go to waste,” the book notes, “as her familiarity with makeup increased with the body count.” She eventually wound up working at the Jewel Box Revue, a drag collective, meeting other trans women who showed her how to navigate sex work. It was a more viable financial option than performing, but came with its own drawbacks: namely, police violence and harassment. Miss Major is frank about the choice they often made between spending a night in a cell or sucking off a cop, and even more so when she compares sex work to LGBTQ+ non-profits: “There was a lot more honesty in hooking than in the last couple of Gay Prides I did.”

Miss Major is a survivor of Bellevue Hospital, a psychiatric asylum that many trans women of colour were dumped in during the 1960s after being picked up by the cops for the crimes of being gender non-conforming or selling sex to survive. She writes in the book about how the trans women inmates would share tips for counting the number of books on a shelf while their genitals were hooked up to electrical probes – a crude early form of conversion therapy that attempted to identify and then erase same-sex sexual desire. Miss Major also spent five years inside the Clinton Correctional Facility at Dannemora for a burglary conviction. It was there she met Frank “Big Black” Smith, a Black Panther who’d been one of the leaders of the Attica Prison Riot in 1971 (a thousand-prisoner strong, four-day rebellion that ended with the highest number of prisoner fatalities in the history of US prisoner uprisings). She describes Big Black in the book as “My mentor. My love”. The two managed to become friends through their cell walls in the solitary confinement block, and Big Black gave Miss Major the opportunity to learn about the systems of power that she had been fighting against her entire life.

“The statistics prove that we suffer harder than anyone else in the prison system,” Miss Major says. “Can’t have trans liberation without prison abolition.”

Big Black also showed her the importance of role models and how she could help ‘the gurls’ – trans women of colour who’ve been incarcerated, suffered police brutality, or both – fight oppression by leading them. This formative experience shaped the rest of Miss Major’s life.

Miss Major has herself has been a crucial source of hope and support to many trans people. “I want to hold them and let them know that there’s somebody who cares about whether they make it or not, whether they survived or not, whether they have the things they need to continue on,” she says. “That’s the most important.” But, since becoming ill, it’s been harder for her to talk on the phone. In some ways, this book is a new version of the community building and emotional support that is Miss Major’s life’s work.

“There was a lot more honesty in hooking than in the last couple of Gay Prides I did.”
Miss Major

Although the stroke, and growing older, has changed the way she communicates, Miss Major is surrounded by visitors and friends at the House of GG. When asked her favourite thing about ageing, she responds, “Nothing! It’s not favourable at all. But we have to [grow older]. I can’t think of anything favourable about it, other than, well, I’m comfortable, I don’t leave this house that I have here, so that’s nice. And people have a tendency to like me, so they take care of my needs.”

In Miss Major Speaks, she outlines how younger generations of trans people can fight the Powers That Be, from building communities by and for trans people of colour to voting out Republicans in Washington. “What good are they doing?” she says. “They’re not doing anything to help our community to survive and now they decide to attack the younger kids. That’s just wrong.”

“You’ve got to fight for what you want,” Miss Major tells Huck. “This stuff isn’t free, it doesn’t come from divine intervention. You’ve got to work for it, and in some cases it means you’ve got to fight.”

The opening chapter of Miss Major Speaks offers a refreshingly damning indictment of the LGBTQ+ non-profit sector, particularly the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest LGBTQ+ lobbying organisation in the US. HRC did something “that won’t be soon forgotten among trans people,” Miss Major explains, and for the first time in our conversation, which has been punctuated with laughter and her beaming smile, she is solemn. “In the early 2000s, HRC was doing all this work on an unemployment non-discrimination bill, and then, at the last minute, dropped trans people from the bill,” she says. “It just showed that, for this organisation – which was, of course, run by mostly white gay men – trans people were disposable when it felt like it wasn’t politically popular to include them.”

While it’s structured as a wide-ranging series of conversations, covering her thoughts on visibility politics, cops at Pride, prison abolition, Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera (“we looked up to them because they were trying to get all the gurls to unite”) and the AIDS epidemic, the book is also a history tour through modern Black and queer history from someone who lived – lives – through it. When it comes to liberatory struggles, “it’s not a situation of win or lose,” she tells Huck. “You have to deal with things as they are and get over it.” Referring to the Stonewall riots and the gay movement’s failure to help trans women, she adds: “Did we win in ’69? No, we didn’t win in ’69. Those motherfuckers took it from us.”

Against seemingly insurmountable odds, both inside and outside of the movement, I ask how it is that Major manages to keep hold of hope. “I never let it go,” she replies. In the face of all the hardships life can throw at you, holding on to hope “depends on something inside [you],” she adds. “For me, it was when I first got my son. Now I have another son, and he’s two years old. That keeps me going.”

“What really brings me joy is the sound of my laughter,” she concludes. “And that little kid, Asiah. He just fills my heart up with hope and belief that this will work out. And walking in the park and being barefoot and feeling the grass and seeing my toes. Those kinds of things. Stuff that you can’t buy. A sense of freedom that you have to feel yourself, enjoy yourself.”

Although her life has been one of endurance, it’s also filled with love and hope. Sitting next to Toshio for this interview, the sound of Miss Major’s laughter was frequent and joyous. While she’s clear in her role as a trans elder imparting wisdom for younger generations, she doesn’t let this responsibility weigh her down. It’s an honour, she says, that younger trans women treasure her so much.

But when it comes down to it, Miss Major is very clear that what people must do is to fight against their oppression and that of others. The crucial thing, she says, is to act – in the “hope that you can make things a little bit better for the girl after you.”

Miss Major Speaks: Conversations with a Black Trans Revolutionary by Miss Major and Toshio Meronek is out now with Verso Books.