Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is a legend in the transgender universe. She is one of the original pioneers of transgender activism and a champion for transgender women of color who leads the cause for transgender rights in the prison industrial complex. She took part in the Stonewall riots. Miss Major is also the Executive Director for the Transgender GenderVariant Intersex Justice Project. She is all this and much more.
Griffin-Gracy was born on October 25th, 1940 on the south side of Chicago. She grew up in a middle-class family. Her father worked for the post office and her mother ran a beauty shop. She was given the name Major because a psychic advised her mother her child would need a name of strength. She would come out to her parents around age 12. Transgender wasn’t a word back then. She only could tell her parents she didn’t feel right. Her parents would take her to see a psychiatrist and take her to church with the hopes she would grow out of it. Her parents would eventually kick her out.
She began taking hormones she would get from a fortune teller on Chicago’s north side. She would turn to sex work, odd jobs and stealing as a means to get by. When she would get caught the police they would take her to a mental institution. After spending six months in a Chicago institution, Miss Major would move to New York City.
She would perform as a showgirl and female impersonator for the Jewel Box Revue, the Powder Puff Revue and a group called the Cherries. She would go by many different names during this period, finally settling back on Miss Major and adding the hyphenated Griffin-Gracy in honor of her mother. Miss Major was part of the transgender underground in New York City. These women did what they need to do to survive. It was often sex work as it was the sixties and there were often no other options for girls in the community.
The girls would congregate at a bar in the East Village which is now famously known in it’s name, Stonewall. What is not known is that the Stonewall Inn was also transgender bar and not just for gays and lesbians. It was the place where Trans* girls would go to be themselves. The showgirls and the girls who turned tricks would stop in and out through a given night. It was where they would congregate and talk about their struggles. A place to get away from it all. The police would often harass them, banging on the windows with their nightsticks, forcing the girls to let go of whoever it was they were dancing with and leave. But something was in the air during the early morning hours of June 28, 1969.
The police decided to raid the Stonewall but this time the girls fought back. “Some of the girls got out of the paddy wagon and came back, the police got so scared they backed into the club and locked the doors!” Miss Major told Autostraddle in 2015. “And meanwhile across the street there are all these cute little white boys cheering us on, and saying “don’t hurt the girls!” and all this blah blah. They weren’t in the fight.” she went on to say. Miss Major would be knocked out in the fight only to wake up in a jail cell the next day. The protests at Stonewall would go on for several days. Miss Major often cites that it was transgender men and women, particularly transgender women of color who were at the heart of the Stonewall riots. History has since erased the “T” from the story. Many portrayals of the riots, including the statue across the street, depict white gay men. Miss Major has been outspoken against this injustice.
Miss Major would end up getting a five-year sentence at a correctional facility in Dannemora after getting caught participating in several safe breaking jobs. It was in prison where she would meet Frank “Big Black” Smith. She would serve her time in the men’s ward. It was Smith who turned her on to African American history and the importance of educating herself. She would do just that during her time in prison. She would be released in 1974.
Miss Major would become an activist once a friend of hers was murdered and the police did nothing. They would report the murder as a suicide. She would have a son, Christopher, with a long term girlfriend in 1978. Miss Major moved to San Diego to give her son a better life. She would also go on to adopt three more sons.
In to 80’s she made the AIDS epidemic her cause. She would enlist the help of girls in the transgender community. Miss Major would later move to San Francisco and start the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center in 1990. She would go on to be a pillar of the transgender community, helping as many people as she could. Miss Major would help transgender women who were incarcerated. She would expose their injustices and help the women when they got out of prison. She still does to this day.
In 2003 Miss Major would join the Transgender GenderVariant Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP). She would later become it’s Executive Director. She would become a beacon of hope for transgender women of color and help so many others. Miss Major has become an icon for the transgender movement. She is outspoken over the exclusion of transgender people from the LGBT movement, citing that fact that it was the transgender community who did so much for it. She is known to many in the community as “Mama” and now also as Grandma Major. She has inspired so many who have come after her. Though she says that she is retiring soon, Miss Major still plays a major role as a transgender activist today.
Currently appearing in festivals is a film about her life called Major! It is directed by Annalise Ophelian.