Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is an unapologetic black, trans woman who has survived cancer and a kidney transplant. She was among the women who started the Stonewall Riots, kicking off the start of the Gay Liberation Movement (according to dominant historical discourse). She worked to help the communities disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDs, and actively fights the Justice System’s discrimination against marginalized people. For over forty years, she has been working to help those in her community on both a political level and on an interpersonal level. I had the incredible opportunity to attend the screening of the documentary made about her life titled Major! (2015) at The New School in Union Square on Tuesday night. The film tells the story of Miss Major’s life by placing it in the appropriate historical context and using her story to build a more well-rounded history of the Queer Liberation movement in the United States.
Walking into the Tischman Auditorium in the New School on Tuesday October 25th, I was expecting to see an academic event in an auditorium filled with students and members of academia. I was met with a huge shock when I entered into an auditorium overflowing with nearly one thousand queer people of color on their feet applauding thunderously as the film lit up the room. Every single seat in the room was filled. I found a spot to sit on the stairs in the aisle, and used my jacket as a cushion for the next hour and a half. I was continuously surprised and moved as at least fifteen more people showed up as late as twenty minutes into the film and happily took a seat in the aisle in front of and behind me. By the time the film had ended, I was no longer surprised by the event’s turnout.
The film itself is a truthful documentary about the horrors that disproportionately face trans-women of color throughout the multiple levels of our justice system, from the hidden racism in the United States legislation, to enforcement of these laws, to the prison system. Miss Major herself was met with the powerfully negative effects of each of these throughout her lifetime. Filmmakers Annalise Ophelian and StormMiguel Florez take the audience through about forty years of history using Miss Major’s story as a guiding backbone.
One of the first issues that the film addresses is the disproportionate number of trans-women of color in jail and prison as well the abuse that they face in the system. This reality is made explicit through graphs and statistics, and then supported with testimonials by those who have been in prison as well as those who work with people who have been in prison. Interviews of the people who suffered abuse ranging from slurs and verbal harassment to rape for non-violent crimes heartbreakingly enlighten the viewer to the realities of life in prison. This included commentary on how trans women were more likely to be placed in Solitary confinement, or the SHU (Solitary Housing Unit), supposedly for their own protection. The United Nations has ruled that placing someone in solitary confinement for a prolonged amount of time is considered torture. One of the trans women shared that she had been put in solitary confinement for about six months to protect her against harassment by other prisoners, but then faced sexual harassment and assault from prison guards while in the SHU. This was not uncommon. Many of the women interviewed had difficulty getting through the interview without shedding tears. It was incredibly heartbreaking to hear the many people in the audience quietly crying along, often because many of them had had a similar experience in their own life (as I learned later during the discussion).
The filmmakers successfully juxtaposed their suffering with hope by introducing Miss Major as a kind of savior figure for many of of the genderqueer people who were in prison or who had just left prison. Major headed an organization which wrote letters and sent money to trans women of color in prison. According to her, for many of these people, this organization was the closest people to family that they had. Many trans women of color turned to drug dealing or sex work because of the blatant discrimination against them by hiring managers, and because they often lacked the financial or emotional support of their family. For them, these letters were their strongest ties to the outside world. Thanks to Major’s efforts, those in prison were able to connect with a surrogate family who helped them after they left prison. Most of the interviews conducted featured members of this surrogate family, many of whom referred to Major as Mama, one of which referred to her as grandmother. By juxtaposing these testimonies, the film acknowledges the serious injustices faced by queer people of color in prison, but also provides an outlet for hope. The hope engendered by activists, especially by the activism Major was active in, became a major theme of the film.
For a portion of the film, she discusses her time spent in the Attica State Prison. While she was there, she met the man who led the Attica Prison Rebellion, Frank “Bob Black” Smith. They developed a close friendship, and he helped to politicize her. This was what led to Major’s dedication to prison reform and her devotion to those currently in prison. Miss Major also played a large role in passing out condoms and sterile syringes to people who were at risk for contracting HIV/AIDs. Her activism had a direct impact on those in her community who needed access to such protections.
Miss Major also spent part of her life as a sex worker. Although she did not describe her time doing that work, she did describe the work that went into evading the police officers. She laughed about how one had to learn to carve out territory, but be flexible enough to run if cops showed up. Not only did they have to run, but they would – while running and hopping fences – change their clothing and put on a different wig so they could watch the cops run past them. Several of the other people interviewed confessed or alluded to the fact that they too had participated in sex work at one time or another. At the end of the film, one of the most poignant points made was the importance of physical contact. The mother of Miss Major’s son asked that everyone in the audience work to touch other members in their community, through hand holding, gently touching their arm, or hugging. This is important, she said, because so much of the time that queer people are touched is when they have been fetishized. They’re offered physical contact by men who do not respect them, but over-sexualize their bodies for physical pleasure. This is a reality that too many queer people must face.
On June 28th, 1969, Miss Major was out at a club spending the evening with her friends in a queer space. Miss Major recounts this night as being like any other, memorable only in that it was the day that Judy Garland’s funeral had been televised. She knew the reality of police raidings of gay bars- usually when the police entered, they turned on the lights and without a word, everyone would walk out. She didn’t know what made that night special, but it was then that she and her community were not going to take the abuse anymore. They refused to leave the bar, and police violently pulled them out onto the streets. Miss Major admits that she was not certain who threw what first, but she knows that it was certainly a trans woman of color who kicked off the Stonewall Rebellion.
The film ended with a multitude of queer people video taping themselves or declaring into the camera “I’m still f*cking here.” No matter how the United States government, legislators, judges, police officers, prison guards, or even society at large treats queer people, they are resilient and unapologetic. They will pull through so that in thirty years, or fifty years, they can stand up and tell the world “I’m still f*cking here.”