Welcome back to the revolution. This week’s edition, we’re talking about a woman who is unapologetically herself in every situation, who’s been an activist longer than I’ve been breathing, and is a veteran of the Stonewall Rebellion. Miss Major Griffin-Gacy.
Miss Major, also known as “Mama” to those in her community, has been fighting for trans rights at its intersection of LGBT struggles for justice and equality since the 1960’s. She’s been described as a “fierce advocate for her girls, trans women of color who’ve survived police brutality and incarceration in men’s jails and prisons.”
She was born in Chicago on October 25, 1940. She was active in drag balls when she was younger and in an interview described the experience as, “were phenomenal! It was like going to the Oscars show today. Everybody dressed up. Guys in tuxedos, queens in gowns that you would not believe— I mean, things they would have been working on all year...And the straight people would come and watch, they were different than the ones who come today. They just appreciated what was going on.”
She came out when she was a teenager in the 1950s, much to scorn and obvious mistreatment from others around her. It got to a point where she had to have someone with her, a friend or family member, at all times or else she would be singled out and violently attacked.
Two colleges actually kicked her out due to her outward identity expression, and after that she moved to New York City. There weren’t many trans-friendly places, but she was able to establish a presence in the LGBT community around the Stonewall Inn. When asked about the Stonewall Inn, she said "We could go to Stonewall and everything would be fine, we didn't have to explain ourselves."
On June 27, 1969 she was in the Stonewall Inn when the bar was raided by police, which lead to one of the most monumental uprisings for the LGBT+ community in America. And, I actually learned a lot about the Stonewall Rebellion, also known as the Stonewall Riots and Stonewall Uprising while researching Griffin-Gracy.
Here’s what happened, and this is just a very surface level overview so I really, really suggest you guys go check out the Digital Public Library of America’s primary source set of information that it has on what happened. There’s so much documentation there from beginning to end and analyzing its impact on the Gay-Liberation Movement. I’ll leave it linked in the episode summary so you can all get a-hold of it.
But, here is an overview of the timeline thanks to history.com
To nobody’s surprise, the 1960’s and earlier in America were not known to be very welcoming time periods to lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans people. Same sex “solicitation”, as it was called, was illegal. There were gay bars and clubs where LGBT people could gather, but most of the NY Liquor Authority would shut down places that served alcohol to those in the gay community because the gathering of homosexual people was considered “disorderly”. Eventually these laws and regulations were overturned in 1966 and LGBT people could be served alcohol, but engaging in any kind of perceived gay behavior was still considered to be illegal and solicitation, so a lot of these gay bars were harrassed by the police.
In a rather unexpected side note, a lot of gay bars in New York at the time were also owned by the Mafia. When it came to the Stonewall Inn, the Genovese crime family controlled it and most of the Greenwich Village gay bars. They bought the Stonewall Inn in 1966, renovated it, and reopened it as a gay bar the following year. The Stonewall didn’t need a liquor license, supposedly because it was a bring your own bottle type of bar. The Genovese family bribed the NYC 6th Police precinct to look the other way about not having liquor licenses, as well as the patrons who were visiting. In return, the Genovese blackmailed wealthy patrons who didn’t want to be seen going to or from the place and they were given a heads up when it came to police raids. There was actually a raid a few days before the Stonewall Rebellion that the Genovese family had been tipped off about. But on June 28th, the raid was a surprise.
Police with a warrant stormed the club, lashing out at patrons and arresting both employees for selling the bootlegged alcohol and patrons who were violating the “gender-appropriate clothing statute.”
Police were aggressively manhandling the patrons, surprise surprise, kicking out those who weren’t being arrested and holding others inside. People suspected that the police were beating up those who were inside, and more and more people from the neighborhood gathered outside of the bar.
At one point, as police were loading people into a van, a woman - many, including herself, have identified this woman as Storme DeLarverie, was hit over the head by police, and she yelled out to the crowd"Why don't you guys do something?"
It was this call to action that lead the crowd to start throwing things at the police, yelling at them. Some police began manhandling those onlookers, which only made everyone angrier. This lead to an all out riot, with fed up people throwing things at the police, eventually overtaking them and forcing those officers to barricade themselves inside the Stonewall Inn and leading to a week long protest. While this wasn’t the beginning of the gay rights movement, it was a huge step towards political activism, with many LGBT+ organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front, the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, and PFLAG forming.
On the one year anniversary of the riots, thousands of people marched in Manhattan from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park in one of America’s first gay pride parades. The official chant of the parade was “Say it loud, gay is proud.”
Miss Major was one of the leaders of the Stonewall Rebellion, however when she was protesting the antics the police were taking, she was hit in the head and taken into custody. She reported that while in custody, a policeman actually broke her jaw.
She had another run in with the law when she was convicted of burglary, and ended up serving 5 years in prison. When she was there, she ended up meeting another prisoner who had actually had played a role in the Attica Correctional Facility riots of 1971 named Frank “Big Black” Smith. They got along really well, and Smith gave her information on how to really help make changes in her community. She was eventually released from prison in 1974.
She moved to San Diego in 1978 and started working at a food bank. Eventually, she began helping provide services for trans women who were homeless, suffering from addiction, or were incarcerated. She began to organize community efforts and different movements to support the community as well when the AIDS epidemic hit the US. After 10 years working there in San Diego, she moved to San Francisco and ensured those affected by that epidemic were able to get healthcare services.
In 2005 she was the first Staff Organizer and then Executive Director of the Transgender Gender-variant and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), which had a mission of ending “the human rights abuses committed against TGI people in CA prisons, jails, detention centers, and beyond.”
She retired in 2015, but in 2018 she opened the Griffin-Gracy Educational Retreat and Historical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. She left her longtime home in Oakland, California to assist trans and gender nonconforming individuals seeking community in a historically conservative region of the country, especially after the deeply threatening aftermath of 2016 election. The House of GG hosts retreats for trans women and gender nonconforming people of color all through the South, establishing community and mentorship initiatives.
When asked about the inspiration for the House of GG, she said, “When I came up, there were houses that developed in New York, like the House of Crystal Labeija and the House of Xtravaganza. They started in order to help the younger girls who were on the street. They helped them learn the things they needed to do to survive, like how to negotiate with the cops and what to do if they got busted. I thought in honor of them and all they’ve done and tried to do, I would keep the thought and feeling of them alive with the House of GG. I want it to be a retreat where I can bring the girls here and help to create a sense of family for our community.”
In 2015, Jennicet Gutiérrez, a transgender activist and community organizer of Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement (TQLM), was instantly motivated to get involved and fight for trans liberation after hearing and learning from Miss Major herself. “She symbolizes hope, strength, and resiliency for our beloved trans and gender nonconforming community,” Gutiérrez said via email. “May we continue to honor and uplift her leadership, so more transgender people get inspired to fight for social justice and make a positive impact in the world.”
She is similarly inspiring to Raquel Willis, writer, activist, and project director of Black Trans Circles at the Transgender Law Center. “I think she’s a testament to this long, existing fight for trans people to be treated with dignity and respect and to have access to safety and security,” Willis says. “I also think she’s particularly powerful because she’s one of those figures who is constantly in conversation with the generations coming up after her and she’s constantly encouraging us to reach for our dreams but also to fight for a bigger vision of what true liberation can look like for our people.”
Major Griffin-Gracy is the recipient of countless awards, proclamations, certificates, and public accolades for more than 50 years of a pioneering career in social justice and activism. She is also the subject of an award winning documentary called “MAJOR!” which was released in 2015.
One of my favorite quotes from her is from an interview where she says, “As I was living my life, I didn’t have time to hold connections to people who would rather I die than breathe and be successful.”