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From Stonewall to the South: Miss Major Wants Transgender Liberation in Arkansas

An interview with the lifelong grassroots organizer who left California for the Bible Belt.

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy speaking at a rally for black and brown transgender women on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol.

From the Stonewall riots to San Francisco, from gay liberation to transgender justice, Miss Major has seen it all. And this time, she’s left the city for the country.

78-year-old transgender civil rights leader Major Griffin-Gracy, often referred to as Miss Major, left the San Francisco Bay Area and moved to Little Rock a little over a year ago following a lifetime of radical political and social activism that brought her literally coast to coast.

She had no ties to Arkansas, save for her experiences meeting other transgender women of color who moved to coastal or northern cities from the South. Transgender women of color are disproportionately targeted by violent crimes, but Miss Major saw that those who were unaccustomed to the city were at an even higher risk.

“So I figured if I came down here, maybe I could make it a little more comfortable for them and they wouldn’t have to leave here where they love living and go live in San Francisco and New York,” she says. “Because they’re not city girls, you know? They’re country girls, and they like being out and about, and there’s a freedom here that they don’t have in the cities and there’s also a danger in the cities because they’re so new and so fresh and open.”

“Because they’re not city girls, you know? They’re country girls, and they like being out and about, and there’s a freedom here that they don’t have in the cities and there’s also a danger in the cities because they’re so new and so fresh and open.”

In the 1970s, Major Griffin-Gracy was convicted of burglary and imprisoned in a male facility. While she was in jail, she met Frank Smith, an inmate who participated in the largest prison rebellion in American history: the Attica Correctional Facility Riots of 1971. Smith respected Major’s gender identity and gave her valuable information on community organizing and resistance.

She was released in 1974 with the motivation to apply her knowledge in grassroots activism. But the threat of violence that Miss Major faced in prison for her gender expression changed her. She still finds it difficult to feel safe in many places.

“Being an ex-prisoner, I don’t like to sit in places with my back exposed to people,” she says. “And one of the odd things about being here was I went out twice and sat in the middle of the restaurant, and got back to my hotel and asked myself, what the fuck was my problem, why did I do that when I had never done that before? Some aura, something about the city, the powers that be, had me be comfortable enough to be relaxed here. So I thought I would come back for a weekend to get to know the people."

A few years ago, Miss Major stayed in Little Rock temporarily to shoot for Major!, a 2015 documentary about her life and work. It was there that she felt a sense of comfort she hadn’t experienced in a long time.

“Some aura, something about the city, the powers that be, had me be comfortable enough to be relaxed here. So I thought I would come back for a weekend to get to know the people.”

Miss Major’s close friend is Jose Gutierrez. He’s the director of Arkansas’s oldest LGBT nonprofit, the Center for Artistic Revolution. Ever since its inception in 2003, the Center for Artistic Revolution sticks to a tradition of intersectional, radical LGBT activism that rejects assimilation and respectability politics. It was a match made in heaven for Miss Major.

Gutierrez says he felt deeply impacted by Miss Major’s passion for her community. He often seeks guidance from her and values her advice on grassroots organizing. Not only that, but he says he could see that she felt comfortable with other members of Little Rock’s LGBT community.

“I think she vibed with a lot of people at that brunch,” he says, recalling a gathering for LGBT people of color that Miss Major hosted in Little Rock. “I think she really felt a connection with people here.”

Major Griffin-Gracy has come a long way since that historic night at the Stonewall Inn that some have called the most important event of the 20th century gay liberation movement. In 1969, hundreds of transgender and gender nonconforming LGBT people rioted after a New York City bar was raided by police. Called the Stonewall Inn, this bar served as a meeting spot for members of the LGBT community who weren’t as readily accepted in other gay bars, including many transgender, black, Latino, and homeless LGBT people.

As a result, the bar was subject to excessive raids, where police officers arrested anyone dressed in what they considered “drag”. The Stonewall riots are often credited for galvanizing a nationwide movement for LGBT rights.

Miss Major is identified as one of the leaders in the Stonewall riots, where she witnessed dozens of her fellow transgender and gender nonconforming peers get arrested or assaulted.

But if you asked her, she would want to talk about something else.

“The important thing to talk about is if it [the Stonewall riots] would have worked in 1969, we would have a better life in 2018. We’re going through the same bullshit that we were going through back then,” says Miss Major. “Those motherfuckers are still giving us hell, they’re still acting as if we’re not a part of that little alphabet soup shit that they have, and it doesn’t make any sense to me that we all love each other on pray day, then on Monday they don’t give a shit about us.”

It’s clear from the conversation that Miss Major doesn’t believe in the nearly mythicized status of the Stonewall riots that tends to come up in contemporary LGBT discourse. It’s even entered the mainstream recently, with movies like the 2015 film Stonewall drawing criticism for its lack of diversity and accuracy. The question of who “threw the first brick” during the riots have been debated within the LGBT community to the point of being parodied.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me that we all love each other on pray day, then on Monday they don’t give a shit about us.”

Miss Major believes this discussion distracts from the reality of the Stonewall riots’ impact. She argues that transgender people, especially black, brown, and low-income transgender people, were left out of the supposed “success” of the Stonewall riots, while more assimilationist members of the LGBT community were able to capitalize on that historic uprising.

Decades after the Stonewall riots, transgender women of color still face disproportionate rates of poverty and unemployment. Many have little choice but to do sex work to make a living, which further compounds their risk of being assaulted or murdered. Miss Major Griffin-Gracy’s goal is to help give the transgender community, particularly transgender women of color, the tools to improve their lives and the lives of their peers. One way she’s accomplishing this is with her nonprofit, House of GG’s.

“House of GG’s is a dream of mine to unite my community and to provide us with the abilities and the skills to negotiate through straight society, or cis society, as they call it now,” she says. “This isn’t the time that my community, that my trans girls or trans guys, need to hide or run away. Now we need to be more visible than ever, because out of sight means out of mind. And if we run and hide now, they’re gonna make sure that we stay hidden.”

“Now we need to be more visible than ever, because out of sight means out of mind. And if we run and hide now, they’re gonna make sure that we stay hidden.”

Last week, House of GG’s hosted a town hall meeting in Little Rock for transgender women of color in Arkansas to voice their needs and concerns. However, the meeting also seemed to serve a different purpose: to unite a small and oft-forgotten community.

It seems that Miss Major firmly faces forward, not out of scorn for the past, but out of necessity. Even during the African American civil rights movement, she remembers, black transgender women like herself were excluded. From her experience, progress for the LGBT community has been decidedly uneven. The most marginalized continue to remain the most marginalized. But the fight isn’t over for her yet.

“I’m going to keep fighting as long as I can breathe.”

“I’m going to keep fighting as long as I can breathe. And if they need to be cussed out, cuss ’em out and keep on going,” she says with her usual, uncensored self, nodding the whole time. “I got my girls to protect. They don’t have a voice, I’ll have a voice for them. They can’t get something done, I’ll do my damnedest to get it done for them.”

“Keep ’em going, keep ’em strong, keep ’em safe.”