“Nothing is Set in Stone”
Miss Major reflects on the significance of the Stonewall riots.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is the executive director of the Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project in Oakland, CA.
Like so many New York City transplants, Miss Major arrived in the late 1960s seeking a new start. There was camaraderie, she says: “Most of us were running from this complete, abject hatred for who we are, and the fact that we exist, to find something different, something better.” The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was “the place where we as trans people could socialize, meet with other girls and talk, and not have to worry about being refused, or asked to leave or looked at cross-eyed and funny.” It would also become the scene of the famous Stonewall riots, with Miss Major in the fray.
Miss Major’s activism has spanned decades; she has worked in food banks, advocated on behalf of HIV/AIDS victims, and is currently focused on the plight of incarcerated transgender people.
As Told To Andy Wright
It was hard to live in Chicago as a young transgendered person and survive comfortably and have a good time. I thought it would be better there; things would be more open. But the problems were the same in New York and Chicago. There were just more of us to deal with them [in New York]. That’s what drew me to New York and what kept me there. I got a chance to create a circle of good friends and a nice social network.
In New York, all I had to do was go to 42nd Street. Everything I needed, wanted, dreamed about, or could imagine was on 42nd Street between 7th and 8th. On both sides of the street there was absolutely everything that your heart could desire, legally and illegally.
The little dive theaters were there, like 12 on the block. The bus station was right on 8th. The hookers were on Broadway. The drugs were there, the freaks were there, gay people were there, straight people were there. Oddballs were there, bizarre people were there. Any three-dollar bill that had a chance to get out went there. Everything floated through 42nd Street.
When the Stonewall riots began on June 28, 1969, Miss Major headed down to the legendary Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in search of company, as she often did.
They had just buried Judy Garland. I remember watching it on TV and not realizing how tiny she was as a person. And seeing her casket — it looked like a child’s casket covered in white lilies. It was simply the most moving, beautiful thing at that time I’d ever seen. And I went down to the club to visit some friends and to get out of the house because I’d been home all day. And shit just happens, you know?
The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was a popular hangout for the city’s queer community. Like Compton’s Cafeteria it was also subject to police scrutiny and harassment. On June 28, 1969, cops raided the club. It was a breaking point: Angry crowds fought back against the police, and protests continued for three days.
It wasn’t a planned event; it wasn’t something that was like a scheduled thing, like they do everything today. You know, it was just one of those things where the shit just automatically hit the fan.
I knew that when you get in those kind of situations, you need to do something to piss [off] whatever cop or officer you’re fighting — enough to get you knocked you out, so that they’d stop beating you. Once they knock you out, they step over you and go fight somebody else.
So all I remember, my last memory was snatching this guy’s mask off and spitting in his face, and then the lights went out.
Miss Major was incarcerated at the Clinton Correction Facility (popularly known as Dannemora) when she met fellow inmate Frank “Big Black” Smith. Previously, Smith had played an instrumental role in the 1971 uprising at Attica Correctional Facility, where fellow prisoners had chosen him to act as security officer.
When they sent Black — they sent about four or five of the guys [who participated in the Attica uprising] to Dannemora — they put them in the hole, where I was already at. So I got to meet them and talk to them. Frank Smith — which was Big Black — I just talked a lot with him and he is the person who specifically politicized me and made me aware of all the stuff going on in regards to who I was as a black person, who I was in regards to being an inmate and a prisoner. And not just what the people who were supposed to guard and protect me thought about me, but also the world in general, simply because of the classification that goes on. And so he gave me books to read, and he talked with me for hours on end about all that stuff and how he got there. And so it made me aware of what things that I needed to do to help to protect my girls, my community.
Miss Major lost two “very dear friends” in New York, both sex workers. One was beaten and the other drowned in her bathtub — a death Miss Major and her friends found suspicious.
It just didn’t make any sense, and we couldn’t get the police to acknowledge that, or pay any attention to what we had to say. And so what we wound up doing was looking out for one another, paying attention to what cars we were going to get into if we were going to turn a trick. Getting another girl to note, “Well, this is the car; write down the license number in case she doesn’t come back.” Keep track of the time of how long she was gone — little things like that. And by the time I met Black, all of that had just come together to get me going on this mission to make sure that my community was okay. And that it’s time that we get the respect that we’re due. I didn’t wake up one Tuesday morning and go, “Oh, shit! I think I’ll be a woman today!” There were years of trying to figure out who I was and what I meant to the world. Everybody goes through gender issues! I don’t care who you are! You’re a teenager? You’re going through a gender issue. How you’re going to dress? What you want to be? Are you going to have purple hair or orange? Are you going to have spikes on your neck? Are you going to have a dog collar? Everything isn’t male and female. It’s not all about dick and pussy. Nothing is set in stone.
Today Miss Major works with with the Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Program to advocate for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated trans women of color.
What they are facing is absolutely horrific, and if something like this were happening to biologically born female people within the prison system, the community and this society would be jumping up and down and ranting and raving and doing whatever they could to change it, to make it somewhat better. But since it isn’t these people, and it’s these men who “think” that they’re women, who are deluding the world and the public with this belief that they have, who are crazy people, they don’t care. So the thing that we try to do at TGI is to give the girls that are still in the system some hope. Let them know that it can get better, you know? That there are people out here who care, who want to help, who are going to try to make it better. And when you come home they’ll help get off that damn merry-go-round that sends you back to prison every so often so that you wind up feeling like going to prison is home. You get arrested, and you’re in the jail, and all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh, hey, girl! I’ve been sitting in here a couple of months. How was it out there?” “Oh, girl, I’m so tired, I’m so glad to be here.” No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I’m sorry, because someone’s feeding you three meals a day and providing you with a change of clothing, that’s not home. It’s prison.
Interview by Andy Wright. Parts were omitted for clarity and brevity.