Janetta Johnson was broken. It was 1997, and she had just completed a stretch in prison for prostitution. Johnson, an African-American transgender woman, had been incarcerated with men and denied gender-affirming health care. Out of custody and living in Tampa Bay, Fla., she wanted to enter a drug and alcohol treatment program, but of the seven she tried, not one would accept her unless she agreed not to be Janetta, not to be a woman. She could enter their programs, but only if she pretended to be a man.
“I was broken to where it seemed like I was broken beyond repair,” Johnson says now. “I was in a hopeless state, body and mind. I kind of thought that everything that happened to me was what I deserved.”
By chance, Johnson spoke with someone who had met a person named Miss Major. “If you call her, she will help you,” Johnson was told.
Johnson made the call: “I said, 'I'm struggling. I need help. It's hard. I want to get a job. I want to get off the street. I want to get off drugs. Will you help me?' And she said, 'Yes.'”
Two weeks later, Johnson arrived in San Francisco on a Greyhound bus and walked into Miss Major's office. “Ever since I've been here, I've never had to sleep on the street,” Johnson says. “I've never stood in a food line. She's been my mother. I'm her daughter. She has taken care of me. She's taught me how to be strong. She's taught me how to fight. She taught me how to have a voice. She taught me how not to let people walk over me. She just taught me.”
The woman on the other end of the phone — and the other end of the country — was Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, an African-American transgender woman who has spent most of her life taking care of “the girls.” Now in her 70s (she doesn't like to get too specific about her age), she is the matriarch of the Bay Area's trans community, doling out love, advice, meals, and a place to sleep to anyone in her community who needs it.
Over the past few years, Miss Major's work in the trans community has been steadily and increasingly acknowledged. A building in New York City that houses five LGBTQ nonprofit organizations now bears her name. She was selected as a community grand marshal for the 2014 San Francisco Pride Parade. She is the subject of a documentary, MAJOR!, that is in post-production.
In June, transgender actress and role model Laverne Cox paid tribute to Miss Major in the pages of this paper. Another prominent trans celebrity, journalist and author Janet Mock, told the Bay Area Reporter last year, “Without Miss Major's contributions and work, I would not exist.”
Recognition of Miss Major's advocacy and achievements comes at a moment when America's treatment of transgender people is rife with contradictions. Last week, we were treated to examples of how much progress has been made for some transgender people, but also how much that progress remains limited to the same people who have always had more privilege and more opportunities. On Wednesday, Caitlyn Jenner was awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles, making her first major public appearance since she came out as transgender earlier this year. During the broadcast of the awards ceremony, Google became one of the first big corporations to stamp its imprimatur on trans acceptance in order to promote its brand when it aired a two-and-a-half minute advertisement featuring the story of a young trans man's gender transition.
But outside the spotlight, much is as it always has been for trans people in America, especially trans women of color. The day after Jenner delivered her much-lauded speech on acceptance to a national television audience, the Des Moines Register reported that a black trans woman had been arrested and was being held on $2,000 bail after the staff in the hotel where she was staying assumed she was a prostitute and called the police. Despite no evidence that she was engaging in sex work, 22-year-old Meagan Taylor was incarcerated based on her “suspicious” gender presentation. Unsure whether to put her in a men's or women's prison, authorities decided to place her in isolation in the medical unit.
When Taylor gets out of prison, she'll be where Johnson and Miss Major were before her. Because as far as society has come, in many ways we're still right back where we started. And Miss Major wants more from us than just to pretend to understand what she and other transgender people have gone through, or to pretend that listening to her story means that we've walked a mile in her shoes.
“Fuck my shoes. Put on my dress,” she says. “Wear my hair, go get caught sucking a dick, have to run from the police by leaping over cars, changing clothes while you're running so that you're dressed different, your hair is different, and you can walk past the same people that are chasing you and they don't recognize you. Do that, and then come talk to me about walking a mile in my shoes.”
The con was fairly straightforward. Miss Major would get all dolled up, do her hair, slip on a fur, and go flirt with the guy at the front desk at motels throughout upstate New York. Once the front desk guy was well and truly distracted, Tex, her boyfriend at the time, would slip inside, break into the guest rooms, bust open the safes, and take all the jewelry and furs the guests had left behind.
“Fur is so wonderful,” Miss Major says, with a touch of nostalgia for the bad old days. “You blow on it, and it blows back at you.”
As an African-American trans woman in the late 1960s, Miss Major was used to living outside the law. She was essentially barred from living within it. Every legitimate job she'd ever managed to get — from arranging the merchandise in a boutique to answering the phones at a law firm — was lost to her the moment a customer complained or a co-worker realized she was “different.” For the most part, people just wouldn't hire her.
Miss Major made money, she says, “hooking and turning tricks, working with girls who boosted, and stuff like that.” She would take advantage of shop owners' racism by entering stores with a white friend, knowing the proprietor would watch her so closely that her partner could get away with stealing anything. Then they would go to the park, sell the goods, and split the money. Sex work in New York City was a constant, but led to constant police harassment and, at times, violence from johns.
An overnight in the Tombs or a brief stretch at Sing Sing, where she knew exactly how to survive the psych exam (“We knew what to tell those doctors: 'Oh, I have to sit and pee and I always thought I was a woman' — just standard bullshit to get through it so it can end”) were the costs of survival. But the safe-breaking jobs in upstate New York led to a five-year sentence at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, known as “Little Siberia” for its remote location just 20 miles south of the Canadian border.
During her years in Dannemora, Miss Major met Frank “Big Black” Smith and some of the other leaders of the prison riot at Attica, in northwestern New York. Big Black encouraged her to read books, learn about African-American history, and develop a political understanding of the world. She also spent considerable time in solitary confinement, because whenever conflict arose between male inmates and the trans women who were incarcerated alongside them, the women would be sent to the hole.
“It's hard to exist alone, in this vacuum of just you,” Miss Major says. “You really gotta fight to hold onto who you are.”
It was a difficult fight, waged against an unscrupulous and powerful opponent that aimed straight at the essence of what Miss Major knew herself to be: a woman. The first time she was released on parole, she went home and did something she'd been dying to do for years: “I took a nice long bath in Calgon, got to shave really close, put on a little makeup, dyed my hair, got my nails done. The next day I went to report to my parole officer, and they violated me and sent me back to prison that night.”
The reason? The parole officer claimed she had “changed her appearance in order to abscond from parole.” She was flabbergasted. “There was no acknowledgment of the fact that I was a girl who just needed to arch my eyebrows and change my hairstyle.” It wasn't as if the authorities did not know she was transgender. She'd seen the giant red stamp reading “DEVIANT” that marked all of her paperwork.
The second time she was released on parole, she stayed out for a few months before an officer claimed to have seen her going into a so-called “deviant bar” and sent her back to prison. After that, she served out the rest of her sentence.
When Miss Major was finally freed, she was in a state not unfamiliar to Janetta Johnson. Miss Major began questioning her gender identity, and trying to convince herself that being transgender was wrong. “All I could think about was, 'Oh god, technically I'm a guy. I really shouldn't be wearing dresses,' even though that's who I really am.” It took her a year to get back to herself and go back outside dressed the way she wanted to dress.
“After you come out of those places, you're not the same as you were when you went in. It chips away at you,” she says now. “You go through this battle with yourself, and you either win or lose, and winning is getting what you need to do, and losing is doing what they want you to do. I finally cut that string and got a chance to go back to being who I was.”
Indeed, the feelings of despair and disillusion Miss Major and Johnson experienced after being released from prison are dismayingly common among transgender people. A staggering 41 percent of transgender people in the U.S. have attempted suicide, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, with even higher rates for those who have been harassed by law enforcement officers. Poverty, racial discrimination, violence, and housing insecurity are all factors that increase transgender people's risk factors for suicide. Organizations like the National LGBT Health Education Center now encourage health care workers and other service providers to pursue “transgender-affirming” policies that respect an individual's gender identity, but such efforts are far from being universally adopted by government institutions, let alone the general population.
Today Miss Major is comfortable being unequivocally and unapologetically herself. She owns her sexuality (“There may be snow on the roof, honey, but the fireplace is on and the bedroom is hot”) and her gender queerness with pride. “There are days I don't feel like shaving,” she tells me, on a morning in her apartment when she hasn't felt like putting on a wig or a set of fake teeth. “I don't want to pass. I want people to look at me and realize I am a transgender person.”
And she has little interest in the priorities of the mainstream LGBT movement. She's not particularly excited about same-sex marriage. She questions whether the money that funded the campaign for marriage equality could have been better spent supporting trans youth and expanding drug treatment programs. Nor was she especially moved by SF Pride's selection of her as a community grand marshal or by the growing recognition from LGBT organizations of her lifetime of activism. She compares the mainstream LGBT movement's newfound embrace of transgender people and advocacy to a weak hug and an air kiss. “If you can't kiss me,” she says, “then don't fucking hug me.”
Instead, she focuses on assisting other trans women who have been where she was: incarcerated and trying to re-enter society. She's the executive director of TGI Justice Project, a San Francisco-based grassroots organization that supports transgender, gender variant, and intersex people inside and outside of prison. Every Tuesday night, the group meets to correspond by mail with transgender inmates around the country. When a woman gets out, TGI Justice activates its network of staff, volunteers, and formerly incarcerated people to help her find services, emergency housing, and meals.
Janetta Johnson now runs TGIJP's grassroots re-entry program. “I like to think of our program as the Harriet Tubman program,” she says, “because when people get out of custody, we help them get free and stay free.”
The morning I speak with Johnson, she's exhausted after spending the previous evening with a trans woman who had just been released from custody. The woman wanted to enter a drug and alcohol program, so Johnson had stood in line with her at HealthRight 360 to ensure she had a spot in their transgender program. The HealthRight 360 staff member gave the woman a referral to a homeless shelter for the few days before the treatment program began, but Johnson arranged for her to stay with one of TGIJP's members instead.
“Right now, I'm kind of walking in Miss Major's shoes,” Johnson says of her work making sure no one falls through the cracks. “And they are some tough-ass shoes to fill.”
Miss Major's goal for her community are in some ways tragically simple, and indicative of the intolerance, violence, and oppression that trans people continue to face. “We just want to be left alone to live our lives,” she says. “I'd like for the girls to get a chance to be who they are. For young transgender people to go to school, learn like everyone else does, and then get out there and live their lives, not afraid or thinking that the only solution for them is death.”
“A lot of time, you know, my girls don't get to 30 or 40 years old,” she says. A commonly cited statistic holds that the average life expectancy for a black trans woman is just 35. “For me, I want all of us to at least have an opportunity to make it to 70. And when the dust settles, I want my girls to stand up and let people know, we're still fucking here.”
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy was born Major Gracy at St. Luke's Hospital in Chicago, Ill., in “1940-something or other.” Her father worked in the railroad section of the post office. Her mother ran a beauty shop. “We had a good middle-class existence,” she says of her childhood on the South Side.
Her mother chose the name Major on the advice of a psychic. “The psychic told her that she wouldn't carry me to term, and that she needed to give me a name that had strength and character because I was going to be different. And so she came up with the name Major.” The psychic was right: Baby Major was born two months early, and she was different.
Assigned to the male gender at birth, Miss Major came out to her parents when she was 12 or 13. “I told them that this existence that I had, it just didn't feel right,” she says. “You know inside when something isn't meshing right.”
Miss Major's parents' first response was to send her to a psychiatrist to “straighten my brain out,” she says. “When that didn't work, they decided that they would just pray on me. So they took me to church and had the demon excised from me, and then they waited for me to grow out of it. I'm still waiting to grow out of it myself.”
While Laverne Cox and Janet Mock are the role models transgender teens can look to today, in the 1950s, there was Christine Jorgensen, an American G.I. who underwent sex reassignment surgery in Europe. She became an instant celebrity when the New York Daily News ran her story under the headline “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Bombshell” and went on to advocate for transgender rights.
“After Christine Jorgensen got her sex change, all of a sudden there was a black market of hormones out there,” Miss Major recalls. A fortune teller in an amusement park on the North Side of Chicago sold oral hormones out of her booth. “She would do the little crystal ball thing and you would pay her, and she would slip you some hormones to take.” All the transgender girls and women would congregate outside the tent and get to know one another.
After Miss Major's parents realized she wasn't going to identify as a man, they kicked her out. Miss Major survived as best she could outside of the law, doing sex work, stealing, scraping by. At one point, she found a secretarial job with the Mattachine Society, one of the country's first gay rights organizations. Still, sex work was the steadiest work, and that put Miss Major at the mercy of the police. “You always got abused by cops,” she says. “Always.”
When she would get picked up, Miss Major recalls, “You didn't go to jail jail, they put you in a mental hospital, on the psych floor. You were considered to be a crazy person if you were a male person wearing a dress.” After spending six months in a mental institution in Chicago, where she was forced to take Thorazine (“That medication would knock your dick in the dirt”), Miss Major had had enough of Chicago, and she struck out for New York.
“New York used to really rock,” Miss Major says of the city in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She lived uptown on 85th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, “in a building full of nothing but girls,” she says. “It was just fun. The house would just rock to the music, and we would jam out all the time. A party would start downstairs, go upstairs, and then go back downstairs. Boys would come and go.” The music was Motown. “Everybody thought they were Diana Ross,” she says with a laugh.
Miss Major was a showgirl in the famed Jewel Box Revue, which featured performances by what were then called “female impersonators.” She performed with another group called the Cherries, and another called the Powder Puff Revue. She went by different names at different times — “Barbara and then Olive then Valerie, Bonita, Cynthia, Margaret, Mary” — before settling back on Major, with the addition of “Miss.” She added “Griffin” to her last name in honor of her mother, something she learned from European sex workers who hyphenated their names.
“You took pride in what you were doing,” Miss Major says of her showgirl days. “If you were trying to mimic some star like Diana Ross or the Supremes or one of the Marvelettes, you really worked on what their mannerisms were.”
FIGHTING FOR YOUR FUCKING EXISTENCE
There was something in the air on the night of June 27, 1969. As on so many nights, Miss Major and her friends had congregated at the Stonewall Inn, a small, brick-fronted, Mafia-run bar on Christopher Street in the West Village that was one of a handful of establishments that welcomed a gay and transgender clientele.
“Stonewall was a great bar, a transgender bar,” Miss Major says. “You could be someplace and you didn't have to explain who you were. There were friends there. You were accepted there.” After a night working on the streets or performing in a show, Stonewall was where she would head to hang out with friends or pick up a boy.
Most nights, the police would show up late and bang on the wall with their night sticks. “When you heard that sound, you knew to step away from who you were dancing with, if it was a same-sex person, and then to leave the bar, turn the lights on, and go. It was like last call.”
But in the early hours of June 28, something was different. According to Sylvia Rivera, a transgender woman who was there, it “was a very hot, muggy night.” People were tired, Miss Major says now, “tired of being shuffled off like cattle.”
There are many different accounts of what set off the Stonewall Uprising. Some say a brick was thrown, others a shoe or a Molotov cocktail. But Miss Major, who was there that night, doesn't recall anything like that. The cops showed up, and the patrons decided to fight back. “All I know is all of a sudden you were fighting for your fucking existence,” she says.
“We were not taking any more of this shit,” Rivera, who went on to co-found various groups including the Gay Liberation Front, the Gay Activists Alliance, and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, told Workers World in 1998. “We had done so much for other movements. It was time.”
Miss Major's experience in jail in Chicago had taught her that it was better to piss off the cops badly enough for them to knock you out, than to keep fighting and have them keep beating you. So the first chance she got, she snatched the mask off a policeman's head and spit in his face. “He knocked my ass out,” she says. “That's the last thing I remember. When I woke up, I was in the Tombs, and the next day they just let us all out.”
The protests that erupted that night — and lasted for several more nights of rebellion in the Village — are largely credited as the spark that ignited the Gay Rights movement. The transgender men and women who were inside the bar that night, however, are largely erased from that picture. Many historical renderings of the events don't even mention the transgender women of color at the center of the melée.
“The shame of it was that after it happened, most of the black girls that had been involved in it, we got whitewashed out of it. The gay and lesbian community just took it over and acted not only as if we did not exist, but that we weren't even there,” Miss Major says now of the mainstream LGBT Stonewall narrative. To hear that version, she says, “it was all these white fags and lesbians” fighting with the cops. “I don't know where the hell they were,” Miss Major jokes. “Oh yeah, they were standing outside cheering.”
While the modern LGBT movement would go on to fight for legal rights and recognition for gay people (often ignoring the 'T' in the abbreviation), Miss Major's activism was always more about protecting herself and her community in public and private, from the state and from individuals. Miss Major's turning point as an activist came after one of her friends, another trans woman, was murdered, and the police did nothing to investigate the case. She and a friend, Bunny, decided they needed to look out for one another, so they came up with a system to keep track of each other while they were working. Whenever one of them got into a car, she would write down the license plate number on a piece of paper, crumple it up, and throw it out the window for the other to collect.
“From there, it wound up progressing into keeping an eye out for one another. It went from just two or three of us to ten of us,” Miss Major says. “And from there, I haven't stopped. Because if we don't look out for one another, no one else is going to. It isn't just the people who don't like us that hurt us; it's the people who do like us, who still hurt us. So that's what got it started.”
JUST CALL ME
Ten years after the uprising at Stonewall, thousands of protesters gathered outside San Francisco's City Hall in rage. Dan White, the man who assassinated gay-rights icon and Supervisor Harvey Milk, as well as San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter — not murder — and received a sentence of just seven years and eight months. Enraged, the gay community took to the streets, marching from the Castro to Civic Center calling, “Out of the bars and into the streets.” The crowd turned over police cars and lit them on fire, stopped traffic, and fought back against cops in riot gear.
Miss Major was there, but before things got too out of hand, she left. “I became frightened that something would happen to Christopher,” she says, “and I went back home. We drove back to Menlo Park and just watched it on the news.”
Christopher was Miss Major's son, born in 1978 to her and a long-term girlfriend. Miss Major's release from Dannemora around 1974 had initiated a new phase in her life. She didn't want to go back to prison, and while she didn't stop doing sex work, she was much more careful about breaking the law. When Christopher was born, Miss Major decided that she could give him a better life in California. When she split with Christopher's mother, Miss Major retained custody of her son, something she says she will be forever grateful for.
“I'm always his dad, whether I'm in a push-up bra, blond hair, red hair, three-inch heels, flats, whatever. I'm always his dad. It's been marvelous knowing that he's breathing on the earth somewhere, this little piece of me,” Miss Major says of her son, who is now 36 and working as a chef in New Mexico. “I don't know how he got to be older than me,” she jokes.
She ended up adopting and raising three other sons as well, runaway boys around Christopher's age who she took in and raised. “We met them in the park, and they used to come around for meals. Then when we moved, they moved with us,” she says. “They've never known me without breasts or without me being femme. Two of them call me mom. The other two call me dad. That's on them. Whatever — just call me.”
Throughout the '80s, Miss Major worked to support her community as it was ravaged by the AIDS epidemic. “No one wanted to take care of those gay guys when they first got AIDS,” she recalls, “and a lot of my transgender women stepped up to the plate to do it.” For many trans women, it was their first opportunity to work a legitimate job, a silver lining to the trauma of losing so many friends.
“They were getting diagnosed on Monday or Tuesday and dead by the end of the week,” Miss Major says. “You didn't want to meet anyone new, cause you didn't know if you would know them by the end of the week.” She founded a drop-in center for trans people at the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center and continued to build community and to support as many of the girls as she could.
That community continues to gather around Miss Major today, calling her Mama Major or Grandma Major, and supporting her in her old age, because she never paid taxes and never qualified for any Social Security. One of the women in her community, Danielle Castro, first met Miss Major the same way Janetta Johnson did — by phone.
Castro was 16 and living in San Jose in 1992 when she began questioning her gender identity (she had been assigned the male gender at birth). She called the local LGBT Center and asked for help, but was told it didn't have any services for trans people. The center took her phone number and said, “If we run into any trans people that want to volunteer, we'll have them call you.”
Six months later, Castro picked up the phone. “It was Grandma Major,” she recalls. “She just shared that I'm not a monster. That everything's going to be okay. She gave me some pointers on how to go through the process for transition.” Miss Major also recommended Castro read the book My Story by Caroline “Tula” Cossey, a trans actress and model who was outed by the press in the early 1980s. The book and Miss Major's message helped Castro keep going.
Fifteen years later, Castro met Miss Major for the first time in person, at the Transgender Leadership Summit in Los Angeles. “I melted,” Castro recalls. “I started crying. I said, 'You really impacted my life, and if it weren't for you, I probably would have given up.'”
Castro now lives in San Francisco and is part of Miss Major's adopted family, which includes a tight network of daughters and sons, granddaughters and grandsons. They gathered at Miss Major's Oakland apartment earlier this month for a Fourth of July barbecue.
“We're a close-knit little family. Technically, we're a tough bunch of bitches.” Miss Major says. “Because our blood families are so hostile and cruel to us, we create our own family. We're not related by blood, but we're related by ties of love. It gets us through.”