Miss Major Griffin-Gracy was born in the 1940s in Chicago, Illinois. Around age 13, she came out to her parents as transgender. After a psychologist, an exorcism, and prayer failed to change Miss Major’s conviction to live by her own rules, her parents kicked her out. To survive, she turned to sex work. In 1962, after being expelled from two colleges for wearing dresses, she moved to New York City.
Frequently fired from jobs because of her gender presentation, Miss Major performed in various drag revues, relying on sex work and petty crime to cover her bills. A rough trade gay club called the Stonewall Inn was one of the few places where she felt welcome. On the night of June 28, 1969, when the Stonewall was raided for the umpteenth time by the police, Miss Major and a group of fellow transgender women were on the front lines of the crowd that finally fought back. A cop knocked Miss Major out, but the revolution had begun. The four nights of rioting that followed became known as the launch point of the modern gay rights movement.
After Stonewall, Miss Major earned a five-year prison sentence for robbery. She was released on parole twice and twice sent back to prison—the first time for wearing makeup, and the second for entering a bar known for catering to “deviants.” While incarcerated at Clinton Correctional Facility in far upstate New York, Miss Major met Frank Smith, who had led prison riots at Attica. Frank encouraged her to educate herself about black history, and to strive to address the causes of racism, inequality, and transgender oppression.
Out of prison, and for many years since, Miss Major has continued to advocate for the rights, equality, and safety she stood up for at Stonewall. From 2006 to 2015, she was a key member and executive director of the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), an advocacy group for transgender people behind bars, and after their release. Miss Major wrote letters, met with prisoners, and helped newly released individuals to enroll in college and rehabilitation programs, find jobs, and fully embrace their gender identities. A documentary about her life entitled Major! was released in 2015, and garnered best documentary awards at 20 film festivals around the world.
OUTWORDS caught up with Miss Major in the summer of 2016, at the Oakland apartment she shared with her son. Parked outside was her gold Cadillac. Miss Major was sweet and sassy, fierce and feisty, and a big flirt.