Instead of a Plaque in the Sidewalk, How About the Building Next to It?

© Arrian Jahangiri, Quinn Dombrowski

For more than fifty years, Miss Major has played the crucial role of surrogate mother and grandmother to countless trans and queer people around the world. (She likes the term ‘My gurls’). The price of getting to this point has been high: the lives of two of the three people she’s called “the loves of my life”; five totaled pre-1977 Cadillacs; two homes destroyed by fire; both of her original kidneys; an eye; a toe; and all but one tooth — she called it Snaggle — that stuck to her gums solo for years before she drove to Dallas, Texas on her seventieth birthday and treated herself to a new set.

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is a veteran of the infamous Stonewall Riots, a former sex worker, and a transgender elder and activist who has survived Bellevue psychiatric hospital, Attica Prison, the HIV/AIDS crisis and a world that white supremacy has built. She has shared tips with other sex workers in the nascent drag ball scene of the late 1960s, and helped found one of America’s first needle exchange clinics from the back of her van.

With Miss Major Speaks: Conversations with a Black Trans Revolutionary, she is a debut author.

Toshio Meronek


F: The book is comprised of an introduction to your life and then an extended interview. Why did this interview form work so well?

M: Number one, to be honest, I didn’t think people would be as interested as it’s turned out they are. [My co-author] Toshio came to me with this idea for a book and I guess it felt like I still had things to say after the documentary [MAJOR!] came out after all.

At the time, Toshio asked me if I could if he could record our conversations. Something that people have told me is they like my voice that it has been a comfort to them and so I think that rather than write things down Toshio could pick out the things that could be of use to some of the younger generations of activists looking for a few words to help them through the uncomfortable times.

F: How did the conversations unfold? Were they conducted in a formal setting? Was there a set agenda? Or was it off-the-cuff? Where did the interviews take place? Please set the scene.

M: The conversations took place on planes and trains and automobiles. Some of the recordings, it’s me and Beck and Asiah gurgling in the background, and others it’s me with the girls talking to Tracie [O’Brien] or Tourmaline about how we’re going to get through to the next day.

Toshio started recording around the time we were in Scotland, before I’d moved to Arkansas and we finished on the floor or the bedroom here at home.

F: The focus of your life and work has been in the US. Why is the book relevant to gurls around the world?

M: Because we’re really all just part of one family, as much drama as some of us throw at each other. This trans thing connects us in a way people who aren’t trans just can’t understand.

I think when I was in Spain at the UN conference [on Human Rights] is when it really hit me, looking around that room seeing all the girls from different countries out in their stuff. Regardless of what they wore there was something universal in the room.

F: At numerous points in the book you discuss the importance of role models and elders in the trans community. What’s the benefit of being an elder?

M: Us older girls we’ve done the time. There aren’t a lot of us that get to be this age but those of us that do. There were points when we were hanging on by the end of our fingernails. So we know a thing or two about survival in a world that wants us gone.

F: The book is full of good advice. Frank “Big Black” Smith lets you know that ‘during things like the riot or getting justice done — stuff like that — you can’t throw anybody under the bus.’ What’s a piece of advice you like to impart to trans readers? What’s a piece of advice you’d like to impart to a cis reader?

M: *One* piece of advice? Well, I guess they’d have to read the book but if they want one, I’d say that there are a lot of things they teach you in kindergarten, that turn out to be true. For instance, despite all our differences, we are more alike than we are different for better or for worse.

I did get asked a few times before Toshio but I guess it just felt like “I’m still fucking here, I’m still alive” and writing a book about my life, it felt like there’s some finality to it, and I’m not done yet.

So with the book we decided to make it something that wasn’t just about me and my life, but more so about: “Here are a few things that I’ve learned, take them or leave them, and hopefully they can help the next girl after me.”

F: You walk around in a constant state of teaching Transgender 101 to strangers.

M: Uh-huh. All the time. Everywhere. Into the store, the clerk’s gonna talk to you. The boy who’s putting out the produce is going to talk to you. If you bump into somebody else shopping, they’re going to quiz you. You’re always, always on. And when it starts, it’s almost always not something you can stop. You’re in survival mode, and they’re in inquisitive mode. If you wanna get outta there, you gotta say something, and hope they can get their shit together.

F: One of the things that strangers and people who’ve known you a long time mention is the way you decide what gender means to you. Your self-expression. That it’s not a binary. Which is still a radical idea to most of the world. Some of the younger people already feel it, but you might be the first person that they’ve heard it from who is on a stage, from someone who they respect. People spend so much time and money in a struggle to “pass” as cisgender.

M: Passing is not this goal I started out with. I simply got tired of losing teeth. I used to go into restaurants and wait till they had a table open where my back could be against the wall, just so I could see if someone tried to creep up on me. When I started out, people would say, “Why are you like that?” “Because I like titties, and instead of going around touching other gurls’ titties, I can touch my own. Child, I’m just a gay guy with tits.” Shocks the hell out of them.

“It’s like being on a road, it doesn’t matter if it’s the yellow brick road, or pavement, or gravel. It’s still a road, and where it takes you is wherever you’re going.”

It’s like being on a road, it doesn’t matter if it’s the yellow brick road, or pavement, or gravel. It’s still a road, and where it takes you is wherever you’re going. And I think the journey is how you use that road—if you stay on it and the path that it’s leading you down, or you venture off and do something else and create a path of your own. After a few journeys becomes another road. Part of that journey is realizing you are gonna be fine as you are. Better than fine. No matter how dark the damn path gets, there’s always a light. And if you can’t find it, you keep going till you see one. You don’t ever, ever give up. You never say, “Shit, I can’t do this anymore.” Yes, you can: You just have to keep moving forward. It can take years, and some of us are late bloomers, but you figure out how to negotiate through this straight, cisgender world as everybody else does who’s not white and doesn’t come from money. You have to maintain and hold on to the ground that you’re standing on, ward off the things that are out there that bring us harm, and keep yourself safe and stay strong. I don’t mean you need to go to a damn gym, but keep yourself mentally, spiritually, and emotionally strong, because those are the things that are hard to get over.

When I started out, it was like, somebody fight me, we’re good. I’ll heal. But you say something, call me “nigger” as I’m walking down the street—I’ll remember that. Give it a couple days and I’ll see something to remind me that you said that to me. I want the gurls to be able to shield themselves from things like that. To have it roll off them just like water does off a duck’s back. So that they can be strong and resilient and be the best version of themselves that they can be. Underneath all of this is, people who clock us and beat us up, and kill us, they can kill us as a person, but they can’t kill the idea of who we are. They can’t get rid of the feeling of being transgender or nonbinary. They can’t eradicate it from the world.

F: How do you picture the future? What does your utopia look like? What’s the future you imagine?

M: I’m sick of that question, too. Do I look like a psychic?

F: OK, but you are thinking about the future, and that vision obviously has worked out, in some kinda way. You inspire a lot of people to believe in community, even though it feels like some great world-ending catastrophe is happening.

M: I don’t know what’s gonna happen tomorrow. But I’m here, so I might as well fucking enjoy it, and help my community if I can. I would hope that the future is a place where there’s less emphasis on surgery and gender markers. I would hope that someone would step away from this book recognizing that “transgender” does not encompass just one type of person.

It’s a battle just to be who we are and be respected for what we ’ve done, and it does feel often like there ’s no end in sight. There ’s no way to knock off all those who are in a position of power. These structures, it’s not a matter of just killing those on top—and even if it were, how’s that going to work? They always have a bull’s-eye on our foreheads, and they’ll pull a trigger when it serves them. They need to be constantly reminded that we can see their bullshit. Motherfuckers, I’m half-blind and I can see it.

People should be doing anything they can to shake down the status quo. And we need to be remembering that when we’re dealing with the Powers That Be, it doesn’t hurt to ask for more. If you manage to get to someone from the upper crust of society, take that chance for all it’s worth. Whatever it is you’re asking for, ask for more. Sometimes, they’ll try to get away with giving you something you can’t actually live off of, because at some point the motherfuckers decided the thing to do was to give dead trans women a bronze plaque in the sidewalk and call it a day. Just like the one outside Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin. You wouldn’t know it was there if you tripped and fell and it hit you in the middle of your forehead. So if they try to pull that shit, what you do is say, “Woo—thank you very much, that’s so very nice of you, but the thing is I don’t know anyone who’s ever lived on a plaque.” That plaque better be the size of a two-bedroom apartment.

Instead of a plaque in the sidewalk, how about the building next to it? Because landlords don’t want to rent to my community in the first place, and paying rent today you’re talking about three or four jobs, with three or four roommates, just to afford a little place where you can lay your head down to rest.