Miss Major On Rioting At Stonewall: 'That Was 3 Nights Of Absolute Terror'

"If Stonewall would have made a difference, things would be better today," the transgender activist said.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy was present at the 1969 Stonewall riots and has spent the decades since as an activist and elder in the LGBTQ community.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy was present at the 1969 Stonewall riots and has spent the decades since as an activist and elder in the LGBTQ community.
Courtesy of "Major!"

“I’m not really anything special,” Miss Major Griffin-Gracy says with a slight chuckle. “I’m just one of the girls.”

But despite her modesty, Griffin-Gracy is anything but ordinary. An older trans person and a mother figure to countless LGBTQ young people, Griffin-Gracy is an elder of the queer rights movement ― and someone whose legacy almost demands your respect.

Present the night of the 1969 Stonewall riots, an event heralded as the beginning of the mainstream LGBTQ rights movement, Griffin-Gracy in many ways is an embodiment of LGBTQ history. In the decades since Stonewall, she has worn the hats of organizer, activist, prison abolitionist, sex worker and transgender elder, providing a crucial voice for those members of the LGBTQ community most disproportionately affected by violence and systems of power and oppression.

“I’m concerned about the things that are happening to my community that’ve been going on ever since I realized I was not like everybody else,” she tells HuffPost. “It becomes a matter of when those things happen, what do you do? Do you run and hide, do you let stuff go on? And it’s hard to do that if you care about people. So I just want to make sure that things are better, and not just for me and my folk, but for everybody.”

Over the years, Griffin-Gracy, who was incarcerated herself for a time, has been particularly vocal about the injustices that transgender individuals, particularly those of color, face at the hands of our criminal justice system. She talked to HuffPost about the realities of living at the intersections of multiple modes of oppression, navigating the world as an older trans person and her own memories of that historic night at Stonewall Inn.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Griffin-Gracy has been vocal about the injustices of transgender individuals in the country's criminal justice system.
Griffin-Gracy has been vocal about the injustices of transgender individuals in the country's criminal justice system.
Courtesy of "Major!"

When we last spoke, we were clearly living in a very different political climate. What are some of the most crucial and pressing issues that you feel like our community ― and specifically trans people and trans people of color ― are facing today?

Today is a dangerous time. And not just for my girls and my guys, but for people in general. So I’m just trying to do what I can to correct the issue, give my community a safe place to be, someone to love them irregardless of who they are, what they look like, what their thoughts and beliefs are, and give them a chance to live and be the best person they can be.

One of the things that’s weird about that question is it isn’t just today. If Stonewall would have made a difference, things would be better today. If the civil rights movement had been a success, black people wouldn’t be 85, 90 percent in prison. So the things that were, still are.

I think the differences are that what we have to worry about now is due to these pressing times, things and people have become so particular about words and usage. And with this social media stuff, there’s an anonymity that comes with brutalizing and bullying somebody to whereby there’s no one to blame. It’s on the internet, or someone texts you something nasty or disgusting.

And in that regard, my worry and fear about today is that my community’s going to look for places to run and hide out of fear of extinction. And I want to do what I can to not ever do that, to have a voice, speak up, fight back, work with people. ... Because everybody doesn’t hate us.

So work and find the people who believe in who we are, and who want us to be a success and live a decent life. Not normal, whatever the fuck that is, but to be the persons that we need to be, for all of us.

“If Stonewall would have made a difference, things would be better today. If the civil rights movement had been a success, black people wouldn’t be 85, 90 percent in prison. So the things that were, still are.”

And so I think the pressing thing today is for the gay community to accept transgender people for who they are and stop trying to approve or disapprove of us, or criticize and ridicule us, and treat us like they have been treated for years simply because they can. That they feel that they’re such a part of mainstream now that they can get married, or that “oh, they’re OK and they’re accepted.”

So I would like people to just realize that, OK, if you want to do something different and be the best person that you can be, why would you want to mimic or copy people who absolutely hate and abhor your very existence? And who, if they would have gotten the chance, would have eradicated you years ago. But you want to copy them and live like they live and have a little house and adopt a little black child and live this life that you really haven’t earned, or they don’t feel are entitled to. And then to turn your head and criticize and ruin and step on someone else’s life, which is usually my community. That’s my fear.

A lot of your work has focused on the incarceration of transgender people and prison abolition. Can you talk about why this is so important, and kind of what people need to know about the realities of how queer and trans people are treated in prison?

Well, oh goodness. How we get treated in prison is just as abhorrent as they treat us on the outside. The difference is that inside of prison there is no one to hold accountable, no one to yell, “Help,” and have a response. And the abuses are tantamount to being murdered and still being alive. So you’re kind of like a zombie in there. They can do what they want to you and don’t have to answer to anybody. Some of these prisons are so far off the grid that they can kill you, take you out to a field, bury your ass, and no one even knows that you were there.

So it’s a matter of getting people to realize that on top of these abuses that they do, what they try to do now with this current flavor of things to have prisons that are more gender-specific, and that they’re more open to alternative lifestyles, which means they’re going to build more prisons to put new people in, and then bury them in something like a hole, putting them in a cell that’s the size of a closet with a bed, a bucket to piss in and a bowl that has water in it.

And the reason it’s so important to do something about that is because with that they use us like pawns for the rest of the prisoners that they have in there. They’ll take an effeminate girl that comes through there and put her in a cell with some maniac who they’re having a problem getting to follow the rules, getting with the program of what the prison system is all about. And so they stick one of us in there where he can beat up and abuse us and get blowjobs from us, fuck us as he sees fit and calm the fuck down. Do they stop it? No. So they encourage it.

And so it’s a matter of if we’re going to be used and abused like that then we need to get the hell out of there. And they need to know there’s somebody outside that wall who hears what they’re going through and wants to do something. Talk to them, write them, give them hope that this shit isn’t going to last forever. And it may seem like the deepest, darkest hole that you’re never going to get out of.

So teach them how to handle that, how to deal with that, and to realize that even in the dark of night you can find a sense of humor, you can think of something warm, you can hold on to your sanity and don’t let them kill you spiritually, emotionally and then physically if it gets to that. To give them a sense of hope, a sense of belief to know that this can end, and when it does I will be better. They won’t win.

Let’s talk about you being present the night of the Stonewall riots. Can you tell us a bit about that experience, and how it’s shaped who you are today and your perception of the LGBTQ movement as a whole?

Well, way before that night happened, people were trying to organize gay people, especially through this group called the Mattachine Society that was trying to ingratiate the gay community into mainstream straight society. And they were having classes on how to behave in public for the gay boys who were running around, how to butch it up and get along comfortably around a bunch of guys. They were teaching lesbians how to walk appropriately, in a dress and heels and stuff. And so there was always this push within their community, and within my community. At the time, we were considered drag queens or female impersonators. And a way to socialize and be accepted as most people want to do ― you want to have friends and you want to have family. And since you can’t have your blood family, you have to create a family and a sense of well-being and a connection to other people.

So by the time Stonewall happened, I feel as if things had just gotten to a point of this shit has to stop now, the buck stops here. And just a thing of that night the police had been chasing gays and us out of bars for years. In every major city, they just come, hit us with their nightstick, and people file out, go home. And this is one of those nights that it just wasn’t going to happen.

“Since you can’t have your blood family, you have to create a family and a sense of well-being and a connection to other people.”

So from there, things went to west hell, as they say. And people think, “Oh, just one night of mayhem.” That was three nights of absolute terror. It didn’t just happen that one day. Because people were fed up. The times are different. Everybody was in an uproar over the war, over the treatment of blacks, over the treatment of women. Everybody wanted their piece of whatever the American dream was at that time. And our community and the gays and lesbians were no different. And so it was just a feeling of, “Well, God damn it, tonight we’re going to do something.” And to no avail from our point of view. For what good it did my trans girls, it might as well have not happened.

The theme for our Pride Month coverage this year is “The Future is Queer.” What does a queer and inclusive future look and feel like to you?

A better world would be a world where everybody had the opportunity to choose to live a lifestyle that is comfortable and meaningful to them, that children didn’t have to go out of their way and drive themselves crazy trying to please their parents and be a miniature copy of them. That they could be themselves and be approved of and love irregardless of what they chose to be. That once you made those decisions for yourself, say as a teenager when you’re fighting to figure out who the hell you are, and getting into young adulthood, that the world said, “OK, if this is what you want, let us help you get there. Let’s don’t throw you to the wolves and have you fight, claw, scratch, to achieve little inches of stuff when we can help you do this by the foot, or the yard.”

I would want a society and a place to live and be comfortable whereby you didn’t have to look over your shoulder, where you could walk down a dark street and not worry that the boogeyman does exist, real or imagined. Where people were taken care of and looked after. Where mental issues were dealt with from a compassionate point of view instead of with a cattle prod and a chair.

I would want the acceptance that people, especially in this country due to their forefathers and shit, I would want all that stuff to be true and inclusive of everybody, not the chosen few. That things were spread equally so that all of us could survive, not you’re going to survive just because you’re white and 25, but everybody. Someone 5-foot-1, short, fat, a mess, confused, but happy with their existence. Why can’t somebody just tell them, “That’s wonderful. Come over here and let me help you. Do what you want to do, not what I think you should do.” And I don’t know if that would be a queer future, but it would be a nice one.

For LGBTQ Pride 2018, HuffPost is highlighting 30 different cultural influencers who have shifted the narrative when it comes to queer issues and whose work has contributed to building a more inclusive and equitable future for us all.

#TheFutureIsQueer is HuffPost’s monthlong celebration of queerness, not just as an identity but as action in the world. Find all of our Pride Month coverage here.

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