This is the thirteenth and final installment in a series that aims to elevate some of the transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals who have played a significant role in the ongoing fight for trans and queer liberation. Check out the previous features with CeCe McDonald, Kate Bornstein, Laura Jane Grace, Buck Angel, Calpernia Addams, Ts Madison, Amos Mac, Candis Cayne, Tiq Milan, Caroline Cossey, Andrea James and Jazz Jennings.
It’s been almost fifty years since the historic night at the Stonewall Inn that many people cite as the beginning of the mainstream fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. Decades later, one trans activist who was present the night of the riots is still fighting for the rights and survival of transgender and gender-nonconforming people.
Miss Major is a community leader ― an organizer, activist, prison abolitionist, former sex worker, formerly incarcerated person, transgender elder and mother to countless transgender and GNC youth. She’s built a legacy recognized globally, particularly with her work with incarcerated transgender individuals. Her tireless efforts as an activist and respected elder in the community have not only saved countless lives but paved the way for modern day trans and GNC people operating in the public spotlight and fighting for queer people on a national level. Her legacy has even inspired an award-winning documentary called MAJOR!, currently making its rounds at film festivals.
In this interview with The Huffington Post, Miss Major reflects on her work over the decades, the history of the Stonewall Riots and how we can move away from a system of mass incarceration towards one of harm reduction.
The Huffington Post: You are a legend in the world of queer and trans activism. Can you talk a bit about who you are, along with some of the earliest defining moments for you as an activist and organizer?
Miss Major: Well, I don’t really think of myself as anything super special or better than anybody else. I’m just one of the girls! And I’m trying to make it better for us and, in turn, that will make it better for everybody ― to keep people from throwing us under the bus, from killing us from not, respecting us for who we are and what they feel are choices we’ve made. It’s not a choice to be a transgender person. You are or you aren’t! And if you are, the shit that you have to go through to maintain that, you wouldn’t just decide to do out of the clear blue sky! [laughs] It has to be because it’s a part of who you are and it will help your survival.
So I just try to make sure that we get treated fairly. That government people and police let us be who we are and don’t arrest us for things like how we dress or what we do to survive. Because we can’t get jobs, we’re not allowed to go to school, we’re unemployable, so how do you pay rent? Buy food? Get clean clothes – new clothes? We have to live outside the law! So we’ve adjusted to that and we’re doing it. Don’t persecute us because you forced us to do this, you know? Back up off of us and change these laws and work with us.
You’ve done a lot of work regarding the incarceration of trans people and prison abolition. Tell me why this is so important for you, particularly as it relates to trans people of color.
It’s important to me because I’ve been arrested and I’ve done time. And the abuses that we suffer in prison are tantamount to torture simply because the system uses us as pawns to help keep the population calmer so that they can deal with them. There’s what, hundreds of prisoners and ten guards, you know? So you have a lot of the transgender women in there ― you just stick them in the cell with somebody who is giving you a hard time or is brutal, and let them abuse and be up on and fuck and rape this person because it’ll keep them calm, but who cares about the young person who is in that cell with them? Nobody. The inmates don’t care and the guards don’t care because it’ll keep that guy from coming out there and breaking their jaw, which they could do. So I’m trying to get all of that to stop.
The abuses that [trans people] suffer in prison are tantamount to torture.
How do we move more towards a system of harm reduction than one of disproportionate incarceration?
You know, the difficult thing about that is, it’s kind of like getting somebody off of drugs. If you’re going to get them off of that then you have to come up with something to give them to do that isn’t harmful to replace that. So, in dealing with harm reduction, it’s a matter of, ok you shoot up everyday. Why don’t you try shooting up every other day, you know? And then in a month or so why don’t you try shooting up twice a week? And work on getting it down. So with the prison system, it’s a matter of trying to figure out how to dismantle that and come up with things that society will approve of as alternatives to breaking the laws that the society has set up.
There are other ways to do this then sticking people in prison and torturing them ― separating them from their families and abusing who they are and destroying their ego and belief systems and self worth to make it easier for you to control them and make them do what you think they need to do... which never really works, you know? People have to get involved with this and not just one particular group ― it’s all of us or none of us. And that’s the hard part because most of society ― they don’t know what “all of us” means.
You were present the night of the Stonewall Riots ― tell me about that experience and how it shaped who you are today.
The thing about that was ― the girls, we had had enough. It was just a momentary thing, no one planned anything there was no pre-rehearsal or getting together ― when this happened it simply exploded. It was shit hitting the fan out of the clear blue sky. And the aftermath of that ― there was a sense of pride that stood up for ourselves and we fought back. That they didn’t just roll over us like one of those concrete things that smooths the roads. We actually stood up and it was empowering.
People have to get involved with this and not just one particular group -- it’s all of us or none of us. And that’s the hard part because most of society -- they don’t know what “all of us” means.
The sad thing about all of that was that the gay and lesbian community took that away from us and just completely white-washed us into the background as if we didn’t exist and weren’t there. They even claimed it was their bar, when you would rarely even see gay people there. And so when all of that transpired, it because the GLB thing and they had to vote and get together all of these little white gays to vote T into the list? Really? Which doesn’t belong on that list in my point of view because the GLB is all sexual acitiviy. The T is a lifestyle – we don’t belong at the end of that. We should be at the beginning because as a transgender person, you can be transgender and be gay. And be transgender and a lesbian or be transgender and be bisexual. But they just turned it around on us.
I just saw where they made Stonewall a national monument –- but when I looked at the pictures I didn’t see any black faces. And then I didn’t see any of the girls, there were none of the girls or trans boys there. And they’re celebrating this? Why? It wasn’t a night of celebration. It was a night of survival ― we were fighting for our lives. If the police had won it would have been an entirely different story ― if they’d killed a bunch of us.
So, what do you say to these people that do try to whitewash history and try to claim that Stonewall was a primarily white and gay affair?
You know, it’s a matter of white people already feel like they rule the world and make history anything they want it to be, as they have done for years. And my thing to them is ― it’s 2016. Isn’t it time somebody knew the truth? I mean, you know it’s a lie and you’re promoting it and pushing it and backing it up and spreading it all over. Like that stupid movie that they made! I mean, he [the main character] was really pretty but he wasn’t wearing no dress! [laughs]
Very well said. I’d like to hear a bit about your role as a trans elder ― what does that mean to you? What kind of responsibility has that been for you over the years?
Well, it’s made it harder to get young boys. But thanks to Rentaboy.com I’m good! They can’t say no! [laughs] But it’s just an odd thing because you know as you get older you don’t feel older and you always hear about how fast time goes. And it’s true! You take a look at it and it’s true. I think the only thing that changes is my sense of making sure things that I do and stuff I say filters down the chain to the young girls behind me coming up. They don’t have to suffer and run from the police and be beaten up by carloads of boys from New Jersey that come into New York just to do that. And to realize that we have a history, transgender people, we have a culture and that we have older people who have made it through all kinds of abuses and negotiated their way to get here. Not a lot of us ― but there are some and to help them realize that things they expect and think are normal ― you are standing on someone’s shoulders who couldn’t do that in their youth. We paid the price for the liberties these young girls have now ― and just to recognize that and appreciate that and every now and then say, well thank you, bitch. You don’t have to run over here and adore me and put lotion on my feet, but you do have to give me the respect I’m due for what I’ve done to secure what you’re doing now.
What are your thoughts about “the trans community,” especially as it’s seen by the mainstream today? How do you view where the community is now and where it’s going?
Well, one of the interesting things for me about the view that society has about us as transgender people is we didn’t just pop up out of the woodwork when Laverne Cox appeared on TIME magazine. I know that’s pretty shocking for a lot of people but there have been thousands of us before then, and if they took the time to give us a break and check out how things flow in this world, we’ve been around ever since Jesus was walking the streets. So they need to wake up and realize that we aren’t going anywhere! We’re still going to be there, we’re part of this fabric and without us the world wouldn’t be the same. Art wouldn’t be the same, music wouldn’t be the same ― we’re still a part of this country like everybody else is. And the fact that they won’t give us an opotunity or chance to appreciate that, well then they need to back up off of us and leave us the fuck alone.
I definitely agree with you Finally, what do you want your legacy to be and how do you want people to think about you and the work that you’ve done over the decades?
One of the things I think about after my demise or however this goes is that the community realizes we have to work with one another. We have to deal with this society and the people that hate us because all of us have to make it. We all have to survive. So we have to work with the people who believe in you and educate the people that don’t. Everybody isn’t going to be in our corner ― they might hear the information or hear our stories and go, yeah you brought that on yourself. Ok, fine, you’re entitled to think what you need to think. And I’m entitled to live my life the way I have to live it. It’s not a choice. I didn’t wake up one Wednesday morning and, go I think today I want to be a woman [laughs]. No honey. And I’m doing my best to live it as comfortably and safely as human possible and help other people in this situation realize that we don’t have to be down on ourselves just because everyone else is. You know, you hear you’re a slug or you’re worthless for years and years and years, you start to believe that! And I want people to realize you can hear all the shit that you want to from them, but look at you and see who you are and we don’t have to believe that. Love yourself and love the people with you. You don’t have to watch everybody, but love them and give them the space that they need. That doesn’t mean hugging and smooching on them and holding them close – it means caring about what their existence is, helping as needed but leaving the room and the ability to grow or not grow, expand or not, on their own as they choose. Because I can’t tell you what’s good for you – you have to tell you that.
Check Huffington Post Queer Voices regularly for further conversations with other significant and historic trans and gender-nonconforming figures. Missed the first three interviews in this series? Check out the conversations with CeCe McDonald, Kate Bornstein, Laura Jane Grace, Buck Angel, Calpernia Addams, Ts Madison, Amos Mac, Candis Cayne, Tiq Milan, Caroline Cossey and Jazz Jennings.