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.