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Miss Major: The Bay Area's Trans Formative Matriarch 

Wednesday, Jul 22 2015
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Instead, she focuses on assisting other trans women who have been where she was: incarcerated and trying to re-enter society. She's the executive director of TGI Justice Project, a San Francisco-based grassroots organization that supports transgender, gender variant, and intersex people inside and outside of prison. Every Tuesday night, the group meets to correspond by mail with transgender inmates around the country. When a woman gets out, TGI Justice activates its network of staff, volunteers, and formerly incarcerated people to help her find services, emergency housing, and meals.

Janetta Johnson now runs TGIJP's grassroots re-entry program. "I like to think of our program as the Harriet Tubman program," she says, "because when people get out of custody, we help them get free and stay free."

The morning I speak with Johnson, she's exhausted after spending the previous evening with a trans woman who had just been released from custody. The woman wanted to enter a drug and alcohol program, so Johnson had stood in line with her at HealthRight 360 to ensure she had a spot in their transgender program. The HealthRight 360 staff member gave the woman a referral to a homeless shelter for the few days before the treatment program began, but Johnson arranged for her to stay with one of TGIJP's members instead.

"Right now, I'm kind of walking in Miss Major's shoes," Johnson says of her work making sure no one falls through the cracks. "And they are some tough-ass shoes to fill."

Miss Major's goal for her community are in some ways tragically simple, and indicative of the intolerance, violence, and oppression that trans people continue to face. "We just want to be left alone to live our lives," she says. "I'd like for the girls to get a chance to be who they are. For young transgender people to go to school, learn like everyone else does, and then get out there and live their lives, not afraid or thinking that the only solution for them is death."

"A lot of time, you know, my girls don't get to 30 or 40 years old," she says. A commonly cited statistic holds that the average life expectancy for a black trans woman is just 35. "For me, I want all of us to at least have an opportunity to make it to 70. And when the dust settles, I want my girls to stand up and let people know, we're still fucking here."


Miss Major Griffin-Gracy was born Major Gracy at St. Luke's Hospital in Chicago, Ill., in "1940-something or other." Her father worked in the railroad section of the post office. Her mother ran a beauty shop. "We had a good middle-class existence," she says of her childhood on the South Side.

Her mother chose the name Major on the advice of a psychic. "The psychic told her that she wouldn't carry me to term, and that she needed to give me a name that had strength and character because I was going to be different. And so she came up with the name Major." The psychic was right: Baby Major was born two months early, and she was different.

Assigned to the male gender at birth, Miss Major came out to her parents when she was 12 or 13. "I told them that this existence that I had, it just didn't feel right," she says. "You know inside when something isn't meshing right."

Miss Major's parents' first response was to send her to a psychiatrist to "straighten my brain out," she says. "When that didn't work, they decided that they would just pray on me. So they took me to church and had the demon excised from me, and then they waited for me to grow out of it. I'm still waiting to grow out of it myself."

While Laverne Cox and Janet Mock are the role models transgender teens can look to today, in the 1950s, there was Christine Jorgensen, an American G.I. who underwent sex reassignment surgery in Europe. She became an instant celebrity when the New York Daily News ran her story under the headline "Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Bombshell" and went on to advocate for transgender rights.

"After Christine Jorgensen got her sex change, all of a sudden there was a black market of hormones out there," Miss Major recalls. A fortune teller in an amusement park on the North Side of Chicago sold oral hormones out of her booth. "She would do the little crystal ball thing and you would pay her, and she would slip you some hormones to take." All the transgender girls and women would congregate outside the tent and get to know one another.

After Miss Major's parents realized she wasn't going to identify as a man, they kicked her out. Miss Major survived as best she could outside of the law, doing sex work, stealing, scraping by. At one point, she found a secretarial job with the Mattachine Society, one of the country's first gay rights organizations. Still, sex work was the steadiest work, and that put Miss Major at the mercy of the police. "You always got abused by cops," she says. "Always."

When she would get picked up, Miss Major recalls, "You didn't go to jail jail, they put you in a mental hospital, on the psych floor. You were considered to be a crazy person if you were a male person wearing a dress." After spending six months in a mental institution in Chicago, where she was forced to take Thorazine ("That medication would knock your dick in the dirt"), Miss Major had had enough of Chicago, and she struck out for New York.

"New York used to really rock," Miss Major says of the city in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She lived uptown on 85th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, "in a building full of nothing but girls," she says. "It was just fun. The house would just rock to the music, and we would jam out all the time. A party would start downstairs, go upstairs, and then go back downstairs. Boys would come and go." The music was Motown. "Everybody thought they were Diana Ross," she says with a laugh.


About The Author

Julia Carrie Wong

Julia Carrie Wong's work has appeared in numerous local and national titles including 48hills, Salon, In These Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker.

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