A veteran of one of the most significant protest actions in LGBT history, New York City’s 1969 Stonewall riots, Major became politicized while in prison soon after the 1971 Attica Uprising, when about 1,000 prisoners demanding livable conditions seized control of a New York state prison.
At 73 years old, Major knows she’s fortunate to have lived to tell about it; the average life expectancy of a Black trans woman in the US is 35, according to #BlackLivesMatter founder Alicia Garza.
To name just a few of Major’s achievements: a decade of leading one of the country’s most vital trans organizations, the Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP); being the first trans woman to testify before the United Nations on the problem of violence against trans women of color in the US; and acting as a surrogate mom to so many of the Bay Area and New York City’s trans girls (so many she’s lost track).
Major’s close friend, filmmaker Annalise Ophelian, has worked for the last two years on a film chronicling the wild life of this fierce, radical trailblazer. The film, MAJOR!, has its first advance screening in San Francisco on November 13.
Major’s work for trans liberation is a testament to how much change one person can make (and also shows just how much the rest of us have been slacking). In this Truthout-exclusive interview, Ophelian talks about how to tell authentic stories through film, and Major shares her wit and empathy for anyone who’s ever been scarred by a system crafted to enrich the very few and (in her words) “fuck over” the rest of us.
Toshio Meronek: Are you really retiring this year? Or are you pretend-retiring just to have a party?
Miss Major: Oh no, I’m done. I served my time, I did what I could do. I’m 74 this year, I gotta slow down. I’m not stopping – we’re still not getting the treatment that we deserve. I’m not through with any of that, but I’m through with executive directing, being the front-person or whatever. I can do what I need to do from the back: encourage the girls to keep them going, get them involved in stuff so that the whole community can survive and do better.
What advice have you given Janetta Johnson, the next executive director of TGIJP (the Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project)?
MM: My advice to any of the girls is to hold on to who they are. You know, we get threatened and challenged so much because of the people who we are. You know, I didn’t wake up Tuesday and go, “Wow, I’m going to choose to be a woman” – that’s not how this goes. My advice to any of the girls is to hang on to who they are, believe in themselves, and go forward. Don’t let these motherfuckers stop us.
Annalise, you collected tons of photos and footage from Miss Major’s life, and we see some of that in the film. Where will that collection end up?
Annalise Ophelian: Archiving is kind of a gentle fetish of mine; after [a 2014 house fire in which Miss Major lost many of her things], we salvaged what we could.
One of the things that I really found when I was researching this, is that I’d go to archives that were so wanting to be part of the process, and they’d have one folder with, like, one article in it that they’d printed off the internet. There was just nothing out there.
And it speaks to who has the resources and the institutional access to keep records. There’s a reason why certain groups of people who can afford mini-DV cams get to take pictures. It’s easier to keep photos when you’re stably housed, it’s easier to keep a massive archive of personal artifacts when you have that kind of personal security. And we’re part of such an under-resourced community that we don’t get to have access to the ability to archive so much of our histories.
In addition to Major’s personal collection, we have over 500 pages of transcripts with Major and [trans] community members in digital form that we are donating to GLBT and African-American historical societies all over the country so that they’re available.
I’ve heard so many people say that you inspired them into trans liberation work, Major. Who inspires you?
MM: Well, [back in the ’60s], it was just me. You’re alone, you don’t know anybody else who feels the same way you do, or is wearing their mom’s clothes when they’re out of the house. So you’re all you have to rely on, and if you’re lucky, you get to meet somebody else – “Oh my god, wow, there’s two of us now!”
It’s the strength of the few girls who you run into here and there. At the time, balls were really popular, and when I first got started the ’60s they weren’t the vicious kind that they’ve become over the years.
Now it’s a matter of just making sure that the young girls in our community don’t have to hook to survive – to have an option or a choice. We didn’t have choices when I grew up – it was only that, and that alone. Now the girls have a choice – not everywhere, like it should be, but in a few places. That keeps me going and keeps me wanting to bitch about stuff.
We’ve gotten so much attention in the public eye, with Laverne [Cox], and the movie, and Janet [Mock]’s book – yay! But it doesn’t help the girl who has to go up and down Martin Luther King [Jr. Way, in Oakland], turning tricks to try and pay rent, or buy a meal, or to not be attacked because some idiot doesn’t approve of who she is or how she looks. That keeps me going now, and gives me the energy to fight until I can’t fight no more. When the dust settles, I want the girls to stand up and say, I’m still fucking here.
Do you think the Bay Area is still a good place to be if you’re trans?
MM: This is a nice place to come transition. So is New York. Because the doctors are there, and the community is large enough there to say, “Go to this doctor; not this doctor. He will take care of you right; he won’t.” And to do the things that we need to do to become as close as we can, physically, to how we feel we are. It would be nice to say that you can go to Safeway [supermarket], and everyone’s there, going about their business, instead of trying to shoot the bitch on the way back to her car.
Trans people, particularly trans women of color, are going to come up against discrimination and violence in San Francisco just like in other places.
MM: Unfortunately, yes. [With the movie] we want to make sure that the girls in the middle of the country, the ones who aren’t in San Francisco, or New York, or Chicago, it would be nice to know if you’re just starting out, that you’re not alone. There’s a whole community out there. [The internet] has opened up a lot of avenues, but it hasn’t done it warmly. It’s not a friendly thing. I want them to feel hugged, and caressed, and cared for, and appreciated.
What’s something you didn’t expect to live to see during your lifetime?
MM: I’m 73. Honey, I didn’t expect to get here (laughs). When I was coming up, our life expectancy at that time was like 25, maybe 30.
We were killing ourselves [with drugs or suicide], or other people were killing us, or chasing us back into the closet. And so a group of us got together and decided that once we were out of the closet, the best thing for us to do was to burn the house down so that nobody could go back there. So now they’ve got to deal the fact that we’re not going anywhere.
All of that stuff is new to me: that now girls are living to be 50 years old, and there’s the hope that they can also get to 70. I want to be 100 years old and have Willard Scott announce, “The transgender woman who turned 100 years old today.” One girl coming out on national TV and saying, “I’m still fucking here, y’all didn’t kill me.”
Given that Gay Pride celebrations usually celebrate a certain type of queer body – namely, white, nondisabled, gay cisgender men – and have usually excluded the “T” in “LGBT” in the past, did you have mixed emotions when you were elected Grand Marshal of San Francisco Pride last year [an event drawing nearly 2 million people, making it the largest gay cultural event anywhere]?
MM: [Laughs.] Oooh.
We don’t have to go there, if it brings up too much drama for you.
MM: I’m going there! First of all, it was nice to get nominated, and it was nice to get recognized. Going to the [honoree’s breakfast], and being honored, it was not as spectacular as it could have been.
[The mostly white, gay crowd] treated me like shit at that breakfast. They didn’t listen to me when I spoke. There were three other trans people there that they completely ignored. Now, there was a lesbian host who got up and told a couple of jokes [about me], “Oh, she’s so funny, she’s so nice.” Listen to me, you know what I mean? I don’t make the money that she makes, I’m not a wealthy white lesbian, I’m a Black transgender woman, proud to be here, to make a statement, that I’m still fucking here. But are you going to pay attention to me? No.
When [trans author and TV presenter] Janet Mock spoke, it wasn’t silent either. There was no listening intently to what she had to say. And in our community, it was a really big deal. Girls who are living in the street, or staying under bridges, or sleeping in a friend’s house on the floor, to them, it was a big deal. I would have loved to have refused [the award], because I knew what the intent was. We’re the flavor this year. Ooh – you have a trans woman who’s the Grand Marshal, well whoopy-skippy. Kiss my Black ass. It wasn’t done right, and it didn’t give me the respect for what I’ve done to get here. Thirty-five years to get on that goddamn platform and then to be ignored – no, mmm-mmm.
Some people have said, “Well, girl you should bite your tongue.” I’m not biting shit. We can’t do this if we keep accepting this shit. It’s going to keep happening. Something has to be done, and it can’t be just me.
So, it was OK. It’s over [laughs].
It’s been five decades that you’ve been working to make the world more livable for trans people. How have you escaped activist burnout?
MM: You have to take time out to take care of yourself. It’s like having a car battery die, when the car battery dies, you charge it back up, and you go on about your business. In the interim of doing all this stuff you have to do – and you have to do it; no one else is going to do it.
Maybe it’s listening to Billie Holiday on your radio, maybe it’s paying for some pretty little white boy to come over … Get a massage from somebody – and not just any massage: an erotic massage – touch me like I touch myself. Treat me like another human being, not like you’re massaging a fish and you’re worried about the scales, you know what I mean? Enjoy who you are, and what you do, and that’ll keep you going.
You’ve been vocal about your belief that prisons should be abolished. What made you an abolitionist?
MM: What got me really involved in the politics of all this stuff, and what prisons are doing to everybody, and not just my community, was Frank “Big Black” Smith, who was a part of the Attica Five, when we were all in the SHU [Security Housing Units/solitary confinement] together. And getting to read some of the books that he recommended to me, and talking with him until three or four in the morning.
The system’s going to survive, but the people aren’t. And that my part was to do what I could do to help my community. At that time, the ’60s were coming to an end, everybody was fighting for their rights: women wanted their rights, Blacks wanted their rights, gays were trying to get theirs.
So now the system is all, “We’re going to make gender-responsive prisons.” Yeah, so you’re going to go out and arrest more of our people.
Before I started all this, in my mind, some people needed to be in jail. “Oh they’re built to train you, and rehabilitate you, and make you a normal citizen.” No, they’re not. They’re built to hold you, keep you captive, separate you from people who love and care about you, and treat you like dirt, so when you get out of there, you feel like you’re just crawling along like you’re a slug at the end of a curb. That’s what has to change.
The new TGIJP director Janetta Johnson has talked about how in order to get out of prison, people are forced to fit into this “redemption” story, to show parole boards that they’ve reformed, and that the prison “helped” them right their wrongs. And about how there’s a significant loss of self-worth in all that.
MM: Loss of dignity, and trust, and honor, and faith: all of that’s gone, they just murder it. And they go home and sleep at night because they don’t give a shit about it.
How did you two meet?
AO: In 2008, I started production on my first feature, Diagnosing Difference, which deals with trans and queer people navigating medical institutional structures.
And I came up with this dream list of who are the most amazing folks to sort of teach from personal experience, and Miss Major was on the list, and when I started, I just shot really high and [looks at Miss Major] you just really generously said, “Yes!” And as I’ve gotten to know you, you clearly say “Yes” to things. Like, “If the girls need something, I’m going to show up and do it.”
So we met when you gave me an interview for that. And then after that, my husband, StormMiguel Florez, who is my co-producer and editor, became administrative director for TGIJP so I started hanging out a lot more in the office because Storm was there, and it’s a family, so if you’re there in the office, you get to be connected to this incredible network of folks. And that was where we started to talk about making a film – you approached me to say we need to do this, and what would it be like to do this.
MM: I trusted her. We had a great time together, we’d been around the block a few times, I guess you could say [laughs].
In the trans community there’s not a lot of trust that trans stories will be told authentically by Hollywood, given the media’s recent obsession with Caitlyn Jenner, this wealthy, white trans woman with conservative politics, and the Stonewall shitshow.
AO: Historically, films about trans folks have come from cisgender, non-trans filmmakers. That column is oversaturated, and we don’t need any more of them. And that was my biggest concern in starting this project – to find a way to identify and bracket my cultural position and be in a constant dialogue with that, so that I was certain that there were eyes on the project and that our community accountability was really high.
So we did this project collaboratively with Miss Major: We had a preproduction meeting, we sat down at Denny’s, she talked about all of the people she wanted, what the structure would be like, what would the story be like. And then I did kind of open-ended interviews with all of those folks, that were very like, “You tell me what you want to tell me.”
We had an amazing community advisory board who looked at very early cuts of the project, which is really showing someone your panties, because an assemblage [of clips] is not an attractive thing.
I also know that I had capacity and access to get the film done, and I’m really grateful and glad for that, and I want to see trans women of color behind editing banks and behind cameras, and making decisions, and running shows, and having access to filmmaking apparatus. Which involves a lot of structural stability first, so I want the justice to happen, so that people get to make films.
Instead of just working on surviving.
AO: Yeah, like, I know I can pull a 14-hour day editing, and that’s a luxury.
Is there an action that you hope the people take, people who come out of the theater after seeing the movie?
AO: I think I always hope that people leave a documentary like this wanting to know more. Like, “I just reached the edge of my awareness, I had no idea.” In an hour and 30 minutes we are not going to summate a 73-year lifespan that intersects with so many pivotal moments in social justice history.
I have different desires for different audiences. One of the things that Major and I have talked a lot of about for women in the community, for the girls, that they will see themselves on screen. And see themselves reflected beautifully and powerfully, particularly in geographically isolated places. Janetta said, “If I’d seen that film when I was 20, I’d have been on a bus [to San Francisco] the next day.” That’s the goal, that folks know, these are some models of some women who are kicking ass.
And also for formerly incarcerated folks, I think we never get to just see people acknowledge their interaction with the prison industrial complex without being demonized, without having it be the only thing that defines them. So I hope folks can just enjoy that experience of being mirrored.
It would be my hope that cis folks walk out of audiences and be active participants in undoing the violence, because trans folks aren’t killing other trans folks. Cisgender folks are, and specifically cisgender men are. And so I would really love to see the film be used as a sort of call to action. For men who are attracted to or date trans women, that are on the [down-low] about that and acting violently, how do we reach out to folks about that, and say, “You are the place where this trauma changes”?
What were some movies that got you into filmmaking?
AO: I was hugely influenced by the work of Marlon Riggs, who was actively filmmaking when I was a young queer. And all of his work, the way that his life paralleled his work was hugely influential to me.
His was the last HIV-related funeral that I went to; I think that was the moment when I was just like, I don’t have any grief left in me. When I think about whose work I would want to see today, and who would be making such important work today, he’s huge, on so many levels.
Clips of MAJOR! screened last summer at Outside the Frame, a queer film festival showing work by filmmakers against Israeli apartheid. How important is it for you that your films connect different versions of oppression?
AO: Miss Major has this really wonderful way of saying, “Look, if you take care of my community, everyone’s going to do better.” It’s this way that you’re [looks at Miss Major] acknowledging that injustice, and oppression, and colonialism are interlinked phenomena. It’s not about which group are we going to take care of. Intersectionality – that way of saying, “The thing that holds you down, is the thing that holds me down, is the thing that’s holding my brother and sister down.”
I think about the generosity of Angela Davis who spoke really eloquently about pinkwashing at this brunch [honoring Miss Major] that is featured in the film. And many of [the people who worked on the film also] work on BDS campaigns.
It feels important that in the making of this film, and in the dissemination of this film, we’re really trying to practice anti-colonialism. We’re looking to both undo injustice in how we put this story together, and then how we share it with folks. Which is very anti-establishment in all sorts of weird ways. The refrain I always get from folks is, “Well you want your stuff to be seen, so of course you just sell it to anyone, and of course you want it to be really commercial, and of course you change the narrative, or dumb it down, or make it sensationalist, because it’s more important that it’s seen.”
Which was the idea behind Stonewall…
AO: Yeah, and I think you [looks at Miss Major] are really bored about talking about Stonewall. To me, Attica is everything, and the story of Attica is transformative – and I feel like if I could just do a film about your experience in Attica, I feel like that is worthy of that sort of exploration. And that event, and its critical, critical importance. And how fucking relevant it is today. How none of the conditions have changed.
All that is to say, I’m really wanting the film to do exceptionally well, because the film ties directly back into community. I’m not making any money on this film, any proceeds that are raised from this film are going to go to Miss Major’s retirement fund and they’re going to benefit TGIJP.
And on the collateral level, I really hope that the film does well so that your speaking rate goes up. Right? Like let’s be really strategic: I want you to be able to go out [and speak] once a month for 10 grand. And not be criss-crossing the country, and to be able to enjoy your retirement. That’s the reason for me, for it to have commercial success, would be that it directly turns into a benefit for you.
I think that speaks to the community engagement roll-out as well. I love talking about social justice filmmaking, and I will talk about it with other filmmakers until the cows come home. I am patently uninterested in traveling with this film to talk about transgender experiences because I am not qualified – I’m the wrong person to do that. And so the hope is that the film becomes an opportunity for you, for Janetta, for places who screen it to have women in the community to be up there with it.
God bless film festivals, but film festival audiences tend to be pretty white, pretty affluent, pretty interested in hearing fascinating stories of other-ness, and that’s not especially important to anyone involved in this. Major has a dream that we’re gonna get in a Winnebago and drive around.
Anything else you feel needs to get out there into the ether?
MM: Well, let’s see. I’m no longer just chasing blond, blue-eyed boys. I’m now into brunettes, too. You can put my number on there [laughs].