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Life Story: Miss Major Griffin-Gracy (1940s– )
The story of an activist who fought for the rights of transgender Americans.
Note to Teachers: Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is fully genderqueer and has no specific preference for pronouns or gender identity markers. In this life story we use the pronouns she/her.
Major Gracy was born in Chicago in the 1940s (she is unsure of her exact birth date). She grew up with her parents and her sister, Cookie. She added her mother’s maiden name, Griffin, as a tribute to her. She uses Miss Major as her first name.
Miss Major was assigned male at birth. But growing up, she always felt more like a female. Her parents thought it was just a phase and that she would eventually outwardly present herself as male.
Exploring her gender identity came gradually for Miss Major. When her mother was not at home, she would go into her mother’s closet and try on her clothes to look and feel like a woman. As a teenager, she met an older drag queen, named Kitty, who helped her dress up and taught her how to put on makeup. In that moment, Miss Major realized she was a transgender woman.
At the time, Miss Major used the term transsexual to describe herself. Transgender is a modern term that Miss Major and other trans Americans would not have used at the time. Interpretations of gender and sexuality continue to change over time for LGBTQ+ individuals and communities.
She slowly became more comfortable sharing how she truly felt about herself with her family. But being transgender was not commonly accepted at the time. It was difficult for her family to understand why Miss Major did not feel comfortable with her sex assigned at birth. Her sister Cookie even burned pictures of Miss Major. In public, Miss Major still dressed in men’s clothing.
Miss Major graduated from high school when she was 16 years old and enrolled in college. Because she still presented as male in public at the time, she lived in the men’s dorms. One day, her roommate found Miss Major’s dresses and he outed her to all the male students on the floor. They made fun of her, asking if she could cook. A week later, college staff packed up her belongings while she was in class and expelled her for wearing dresses.
After being expelled from another college for the same reason, Miss Major moved to New York City in 1962. She made money as a sex worker and considered it to be a profitable and pleasurable line of work.
In New York City, Miss Major got involved with drag shows and started performing as a showgirl. She found support in the local LGBTQ+ community, who accepted her for who she was. However, that was not the case for broader society. Drag queens traveled to the theater dressed as men and only put on their makeup once they arrived. Being transgender in public could lead to violent attacks. Police raids of drag shows and LGBTQ+ friendly bars were common.
The LGBTQ+ community pushed back against this treatment on June 27, 1969. The police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. The patrons fought back. Miss Major was there that night. The Stonewall Uprising is often credited as the start of the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. But as Miss Major often expressed, activists were doing this work long before Stonewall, particularly transgender and queer women of color like Miss Major who are often overlooked in society and the historical narrative.
In 1970, Miss Major was arrested for robbing one of her customers while working as a sex worker. She was convicted and sent to Sing Sing prison. After several months, she was released on parole. When she wore light makeup to a meeting with her parole officer, he sent her back to prison for breaking her parole, this time to Dannemora prison.
Corrections officers at Dannemora tried to break her spirit. She first lived in the mental hospital of the prison. The officers shaved her hair and eyebrows and even made her walk through the prison naked.
Miss Major met some of the leaders of the 1971 Attica prison uprising who had been sent to Dannemora. They had a significant influence on her political consciousness regarding the criminal justice system.
After her release from Dannemora, Miss Major returned to New York City. She met Deborah Brown through a fellow drag performer. It was the first time Miss Major had a relationship with a cisgender woman. They had a son, Christopher, in 1978 and moved to California. When their romantic relationship ended, Deborah returned to New York City but continued to co parent their son.
Miss Major wanted to join a support group for fathers but was not allowed to join because of her gender identity. Still, she loved being a parent and devoted as much time as she could to raising her son.
Miss Major moved back to California with her partner Joe Bob Michael in 1988. They settled in San Diego. Miss Major continued to work as a drag performer. Just as Kitty had helped her find herself through drag when she was young, Miss Major helped many drag performers enter the profession. This eventually earned her the nickname “Mama Major.” She enjoyed making others feel safe and seen. The families of many young members of the LGBTQ+ community did not accept them and Miss Major helped them with access to homes, education, and other resources.
“I didn’t fight all those years ago in Stonewall just to turn around and let it go now. That was 50 years ago. So, we’ve got to keep fighting no matter what.”
The spread of HIV/AIDS ravaged the LGBTQ+ community in the 1980s. Because the community was stigmatized, the government delayed its response to the deadly disease. Miss Major saw this up close when Joe Bob was diagnosed with AIDS. He was a veteran and she fought to have a local veteran’s hospital recognize that many veterans were dying from AIDS. Sadly, Joe Bob passed away from AIDS. In 1993, a memorial garden was built in San Diego partly in honor of Joe Bob.
Miss Major moved to San Francisco in 1995. There she began working in HIV prevention and outreach, becoming an advocate and educator with the Tenderloin AIDS Research Center (TARC). Miss Major was in charge of the transgender drop-in center as a health educator. When she realized that many unhoused people felt uncomfortable seeking out services at the center, she went into the streets to provide assistance. The funders of the health center were not supportive of this idea, but Miss Major continued because she knew how many people needed help. Eventually, she started street clinics to provide HIV prevention education out in the community.
In 2004, Miss Major joined the TGI Justice Project. It is the only organization in the United States dedicated to assisting transgender people in prisons. She visits prisons on a bimonthly basis to support incarcerated transgender people and is an advocate for the safety of transgender prisoners, who are at high risk of being a victim of physical or sexual violence while incarcerated.
Miss Major lives in Arkansas with her partner Beck, who identifies as a transgender male. Beck gave birth to their child Asiah in 2021.
- AIDS: Acronym for Auto Immune Deficiency Disorder. An infectious disease that attacks a person’s immune system and can be difficult to treat.
- drag queen: A performance artist who typically dresses up like a woman for entertainment purposes.
- genderqueer: A person who defines their gender identity outside the gender binary, neither male nor female.
- HIV: Acronym for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. A virus that causes the disease AIDS.
- parole: An early release for a prisoner under certain conditions.
- transgender: A person who does not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. A