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Lessons From Transgender Stonewall Icon Miss Major

Above Photo: Trans legend Miss Major. WNV.

On Survival And Hope.

A new book explores how Miss Major has persevered over six inspiring decades on the frontlines of the queer and trans liberation movement.

The violent anti-trans political landscape we’re currently experiencing is devastating. Cruelty weaponized by lawmakers, lack of health care access for trans people, fear mongering op-eds in mainstream newspapers and brutal assaults and homicides targeting trans people — especially Black trans women — are just some of the daily hazards of being trans. With the relentless persecution of the trans community and the bleak reality that trans people face staggering amounts of violence, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and despairing.

How do activists committed to liberation maintain focus and dedication when threats are everywhere? How does one even attempt hope for building a better future when the present can feel so exceedingly grim?

Enter “Miss Major Speaks: Conversations with a Black Trans Revolutionary” by journalist and activist Toshio Meronek and legendary transgender elder and activist Miss Major. The word “survivor” is thrown around routinely now but when discussing the life and legacy of Miss Major it’s simply fact. She has seen it all, survived against unbelievable odds that seemingly no one else could and lived to tell the tales about it. And somehow she’s preserved a hilarious sense of humor.

By all accounts she should not be here. She lived through Dannemora prison, time at Bellevue psychiatric hospital, the HIV/AIDS crisis, sex work. Yet she’s “still fucking here,” as she’s so fond of saying. There is real power behind this pithy expression. There are lessons to be learned from her. When hope fails us, it’s important to recognize the work and wisdom of community elders who have lived through hell and found ways to survive. I spoke to co-author Toshio Meronek about this incredible new book, their various roles as an activist and more exciting projects they are working on.

For those unfamiliar with the icon, how would you describe Miss Major and her activism?

Major is probably best known as one of the few people who’s alive to tell about it, who was at the Stonewall riots in 1969. A lot of people point to Stonewall as being this spark for the modern queer and trans liberation movement. But she was an activist before that, starting in Chicago in the early 1960s. She went to the underground meetings of what was mostly a gay and lesbian rights organization, an assimilationist organization, called the Mattachine Society. She’s also formerly incarcerated, and during the beginning, and after getting out, she went back into prisons in California to mentor trans women inside prison. She also cared for gay guys suffering during the beginning of the HIV AIDS crisis.

And beyond her activism she’s really acted as a sort of parent figure to a lot of trans people wherever she’s gone, because it’s so common for trans people to be shut out of their birth families. So she’s acted as a mother for people who didn’t have their birth moms in their lives, and for a lot of queer people who organize.

She’s just an amazing example of someone who once she got into activism, she never stopped. She’s almost 80 and yet she’s still out at protests, she’s still mentoring younger activists. And I think for a lot of queer people who are organizers, there is a sort of activist generation gap because so many people died in the U.S. before there were working HIV drugs. And for me, I’m inspired by somebody who continues to do the work that she does, without burning out.

How did you meet?

We met through my boyfriend Eric Stanley, who edited the anthology “Captive Genders,” which is one of the first books to bring together academics/activists/incarcerated/formerly incarcerated queer and trans people writing about something that hadn’t been discussed a whole lot in academia or the corporate media: that queer and trans people are locked up at such astoundingly high rates. And the book looks at why that is, through a bunch of different voices. Major has a great interview in there by Jay Donahue.

I first laid eyes on her when she rolled up in her ’70s Cadillac, to this anarchist bookstore that no longer exists in the Mission District in San Francisco. And she was there with a few of her girls and her presence is something you cannot help but feel. Eventually, through my journalism, I ended up interviewing her ahead of this documentary that came out about her life and her community [called “MAJOR!”]. Ever since then, I’ve been traveling around tagging along on her adventures, because I got in just as people were finding out about her beyond these circles of queer and trans people in the Bay Area and San Diego and New York City, where she spent most of her life. She sort of became famous at 72.

We’re living through a time where trans people are relentlessly scapegoated in the media, targeted by anti-trans legislation and victims of violence at shocking rates. How did this inform your collaboration with Miss Major on the book? Did either of you have specific topics you felt were imperative to include?

Yeah, it’s something that is hard to ignore if you’re putting out any kind of work around queer and trans people.

We wanted to give some basic advice for people who are having a hard time and wanting to do activism because the project is really about activism using Major’s story, and her words, as a way in to activism. Her life and what she’s gone through, the choices she’s made, show really well how you don’t need to be part of a nonprofit that’s already established or get grants in order to do good work.

She also made it clear that she wasn’t interested in doing a biography or an autobiography. It had to be something that was of service to the community and so I think that’s what came out of the five years, on and off, of me recording our conversations. It’s a sort of guidebook for activists who are younger than Major, using me as the foil because she has been a mentor to me as well.

What were some of the most important lessons you learned from your conversations with Miss Major over the last five years?

Spending so much time with someone like Major, someone who’s been organizing for so long without burning out, I wondered what secrets she knows that keep her from giving up when some of our movement battles seem impossible to win. With all of the recent vilification and scapegoating of trans people in the media and in the government and at school boards, how does she keep it together? How does she still go through identifying as she does — she says, “I’ve never been a depressed person.”

Part of it is just being really good at compartmentalizing, which is a survival mechanism that’s been honed after being in really rough situations — being locked up in asylums for being a trans woman, or the trauma Black people face getting by in the U.S. She is also really good about self-care, and recognizing what she needs to keep going and not flaming out.

There’s also the perspective she’s gained over the years — the hardest times will pass. Even if life continues to be hard, there are moments of reprieve. Society is targeting trans people in this incredible way right now — she’s seen this before, during the “Satanic Panic” decades ago there was a similar conservative wave that really targeted queer and trans people.

It’s why I think having elders, people with lengthier perspectives and good memories, is so helpful in showing the rest of us that yes, a lot of life can feel like suffering, but there are moments that are beautiful as well. The goal is to cultivate more good moments, and it helps having people like Major in your life, who have a much longer view and wisdom to draw from.

You’ve been an activist for many years and used diverse approaches and mediums in your work: writing as a journalist, organizing with direct action groups like Gay Shame, and now podcasting. Has adopting these different methods over your career changed your ideas of what activism is “supposed” to look like?

Yes, because I think as you organize and use different methods and tactics and strategies, they’re each useful in their own way. I was an Amnesty International nerd in high school and college, an intern in Los Angeles and D.C., and I later worked for a political consultant who worked with politicians in San Francisco. But making media and getting the word out and trying to translate events and actions for people who weren’t there, through writing or making a show that becomes a podcast, is more interesting to me. It comes down to doing what moves you and where you feel you can be most useful, in whatever movement work you’re doing.

You recently started the radical queer podcast called “Sad Francisco.” What prompted you to create this project and what can listeners expect when they tune in?

One, I was just interested in trying a new medium for talking about organizing, or coming up with an excuse to hang out with people who I respect and who inspire me, who also do organizing work. And you, Caitlin, actually inspired me to do podcasting initially, which we picked up as well as a million other people who launched podcasts at the beginning of COVID.

“Sad Francisco” is a mix of interviews with people who do movement work, and friends and I telling stories about the neoliberal politics of the Bay Area. I think this place has been, and continues to be, a sort of incubator for some of the worst inventions that are disguised as progressive. I think if it happens here and works for the neoliberal political machinery, it will be exported to other governments. For example, the city relies on transgender consultants for the police and the mayor, who they call on every time the city contributes to the murder or abuse of trans people.

Right as protests around the killing of a trans man, Banko Brown, continue every day, our mayor gets on a plane to Israel for two-week vacation while we here in the city pay for her security detail, and she continues to push a narrative that unhoused people are the cause of everything negative in the city. That’s just an example that’s pissing me off especially right now.

What other projects are you working on?

This book has been a five-year project, and we’re starting to tour with it, so I hope people will come out to events with Major and I as those materialize. I want to do a series on the podcast about this group of queer activists in the Bay called LAGAI, around which I wrote a piece for Waging Nonviolence back in the day.

How has Major has inspired you in your own work and projects?

Part of the way Major mothers is to pull out the specific talents people have. She is not about hierarchies that can tear apart movements. Her point of view, and my point of view, is that we all have specific talents and ways of contributing to movements, and we shouldn’t downplay our skills and talents, even if they seem obscure, or society tells us to compare them to someone else, against which maybe they seem less impressive. In liberation movements, the forces we’re up against are so well-resourced — and in many cases they’re winning right now — our struggles will require bringing all of the skills. There is absolutely something every one of us has to contribute.

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