November 20th was the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. TDoR memorializes those who have been murdered as a result of transphobia. For all the issues that continue to face trans people, especially those of color—not only murder, but also vulnerability to assault, suicide, poverty, and improper medical care—some have suggested that November 20th also be called the Transgender Day of Resilience. While the violence and discrimination against trans people continues to be overlooked, and efforts to #SayHerName in honor of the 22 trans women murdered in 2015 remain important to the entire trans community, some find it just as important to shine a spotlight on those who persist in the face of hardship. To say that trans people are resilient is not to take away from those who were murdered, but to celebrate those who survive and continue to thrive in a world that is built upon their erasure. Events such as the Trans 100 have long argued this by spotlighting community members across the country, from public figures such as Laverne Cox to activists behind the scenes.
MAJOR! is a story of such resilience. This story takes the form of a documentary film directed by Annalise Ophelian and StormMiguel Florez about the life and work of Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, an elderly, Black, formerly incarcerated, transgender woman activist who has been fighting for the rights of trans women of color for over 40 years. The focus of the documentary is not solely of hardship, but the power and beauty that such hardship excavated. Miss Major’s many obstacles shaped her humanity, values, and successes as an advocate. The film retunes the narrative of transness from mourning, resentment, and adversity into using such forces to hone the powers of community and collective healing. As someone who is particularly well-known in the community for her huge personality—her no-bullshit, Type-A approach to leadership, her deep and infectious love for her trans family, and her sassy, raunchy sense of humor—the ever-spirited Miss Major is a perfect model of trans resilience. She is a three-dimensional, hopeful picture of transness in America, an image of positivity, a human rather than a statistic.
“How does it feel to finally take over the Castro, girls? It took forty fucking years, but we did it!” The introductory words of Artistic Director of the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival, Shawna Virago, were met by rapturous applause. MAJOR! made its world premiere here on November 13th at the Castro Theater. From the step-and-repeat to the literal red carpet that led our way into the theater to the countless TWoC activists dolled up in glimmering, low-cut dresses, Virago was definitely onto something when she called the premiere the “Trans Oscars”. The audience responded to the spectacle with the energy to power skyscrapers, offering endless standing ovations and hollers of “I see you!” and “We love you, Major!” This was, no doubt, a far cry from and a welcome exercise in positivity from the many vigils the audience has attended for their fallen sisters.
The film begins intimately, with Miss Major driving home and conversing with the camera operator. Major’s passengers, her adopted daughters, tease her about her reckless driving. She is later seen at her home, waiting as her daughters hand her accessories and get her ready for an event, many of which she bluntly rebuffs, to the amusement of the audience. She shows us her wigs, her shoes, her wardrobe, and offers us an extremely close look at her lifestyle. This segment is immensely character-driven, establishing Miss Major’s life, humanity, and her capacity to survive and thrive as the stars of the film.
Although the film seeks to inspire and to project positivity, it does not fail to treat the hardship that the trans community faces with the attention it deserves. The next segment of the film shows Miss Major’s continuing work as an advocate for the Transgender GenderVariant Intersex Justice Project. As the co-founder and executive director, she provides direct service and personalized care to incarcerated trans women of color. She and her coworkers speak of the vicious sequence of injustices that many trans women face, leading them into the “street-corner-to-prison” pipeline. Brutal statistics of murder and sexual assault in and out of prison fill the screen. This segment knocks it out of the park covering “Trans Issues 101” for the unaware. This segment’s significance, however, lies not in the issues, with which the audience is well familiar, but the intensity of Miss Major’s love for her sisters. Her fellow advocates are quite literally her family, and as each one is interviewed, “Miss Major’s Daughter” appears right beside her job title as she speaks to Major’s dedication to her work. Many of Major’s daughters and coworkers were formerly incarcerated themselves, and her family continues to expand as she works. Major tirelessly writes currently imprisoned trans women disowned by their own families, inviting them to join hers as soon as they are let out.
Apart from her amazing work as an advocate and activist Miss Major herself is an absolute delight, and a living, breathing testament to each beat the documentary hits: comedic, heartwarming, empowering, and educational. Not at all blunted by health issues and age, she positively pops on-screen as she launches into her biography. She is feisty, candid, and full of tough love—the film intimately acquaints the viewer with her unique character. Her openness about her sex life is the comedic highlight of the film, whether she talks about luring hunky, cornfed, Midwestern hallmates into her room with sandwiches as a college student or about her Rentboy.com misadventures in the present day. She laughs at herself regularly, even about childhood traumas. Major recounts the moment she revealed her transition to her mother, coming home from a breast implantation surgery and immediately flashing her, to which her mother responded by fainting. Her giddy narration construes this event as slapstick, and the audience ate it all up with a spoon.
Major’s journeys are imbued with pathos, using her unique voice as an inflection point for trans awareness. Even as the film makes it a goal to assert trans history within hegemonic histories that have been marginalized by their many adversities, it never loses focus on Major herself. As such, the recounted events are imbued with her unique personality and voice.
The film inserts Miss Major and her transness into a more well-known history of Civil Rights and prison abolition through interactions with Angela Davis and Frank “Big Black” Smith. Davis embraces Major with admiration and respect and the two discuss shared causes, likening Major’s activist issues with her own. The encounter is deeply human, and many were moved by the heartfelt bonding between the two countercultural powerhouses. The film also reveals that Miss Major’s activist career actually began with the famed Attica Prison riot, in which fellow inmate and riot leader, Frank “Big Black” Smith, taught Major everything he knew about systemic injustices—lessons she utilizes immediately after her release, as she began to organize community grassroots efforts to help trans women in San Diego. This piece of the distant past is made more powerful as Major, only in the last few years, meets Big Black’s transgender daughter. Always one to take her motherly duties seriously, Major adopts Big Black’s daughter, and she notably appears throughout the rest of the movie as part of Major’s entourage.
One of the aims of this herstorical rewrite is to counteract the relentless whitewashing of queer politics. Most memorably, due to the recent film flop that seemed to contend otherwise, Miss Major speaks about the importance of trans women of color during the 1961 Stonewall Riots, which started the modern LGBT movement. She morosely recounts how nightlife was one of the only sanctuaries for trans women and that the Stonewall Inn was one of few bars to not turn them away. To the crowd’s whistles and cheers, Major laughs as she tells of the moment her sisters locked eyes and decided to fight tooth and nail against the police raid that had disturbed their safe haven. 45 years later, Miss Major prepares for her bout as Grand Marshal for SF Pride, an event that turned what was once a riot into a popular, corporate-sponsored dance party, full of scantily clad, muscular, white men who think that #LoveWon. In MAJOR!, we follow the parade solely from a trans perspective, following Miss Major’s float, surrounded by friends and family that march to remind us that #TransLivesMatter. This is overlaid with the audio of fellow Marshal Janet Mock’s speech—a speech Miss Major helped to write, and a rousing call to action for trans people, for the fight is far from over.
The film also retunes the ways that the few mainstream trans narratives are being told. Genderqueer activists such as Alok Vaid-Menon and Jacob Tobia speak of the downsides to the “transgender tipping point.” Whether it’s Caitlyn Jenner appearing in skimpy shapewear or Aydin Dowling posting a shirtless Instagram picture, the neoliberal mainstream only accepts trans identities after putting on a pedestal those who have been sexualized and fleshed out to hypermasculine or hyperfeminine extremes, marginalizing those who are non-binary. Intentionally and pointedly so or not, MAJOR! addresses the nuances of this tipping point through the way Miss Major’s political and social existence questions and queers these binaries. Theorists have often spoken of the fluidity of sexual and gender identity, and no one exemplifies this better than Miss Major. Midway through the film, after covering years of Major’s sexual escapades with and constant passes at men, the audience is introduced to Major’s ex-wife. In interview, she even refers to Major with male pronouns and refers to Major as “deeply genderqueer.” Major’s biological son is interviewed, who honors Major’s femininity, but also proudly calls Major “daddy.” Major herself tells a story of how living outside the binary, going to a daddy-run daycare wearing a suit that did little to obscure her full breasts and promptly getting kicked out. (Again, narrated like slapstick.) Nevertheless, Major fathers her biological son with the same love with which she mothers her numerous, adopted trans daughters and granddaughters. Talking heads of present-day Major in casual clothing, wigless and baldheaded, and with stubble on her chin corroborate this fluidness.
If any sort of constructive critique could be offered, it would be merely aesthetic and formal. MAJOR! supplements the information relayed by Major herself as well as by activists interviewed with slides of text, but these slides simply scream amateur—the corny text, the iMovie fade effects, and the saccharinely-patterned, blindingly-colored background. It distracts from the facts themselves. To make up for a lack of photographic documentation of trans history, narrations are paired with illustrations of key events, authored by trans artists such as Wriply Bennett. These “outsider art”-esque illustrations are a hit-or-miss. I was a big fan of the illustrations, but I remain unsure whether they could carry the emotional weight for all who watched, due to the naiveté of the style, which may disrupt the seriousness and moroseness of the film’s events. Otherwise, the homebrewed, “patchwork” aesthetic to MAJOR! works exceptionally well, as it bespeaks its community origins—how it was crowdfunded by the money, resources, and archival material of a worldwide network of trans individuals.
The film’s end is the ultimate testament to how the film shifts the trans narrative from remembrance to resilience. After paying proper respects to the women in the movie who had since passed, a series of grainy video-selfies with iPhone dimensions began to play. “I’m still fucking here,” trans women of color proclaim, over and over. “I’m still fucking here.” The room echoed with applause, snaps, and cries of solidarity. “I’m still fucking here.” As Miss Major herself took the stage at the world premiere of her own documentary, the cheering did not stop—thankful cries for Miss Major, who bursts with life and love. Miss Major, who remains the Ur-example of how to survive and thrive while trans. Miss Major, who is still fucking here.
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Due to her selfless work as an activist with TGIJP that has left her without an income as well as her recent medical issues, Miss Major needs our help more than ever. Please honor our elders by funding her retirement here.