June 6, 1969—The Stonewall Inn, sometime between midnight and dawn. A routine vice raid on a bar, New York City cops looking for some easy arrests.
But it wasn’t easy, not that night.
That night, they were met with the sound and fury of trans femmes, drag queens, and other gays and lesbians bashing back against a suffocating, predatory culture of grope searches, entrapment, police sanctioned brutality, and sexual violence designed to strong-arm queer people from existing safely in public space.
It was a three day riot. A rebellion. An explosion of righteous indignation, civil disobedience sparking the modern queer liberation movement into life. Red lipstick and rage lashing out against a machine of institutional, taxpayer funded trauma and surveillance. A black trans woman in the 50’s and 60’s, Miss Major was no stranger to police violence. Citing what she learned in prison, she recounts her experience saying “in that sort of situation, what you do is piss the police off so he knocks you out, then you don’t get hurt. If you stand there and fight them, they’re gonna break every bone in your body.”
For much of her life, Miss Major was met with barrier after barrier to employment and reliable housing due to her fervent desire to live as her authentic self. This pushed her into a cycle of relying on theft and sex work to survive bouts of homelessness, which put her in a loop of arrest, incarceration, trauma, and further barriers popping up which heavily influenced the crux of her activism—reforming the system to protect women like herself from suffering the same humiliation and trauma.
“It’s not a choice to be a transgender person. You are or you aren’t! And if you are, the shit that you have to go through to maintain that, you wouldn’t just decide to do out of the clear blue sky! It has to be because it’s a part of who you are and it will help your survival. So I just try to make sure that we get treated fairly.” She lays out in an interview with James Michael Nichols of The Huffington Post. “That government people and police [need to] let us be who we are and don’t arrest us for things like how we dress or what we do to survive. Because we can’t get jobs, we’re not allowed to go to school, we’re unemployable, so how do you pay rent? Buy food? Get clean clothes – new clothes? We have to live outside the law! So we’ve adjusted to that and we’re doing it. Don’t persecute us because you forced us to do this, you know? Back up off of us and change these laws and work with us.”
Miss Major has also been critical of the tendency of the gay liberation movement to erase out black and Latina trans women who got their heels dirty that night in June and replace them with clean cut white boys in order to make the gay liberation movement more publicly palatable. In the early 70’s, another Stonewall veteran, Sylvia Rivera, was booed off stage at a Gay Liberation event in for taking over the mic to advocate on the behalf of low income queer people and trans people who are struggling with disproportionate amounts of life threatening violence as cisgender middle class gays and lesbians marched on to party beats. Thankfully this attitude is a minority in the community, at least among the belligerently, ecstatically ‘queer’ readers here at Wussy, but it is still important that we keep tabs on that mentality because it is dangerous. It ostracizes the most vulnerable members of our community, in the midst of a political environment which is physically toxic to their lives and livelihoods. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence (NCAV) reports that 2016 was the deadliest year for the LGBT community in 20 years, with a 17% increase in homicides (not counting the lives lost in the Pulse shooting). Out of 28 LGBT homicides covered in the report, 79% were people of color (eighteen were black, four were Latino), and 68% (nineteen out of 28) were transgender or gender non-conforming. The majority of these hate incidents were perpetrated by family members, co-workers, neighbors, and landlords—people who were close enough to the victim to know of their sexuality and gender expression.
After Stonewall, Miss Major went out west and helped found the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, a nonprofit which works to support trans women who have served time in men’s prisons, with a focus of rehabilitation, employment, and broader scale reform to get these women out of these situations in the first place. Though public speaking, political organizing, and the TGI Justice Project have all been a big part of Miss Major’s activism over the years, she repeatedly lifts up taking personal steps towards what feels like empowerment on your own terms. The radical bravery of simply going about your day and running errands and having the ecstatic audacity to be happy or visible or thriving while trans. To find people who care about you without changing who you are to suit their needs. The fact that you have intrinsic value without having to hide parts of yourself from anybody in our constant fight to forge a higher level of public safety out in this world.
“You don’t have to be a part of an organization. Just going about your daily life living your truth and doing it on your own to challenge the status quo.” She says in The Personal Things, an animated short directed by trans historian and archivist Reina Gosset. “This group stuff is nice, and yeah we have to get together and work on abolishing what’s going on, but the personal stuff is what gives you the strength to go forward”.
Mel Paisley is transmasculine author, illustrator, and general loudmouthed inkslinger based out of Savannah, GA. He writes a lot about pre-Stonewall herstory, schizophrenia, and being mixed and queer in the Deep South. (IG/Twitter: @melpaisleyart, melpaisleyart.com)