"MAJOR!" is a film documenting the life and legacy of transgender elder and pioneering activist Miss Major, a prominent and enduring figure within the LGBT movement since the 1960s.
Present the night of the Stonewall Rebellion, Miss Major is described by filmmakers Annalise Ophelian and StormMiguel Florez as "a formerly incarcerated person, a former sex worker, an elder, a community leader, and an internationally-recognized human rights activist... Miss Major has rallied in front of government officials and spoken around the world, but her most enduring legacy has been uniquely personal. She’s been the emergency phone call, the helping hand, and the surrogate mother to an entire community of transgender women whom she’s supported, mentored, and helped mold into the next generation of community leaders."
The Huffington Post caught up with Ophelian and Florez last week in an effort to better understand Miss Major's role within LGBT and queer history, her work today as a transgender elder and activist, and the legacy she continues to embody through her work with transgender women of color, particularly those who experience disproportionate levels of incarceration and the violence of the prison-industrial complex.
The Huffington Post: As an iconic figure within the LGBT community, who is Miss Major and what does her legacy represent?
Annalise Ophelian: Miss Major is an Oakland-based trans elder. She’s 70 years old and she’s been instigating and organizing for transgender civil rights for over 40 years. She is currently the Executive Director of the Transgender GenderVarient Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), which is based in Oakland, California, and she was also one of the original Stonewall Rebels. She was there on that June night in 1969, and her story is significant for many reasons, not the least of which being we simply don’t have that many transgender elders of color in the community. The community is disproportionately devastated by HIV, mass incarceration, hate violence and homicide, suicide rates –- we simply don’t have as many members of the community who are elders. And so, to have someone who has been "boots on the ground" for as long as Miss Major, and then also be this amazing, vibrant, positive role model for so many people –- and I would suggest [not just] trans folks but folks who are in the broader LGBT community and lots of straight folks.
StormMiguel Florez: People who are doing prison work, anti-prison work, prison abolitionist work, especially in the Bay Area and New York City, are definitely influenced and inspired by Major pretty regularly.
Ophelian: Another significant thing about Major is that her life has intersected so many significant historical moments in LGBT history and in progressive peoples’ movements in history. I find it’s very humanizing and very grounding to understand my history through lived experience.
You mentioned that Miss Major was present the night of the Stonewall Rebellion. Can you talk a bit about her role that night and these other landmark historical moments at which she's been present?
Ophelian: In the film Miss Major talks about her experience being in New York in the 1960s and what community was like for trans folks, gender nonconforming folks in that particular area at that time. She talks about the clubs that they hung out in –- there was the Stonewall, there was the Gilded Grape. Major at the time was working with the Jewel Box Revue, which was a female impersonator show. Many women who we now kind of identify as trans women worked in the '60s and '70s as drag performers because it was one of the few aboveboard avenues of employment open to them. She talks about the night of Stonewall in these really beautiful and historic terms. It was the day they buried Judy Garland and she talks about sitting at home in the afternoon and watching the funeral progression on the news on TV and Judy Garland’s casket covered in flowers. That evening, like any other evening, she was out with her friends and compatriots at the bars where you would try to find some solace from the grind of daily life. The story that we all know about Stonewall is that there was tremendous mafia involvement in the way that the [gay bars in New York City] were run, that the police would raid them regularly. The things I think that we hear from Stonewall -- most are the stories from the few survivors of that night who are predominately white gay men -– and there’s a reason for that. Because the predominately queer and trans youth of color, who were responsible for instigating and carrying out the rebellion that night, didn’t survive through the '70s and '80s and '90s. We don’t have them with us today to tell the story. So the fact that Major can tell her story of that night is really spectacular.
The film is primarily about Major and her story. Are there other larger, overarching thematic elements within the film that the two of you are attempting to bring visibility to within a mainstream conversation?
Florez: A big part of it is there’s this revolutionary act of her being there [for people] and helping people survive on a real individual level. So, she’s done all these great things in the public eye but there’s all the stories from a lot of different trans women, trans women of color especially, and even other folks who just really talk about the ways Major picked them up. It’s really cool because there’s this recurring theme of, “When I was homeless Major let me sleep on her couch...” or “She brought me food...” “She made sure that my lights stayed on...” or “She taught me how to be a woman...” What’s so cool and what we’ve been noticing and didn’t really think about ahead of time is that so many of the people that we’re interviewing that are sharing this story are also now doing the kind of work that Major has been doing all this time. They’re all working at organizations, they’re doing work on the ground to try to make sure that their trans communities, our trans communities, are being taken care of. People are working for different nonprofit organizations; they’re doing acts of social justice that are making a difference in their communities. So it’s really amazing to see the ripple effect that has happened with the ways that Miss Major really was just there for these people on a really personal level.
The trailer mentions that you’ve interviewed around twenty individuals for the film, mostly trans women of color. Who are some of these individuals?
Ophelian: We’ve interviewed almost 20 community members, most of them but not all of them trans women of color. A lot of women, like StormMiguel said, are doing this work in the community now. For instance, Janetta Johnson, who is program coordinator at TGIJB talks about her experience being incarcerated in federal prison in Florida, of reaching out to Major and traveling to San Francisco after her release without ever having met Major, only having talked with her on the phone. But Major being this beacon -- this kind of lighthouse on the shore –- where Janetta knew there was a person who is out there doing this work and living a healthy and powerful life. She wanted to be close to that and was inspired by that -- she wanted to turn her life around and do that kind of work herself. Bobbi Jean Baker, who was incarcerated for over 14 years, talks about her connection to Major and how Major would sort of sneak in these meetings. She’d be like, “Well, we’re going to get together but you’re going to come to letter night at TGIJP.” Through her hanging out with Major and her involvement, she became deeply connected in the community and in faith-based communities and is now a reverend and a tremendous leader and organizer in ministry. She jokes about Major’s power to bring you along in a way that you don’t even notice. Tracy O’Brien, who does amazing work around HIV advocacy in San Diego and in many ways carried on the legacy of outreach that Major was doing in San Francisco, talked about how early in her friendship with Major, Major kind of brought her along to City College in San Diego with her because Major [said she] wanted to check out the campus. But Tracy was the one that ended up going on the college and getting her certification and degree. So there are all of these wonderful ways that Major has touched people’s lives and then they’ve gone on to positions of leadership and positions in which, exponentially, they’re touching the lives of other women as well.
As queer filmmakers, would you say that you feel a sense of responsibility to bring visibility to these historic, often invisible or erased icons from queer and LGBT history?
Florez: Yes, I think we both do. It’s important for both of us to make sure that the stories that don’t get heard are heard. For me, as a trans man of color, it’s important for me to support trans women of color in my life who I feel like have really paved the way. It’s really fun to make narratives and I’ve done music videos myself and would like to do more narrative work but I feel like having the tools and the means and the community available –- there is a responsibility to make this kind of work that’s documenting lives of people whose lives are not going to get documented by the mainstream.
Ophelian: Or, that when our lives are documented it’s from his very exotifying, otherizing position that can often be really sort of romantically fixated on notions of violence and trauma and sensationalized. We love making film from a social justice perspective, from an anti-oppression perspective, from a highly collaborative place that is deeply involving all the participants in the film in the making of it, so that we’re not reproducing these kind of colonial methods of going into a community, taking their stories and then leaving. I personally feel that documentary film has tremendous power to share the authenticities and realities of queer and transgender lives with audiences. When you know more about queer and transgender people -- how we live our lives, who we love, where we work, where we live -– it’s harder to kill us. It’s harder to fire us from our jobs. It’s harder to kick us out of our houses. That’s the really revolutionary thing, I think, about LGBT film. That we’re speaking truth for our own people and giving a mirror to our own communities to celebrate the things we’ve done. But we’re also reaching out to people outside of our communities and showing them something that, I think, will foster a more humane world.
Miss Major serves as the Executive Director of the Transgender GenderVarient Intersex Justice Project. What type of work does this organization do?
Florez: Well, I’ve actually had the pleasure of working for Miss Major at TGIJP. The work she’s done there has been tremendous –- I think she’s been there for around eight years. She started out [in a lower position] and eventually Alex Lee, who started the organization, transitioned out and Miss Major became the Executive Director. She’s done a lot of great work -– one of the main things she’s done is she’s gotten transgender voices and bodies into the formerly incarcerated and convicted people’s movement, which is really overwhelmingly straight as far as who’s at the main table of people making decisions and pushing the movement forward. Miss Major basically kind of shoved her way in the door and made sure that they couldn’t shut it on her. She brought herself and TGIJP members to the table of this particular movement and made sure that we had a voice. So it’s not just that we’re working within the trans community; Miss Major has been making sure that our voices are heard, specifically trans women of color voices are heard, and represented in that movement. And that’s been huge! It’s been huge to bring visibility to TGIJP, it’s been huge to help create bridges between the worlds because there are so many people in prisons and trans women are really at the bottom of the food chain. Being in prison is dangerous, period, for anyone -- but it’s especially dangerous for trans women. Trans women are often put into solitary confinement for their own “protection.” So we’re talking serving out terms in solitary confinement, which is really inhumane.
Ophelian: I think that one of the things that is helpful is to recognize that we have a terrible problem with incarceration in the United States –- our prison system is broken, it’s overcrowded to the point of being recognized by the Supreme Court as a basic violation of civil rights. Within this broken context of mass incarceration of people, overwhelmingly on the basis of socioeconomic status and race, it’s important to recognize that nearly one in six transgender people -– and this includes 21 percent of trans women – have been incarcerated at some point in their lives. For black trans folks, nearly half have been incarcerated at some point in their lives. These are statistics that I got from transequality.org, and it’s stuff that we see in the members of TGIJP that, within the context of a culture that is massively over-incarcerating certain groups of people, trans folks and particularly trans women of color are extraordinarily at risk. They face extraordinary abuses once they are inside and are then caught in a vicious cycle of reincarceration when they leave. We’re living in a very policy-focused time in nonprofit world and one of the revolutionary things about TGIJP is that they are less policy-focused. The work that they are doing is community building.
What do you see “MAJOR!” contributing to the way that we talk about and understand queer and LGBT history, both in the modern day and in a historical context?
Florez: I think in the modern day the main topics we hear about right now in the LGBT movement are marriage and military. Miss Major will be one of the first ones to say, “That’s not our history -– that’s not how this movement started, that’s not why this movement started.” The movement started so that all of us could be free and all of us could be safe and all of us could be healthy –- and that’s not what’s happening. Marriage and the military, while these are important things to be talking about, there are so many people that are falling through the cracks when we talk about this. When that’s where we put all of our financial resources and all of our media resources and all of our attention, there are so many people who are falling through the cracks and not being held in that. Historically, when Stonewall started it was about fighting brutality, it was about making sure that people could be safe and just gather and be together. The thing is -– that’s still a problem! Trans women are disproportionately flat out murdered because they’re trans women! I’m going to emphasize trans women of color –- if you go to the “Trans Day of Remembrance” website, they list names and faces of people who are killed because of hate crime and violence over the year. It’s hugely trans women of color. So, these are folks who are just completely being left behind and left out of the movement.
Ophelian: StormMiguel and I both live in communities that have, for the better part of our adult lives, been defined by trauma and by attending funerals and struggles to survive. This project is informed by a sense of wanting to celebrate the resilience and power of a community member who is still with us. We really hope that watching this film, people feel like they’ve gotten to spend time with Miss Major -– they feel like they’ve learned something about the history that they are a part of, and that we get to change the narrative that we so frequently have about ourselves, which is one of loss and trauma. We want to shift the lens and also acknowledge and celebrate a resilience of survivalism and the tremendous impact that women like Miss Major have had on our community and on the world.
For more information on "MAJOR!" and the work of Ophelian and Florez, visit the project's Kickstarter page.