QUEER HISTORY: Miss Major Griffin-Gracy

Miss Major Griffin Gracy is a trans elder and activist and among other things, was present at the Stonewall Inn Riots in 1969. She’s a community leader who has worked tirelessly over the decades to support other trans girls/women and the LGBTQ community, especially those who are or have been incarcerated, and helped spark the modern trans movement.

Miss Major was born in 1940 and grew up in Chicago. Early on in her life, she became involved in drag balls in Chicago and came out in her teens. After being kicked out by her family, Miss Major made her way to New York City and was a part of the Stonewall Inn Riots in June of 1969. She spoke about the riots to the Huffington Post a couple years ago, saying in particular:

And the aftermath of that ― there was a sense of pride that stood up for ourselves and we fought back. That they didn’t just roll over us like one of those concrete things that smooths the roads. We actually stood up and it was empowering.

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The History of Pride.

For many people, Pride month is coming to an end but there’s one important anniversary to celebrate and remember today: the 49th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn Riots. So often, many people forget the history of Pride and the long history of LGBTQ activism and existence. We’ve been around for centuries but homophobia, transphobia, and queerphobia have made it difficult for LGBTQ folks throughout history to exist happily and openly.

While the Stonewall Inn Riots are one of the most famous LGBTQ events in US history, police raids on gay bars were common during the 1950s and 1960s throughout the United States. And they didn’t stop after the Stonewall Riots. People were frequently arrested for different reasons, including for not wearing three articles of gender appropriate clothing. Those who frequented the Stonewall during this time also dealt with police harassment outside the bar and many were ostracized from their families and communities if or when they came out.

In the 1950s, gay people were also barred from government jobs with the notion that they could be blackmailed about their sexuality into sharing secrets. This is often called the ‘Lavender Scare’ and in addition to hundreds of people being harassed about their personal lives and sexuality, many lost their jobs because of it.

Additionally, many people during this time also thought that being gay or bisexual was an illness and something that could be cured. Gay, bisexual, and trans folks were regularly (and wrongly) seen as ‘perverted’ and wrong. There were many people during the 20th century who would live in the closet in their professional lives and places like the Stonewall provided a safe space. And like today, there were also many LGBTQ folks who dealt with poverty and homelessness during that time. For many, the Stonewall was a community center as much as a bar, as it was a warm place for LGBTQ folks to openly congregate and be with friends.

All of this is to put things into context, as people had some very good reasons to protest and riot. To deal with losing your job, family, and friends because of your gender identity or sexual orientation and to constantly hear that these things are also an ‘illness’ that needs to be cured is tough. It’s frustrating, degrading, and angering to be incorrectly labeled as a risk and wrong because of how you express yourself and who you love.

So on June 28th, 1969, when the police raided the Stonewall Inn again, people fought back for days instead of dispersing like they had done before. People at the Stonewall were fed up with how the police and rest of society were treating them. This event is often credited as the beginning of the gay rights movement and like Miss Major Griffin Gracy said, it was an empowering moment for many folks. It wasn’t the first moment that LGBTQ folks stood up and fought back but it was a moment that helped push the US towards justice and equality for the LGBTQ community.

One year after the riots, the Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day took place. This event was a remembrance for what had happened that June in 1969 and was also a continued fight for legal rights and social acceptance. It began with a march with a few hundred people gathering at the outside of the Stonewall Inn and by the time that it ended in Central Park in 1970, there were a few thousand people! By 1973, the Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day was an expected event in New York City and there were other cities holding similar events.

In the decades since the Stonewall Inn Riots and first Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day, Pride has grown and evolved. There are numerous events all over the country and all over the world during June and the first couple weeks of July. Many corporations, police departments, and governments now slap a rainbow on products, vans, and more each June. Parties of all kinds happen throughout the month and people of different identities often join the celebrations.

While we’ve come a long way over the last 49 years, we also have a long way to go for a more just and equitable society. Pride shouldn’t just a celebration nowadays; it should also be a protest. These two things can, and should, go hand in hand. Celebrating our community and feeling joy in our existence is often an act of resistance and we should keep celebrating. But using this time and space to also work towards a better world is in the spirit of Pride and honors those who came before us.

History of the LGBTQ Flag.

These days, the rainbow flag is a symbol for the LGBTQ community and thousands of people march with the flag through streets all over the world during Pride month. But the flag has a decades long history, as today happens to be the rainbow flag’s 40th anniversary. June 25th, 1978 was the first time the flag made an appearance! It flew over San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade after a group of activists in the area worked towards creating a new symbol for the community.

Gilbert Baker is often credited for creating the flag and he did play a huge role in how the flag looks and what it represents. But he also had a team and community that helped him. Harvey Milk and Artie Bressan Jr both encouraged him to create another symbol for the LGBTQ community to celebrate what the community was becoming. During that time, the pink triangle had been reclaimed but was steeped in the history of Nazi Germany using it to identify  gay men in concentration camps during the late 1930s and early 1940s. (Many gay men were imprisoned, forced to work, and killed along side many Jewish people and others during the Holocaust.)

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Pride.

With Pride month officially done, I can’t help but think about where Pride has been, where it is now, and where it’s going. There’s no formal date for Pride but many cities typically celebrate during the last few weekends of June to (mostly) coincide with the anniversary of the Stonewall Inn Riots on June 28th. There always seems to be some sort of Pride event in the world during the weekends leading up to July and a few that happen during the first couple weekends of the month as well.

I always feel like a bad queer person because of this but I’ve actually only been to Pride weekend once. It was years ago and even then, I only stayed during the day and I was volunteering the entire time. I think that Pride can be this amazing celebration of the LGBTQ+ community but as an introverted person with anxiety and depression, being in large crowds for any reason and any amount of time is stressful and overwhelming.

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Stonewall (2015)

During its initial release and promotion, I wrote about Roland Emmerich’s 2015 film Stonewall and about how the film was essentially not representative of what happened during the 1969 Stonewall Riots. I wasn’t the only one to critique the film before even seeing it – the hashtag #NotMyStonewall brought up a variety of criticisms for the film and of the decision to center a cis, white gay man rather than the real life people who were present.

And for over a year, I forgot about the film. It didn’t seem to really do that well, getting only 10% from Rotten Tomatoes, and despite being friends with a large amount of LGBTQ+ folks, I honestly don’t really know anyone who actually went to see it. But a few weeks ago, I was staying at a place that didn’t have internet and because the one video rental place in town was having a special deal of renting five videos for the price of three, I decided to finally see what Stonewall (2015) was all about.

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Major!

By complete chance, I saw the documentary Major! recently and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had in the past few months. A small part of my experience was also learning that a local nonprofit movie theater does a queer movie series and being surrounded in large part by other LGBT and queer folks. But being able to learn about and celebrate Miss Major was really the best part.

The documentary is in large part about Miss Major Griffin Gracy and her story as a black trans woman, veteran of the Stonewall Riots, a survivor of Attica State Prison, former sex worker, and community leader/activist. Her work at the Transgender Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), for example, has supported trans women who are currently in jail and prison or who are formerly incarcerated. There are interviews from Miss Major herself and the community around her about her life and work and there’s so much love and support in this film.

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Teaching LGBT History.

Recently, I read about how some school districts around the US  were going to be teaching about LGBT history to students. This is, of course, a cause for celebration because it allows for LGBT students to learn about their community’s history in school. For one of the first times (at least in my experience), young people might be learning about the Stonewall Inn and Compton’s Cafeteria Riots and about people like Audre Lorde, Sylvia Rivera, and Marsha P Johnson.

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Police at Pride.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about police presence at Pride celebrations – after the mass shooting in Orlando and a potential attack in LA stopped, many people are on edge about potentially being attacked or killed because of their sexual orientation and/or gender. And it’s hard not to be a little terrified after everything: in addition to the Pulse shooting, queer/LGBTQ people are generally most at risk for hate crime related violence and that trend is unfortunately going up.

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The way we learn history.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way we learn and understand history – in part because of my own love for the Broadway hit musical Hamilton. That musical has taken the life of the first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, turned it into a popular hip hop musical, and made learning about the founding fathers of the United States a little less boring. (Unless you’re a part of the founding fathers fandom, which is in fact an actual thing on the internet and includes romantic shipping of historical figures.) But at the same time, the show hasn’t told the full story and has spun some of the facts into a more dramatic retelling.

Hamilton has skyrocketed into mainstream popularity, received awards and praise, and has gained a sizeable and dedicated following. People show up in droves to watch the live #Ham4Ham mini shows during the ticket lottery in New York City and a book was created to show behind the scenes of both the show and creation. But not everyone has been praising the production and that’s a good thing.

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Happy Birthday, Marsha!

Happy Birthday Marsha!Happy Birthday, Marsha! is an upcoming short film about the legendary trans activist Marsha “Pay it No Mind” Johnson and the days before the 1969 Stonewall Inn Riots. Honestly, I’m so excited for this film because unlike other films about the same time period and riot, it’s centering the people who were front and center at the time.

Right now, the film is in post production but still needs some funding to help finish up! The people behind the film are Sasha Wortzel and Reina Gossett, two filmmakers who have worked on other projects and with organizations. The two and Luisa Colon, another producer, were interviewed last June about the film and talked about how much they’ve learned from trans legends like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson.