Miss Major Speaks is an intimate portrait of someone who’s been on the front line of the fight for LGBT+ liberation since the 1960s. It’s a short and provoking memoir, made up of a series of conversations between US black trans activist Miss Major Griffin-Gracey and San Francisco based writer Toshio Meronek.
Miss Major’s story is one of survival and defiance of those she calls “the powers that be”. She is a veteran of the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and a former Civil Rights activist, who’s survived psychiatric hospitals, the US prison system and the HIV and Aids crisis.
The Stonewall Riots gave birth to the modern gay liberation movement and changed the lives of all LGBT+ people. The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) that came out of the riots was a militant and radical organisation that made links with other movements. Its name was a conscious nod to the Vietnamese and Algerian national liberation fronts, and it worked alongside the Black Panthers and Women’s Liberation movements.
This marked a break with the politics that had come before. The Mattachine Society—which Miss Major briefly worked for—relied on a strategy of winning legal equality through “respectability”.
A sense of the changing time comes through in perhaps my favourite chapter, Late night epiphanies with Big Black from Attica. It tells the story of Miss Major’s political journey during her incarceration in Dannemora prison in New York State in 1970. There she met Black Panther Frank “Big Black” Smith, who’d go on to be one of the organisers of the Attica prison rebellion the following year.
Miss Major began formalising her understanding of how capitalism and oppression are connected, and the need to unite the struggles. She recalls the discussion with Big Black that taught her, “You can’t throw anybody under the bus.” You have to “see that everybody, everybody has suffered. That no one is luckier than the other—it doesn’t do anyone any good to think like that… We all struggle.”
The book does not just simply give a map of her life, instead, questioning what liberation is and how to fight for it. This is punctuated with vivid recollections, observations, sharp wit and calls to action.
On Stonewall, she describes the riots as if they had never happened “because it didn’t change anything for us”. Her assessment reflects the demoralisation, fragmentation and corporatisation of LGBT+ politics that came after the movements of the 1960s and 70s failed to break through.
Today, she says fleeting spikes of LGBT+ representation, Pride parades that host cops and corporations, memorial statues don’t change the lives of working class LGBT+ people. Gains within mainstream politics can only go so far. And the nature of the system we live under—where the ruling class relies on oppression to divide and rule working class people—means rights gained can be rolled back.
This is especially poignant as the right ramps up the war on trans and non-binary people in the US and Britain. This book gives us the opportunity to read Miss Major’s unique and witty voice, and look at the lessons that shaped her ideas.
This year we’ve seen thousands join protests and vigils for trans rights in response to the Tories blocking Scotland’s gender recognition reforms and the murder of teenager Brianna Ghey. And just last weekend, up to 25,000 marched on London Trans+ Pride.
The movement has thrown up big questions about how to fight for liberation. Miss Major Speaks is an opportunity to look at the strengths of Stonewall—and the weaknesses and limitations of what came after it.