Miss Major Speaks: The Life and Legacy of a Black Trans Revolutionary Book

by Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and Toshio Meronek, London and New York: Verso, 2023

Reviewed by Haley McEwen

When Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is speaking, a person should listen. Beyond an opportunity to learn about the life of a leader and elder in the Black transgender community through vivid personal accounts of activism and survival, listening to Miss Major speak is to subvert systems that have worked to erase and silence Black transgender women throughout history and in present reality. Miss Major Speaks is a text that will likely not be included in course syllabi on ‘development’, ‘sociology’, or ‘social theory’, precisely because of the scholarly practices that have rendered disciplinary knowledge production complicit in the maintenance of systems of injustice. Dominant notions that academic knowledge production must remain ‘objective’, and therefore not explicitly political or emotional, typically locate those living on the margins of society as the known, rather than knowers with expertise and insights that can teach privileged academics a thing or two. But, then again, this book is more than an intervention into academic understandings of power and injustice, showing trans and non-trans audiences that ‘getting liberated’ not only requires an awareness of the forms of oppression we face, but an understanding of how to resist reproducing the oppressor’s ways in our own practice.

Miss Major Speaks takes the shape of a conversation between Miss Major and Toshio Meronek, a San Francisco-based activist and writer whose work on queer homelessness, incarceration, disability, and resistance against gentrification has appeared in several publications including The TimesAl JazeeraThe Nationthem, and queer anthologies including Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (AK Press, 2015). Meronek’s style of interviewing Miss Major is engaging, demonstrating a mutual affinity for intersectional politics of queer rebellion, solidarity, and care. The decision to craft the work as a conversation is thoughtfully considered in relation to Major’s politics of community building and mentorship: ‘Major’s preferred format for all her public talks is a conversation’, Meronak tells (p. 27). ‘She doesn’t love delivering a long keynote speech. A conversation has the potential to cement connections more than a monologue’ (p. 27). For these reasons, the book is not about ‘Major’s Rules’, but rather the words of someone with ‘wisdom that younger activists can take or leave’ (p. 29).

The book was compiled by Meronek, who recorded a thousand hours of conversation with Major, as well as conversations with some of Major’s closest comrades and friends where they share what Major has taught them and how she has impacted their lives and work. Meronek, too, reflects on the tuition they received from Major throughout their conversations: choices that helped her survive; her brazen politics and ‘beyond-the-status-quo imagination’; her ‘mastery of self-care’ that made it possible for Major to endure; and the secrets to her confident refusal of respectability politics ‘in a society where trans and queer people are beat down enough to believe that the thought of getting to seventy is total delusion’ (p. 10).

The book opens with an introduction to the life of Miss Major, which reads like a roadmap to the ‘twists, turns, lane changes, and reverse maneuvers of the most well-choreographed car chase scenes in movies’ that characterise Major’s three-quarters of a century of living, loving, and resisting (p. 1). It then opens into four sections, each addressing a different era of Major’s life and piece of her philosophy for Black trans survival, solidarity building, and activism: ‘Stonewall Never Happened’, ‘Fuck a Butterfly. Embrace the Caterpillar’, ‘The Keys to Our Fucking Survival’, and ‘Miss Major Futurism’.

Sharing her accounts of the 1969 Stonewall riots, the AIDS crisis in San Francisco during the 1980s, incarceration and political education in the US prison industrial complex, and other experiences of oppression and resistance, Major provides a potent historical account of the systems of exclusion and violence that have disproportionately affected the lives of Black transgender women, not only in the United States, but internationally. Interwoven with her recollections of a lifetime of community building and advocacy from the Tenderloin District to the United Nations, are Major’s personal stories about her own childhood, her experiences being a mother of two, and a sister to Black transgender women across the country.

In providing insight into her decades of activism and community building, Major makes important contributions and critical interventions into liberal understandings of development and normative notions of progress. From the perspective of Miss Major and the ‘gurls’ in her cross-country networks, words like development and progress have typically meant the deepening and fine tuning of systemic violence; words like ‘rehabilitation’, ‘treatment’, and ‘urban renewal’ have obscured realities of brutalisation, confinement, and isolation for Black transgender women, homeless people, people with disabilities, and people with drug addictions (p. 6); laws have been designed not to protect their equal rights and dignity, but to serve an elite minority whose privilege and power depends upon their ability to control those whose existence threatens their status and property values. In such a context, Major admits, ‘You don’t get to be seventy-something as a Black trans person without breaking a law’ (p. 9).

A refusal to allow systems of oppression to dampen her critical joyfulness surfaces as a vital element of Major’s advocacy as she reflects on decades of activism and resistance. In a context where one’s existence and survival are acts of political resistance, the buoyancy with which Miss Major recounts her life punctures the social, economic, and political forces that try to contain gender and sexuality diversity into a normative binary, and mute the existence of transgender people, especially Black transgender women. Despite being in her eighties at the time of the book’s publication, Major’s energy for challenging oppression and supporting Black transgender community building continues to be groundbreaking. Her latest project, launched in 2022, is a mentorship project and community-building initiative for Black transgender women in the American South. The organisation bears the name of one of Major’s keys to life and survival for those oppressed by the ‘Powers That Be’, which is also woven like a golden thread throughout the book: TILIFI – Tell It Like It Fuckin’ Is (p. 67).

© 2023 Haley McEwen