Issue 10.1-10.2 | Fall 2011/Spring 2012 / Guest edited by Joseph N. DeFilippis, Lisa Duggan, Kenyon Farrow, and Richard Kim

This is What Pride Looks Like: Miss Major and the Violence, Poverty, and Incarceration of Low-Income Transgender Women

“Just because there’s this umbrella, LGBT, we’re all grouped together.
But guess what? Someone poked a hole in the umbrella and the girls are still getting wet.”
—Miss Major

I first met Miss Major socially in 2005 at the apartment of a mutual friend in the Bay Area; her then boyfriend, 30 years her junior, was at her side. When I began interviewing her for this article, she gave me three different ages, all of them creatively explained. What I do know is that she is a 6’2” African American transgender woman, and I believe that she is in her mid-sixties. Most often, I’ve seen her with wavy, short, grey hair in the exact style of women in my family who go to hair salons weekly. Though she received a kidney transplant four years ago, she is an unrepentant sugar addict. But I truly began to appreciate Miss Major’s character and spirit when she told me that she self-identifies as a “glamour puss,” a descriptor uniquely her own. “I like to have the right style,” she said. “Paint the face, grab my heels, make sure my purse matches, and hit it. It’s Miss Major, spelled M-I-S-S.”

Our chance encounter turned into a friendship that has helped guide my path as an activist. The year after we met, when I undertook a project to document discrimination and violence against transgender people in US prisons, Miss Major was the first person I turned to for assistance. Opportunities to collaborate grew, and we later were among the organizers of Transforming Justice, a coalition gathering of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) former prisoners, attorneys, and activists to develop national priorities toward ending the criminalization and imprisonment of transgender communities. A few years later, we reconnected in Barcelona, Spain, at a meeting of transgender advocates and allies dedicated to identifying local and global patterns of and remedies for human rights violations based on gender identity. As a thirty-five-year-old white, Jewish, queer woman assigned female at birth, my differences from Miss Major are many, but our connection runs deep. Coming from opposite ends of most spectrums, we are nonetheless two femme activists bound together by a mutual fascination with the pleasures and challenges of gender expression as well as a shared quest for social, political, and economic change. And so, I seek to convey some of the personal insights and professional wisdom that Miss Major has shared with me, an analysis that is too often sidelined by the US LGBT movement.

Now the executive director of the Transgender, Gender Variant, Intersex Justice Project (TGI Justice Project), Miss Major began her work decades ago. Assigned male at birth in Chicago in the 1940s, she was propelled by stigma, violence, and discrimination to become the recognized leader for transgender rights, economic justice, and prison abolition that she is today. She has been a sex worker, a welfare recipient, incarcerated, and homeless: realities that made her grasp early on that activism was essential to her own survival. In 1970, a friend of hers who was a Puerto Rican transwoman and sex worker was found dead in her apartment. Police ruled it a suicide despite ample evidence that a client murdered her. Miss Major explained:

Puppy’s murder made me aware that we were not safe or untouchable and that if someone does touch us, no one gives a shit. We only have each other. We always knew this, but now we needed to take a step towards doing something about it. So I started looking out for myself and the girls who worked on the street with me. We girls decided that whenever we got into a car with someone, another girl would write down as much information as possible. We would try not to just lean into the car window but get a guy to walk outside the car so that everyone could see him, so we all knew who he was if she didn’t come back. That’s how it started. Since no one was going to do it for us, we had to do it for ourselves.[1]

This inherently radical yet utterly pragmatic practice of “doing for ourselves” has been the basis of the movement that Miss Major helped establish on those streets and continues to nurture and lead today. From her first survival-driven, vigilante-style activism on the streets of New York City, Miss Major’s lifelong work has been rooted in the determination to change the reality she knew. Drawing upon her personal knowledge, fierce compassion, and exceptional organizing skills, Miss Major is a leading advocate for transgender justice and a bold visionary for radical change. Because of the realities of the lives of transgender people, especially low-income transgender people of color, she argues that work to fulfill their human rights necessitates a focus on issues of incarceration, poverty, employment, substance abuse, health, and violence. Miss Major’s work spans these realms and ranges from personal support to legislative advocacy. As I’ve gotten to know her, it has become clear that her activism comes from a vision that only comes from lived experience and great tenacity—and it is this vision that can serve as a guide to all activists looking to build a stronger, better, and more inclusive queer movement.

Survival and Leadership: “Exposing the Truth of Life among the Forgotten”

Miss Major’s efficacy is integrally related to her system of values. She believes the people directly affected must lead their own movement. Any other scenario, she argues, is doomed to fail because allies do not possess the same expertise, stamina, and sense of urgency. While there is clearly also a role for allies to play, her point is in part designed to redress the wrongs of organizations and movements that have systematically excluded the most affected from leadership. As such, much of her work is guided by this desire to nurture new leaders. “We have to support them, not take over,” she explains. “They have to lead this.” This message is both empowering and revolutionary for those who are used to being ignored. Billie Cooper, an active member of TGI Justice Project, said: “Girls come from far and wide to get the knowledge Miss Major has to offer. She lets us know that we don’t have to be prostitutes or get beat by our husbands or do drugs; we can get jobs and have healthy relationships. She’s the one person who’s told us that we don’t have to settle for anything.”[2]

Like many of the people she works with, Miss Major received welfare. She purchased most of her estrogen hormones on the black market. She has been homeless. She spent two decades generating the majority of her income through sex work and has done sex work periodically throughout most of her life. She is a survivor. Consequently, she has a deep understanding of community needs. She knows that seemingly minor challenges can add up to major barriers to receiving services and living healthier lives. Yoseñio Lewis has worked with Miss Major for seventeen years and witnessed her efforts to alleviate people’s burdens. He first met Miss Major when he served on the board of directors of the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center (TARC). He reminisced:

Remember when Major made sure TARC had a refrigerator so homeless people could store food and meds that needed refrigeration?[3] Remember when she fought for a washer and dryer so that people could wash their clothes and not end up being turned away from services elsewhere because they stank or were too embarrassed to even try? Remember when Major de-escalated a client with her stories and humor, and at the same time kept a staff member and that client from physical harm? […] One big reason we DO know about [these issues] is because of Miss Major’s big mouth and willingness to expose the truth of life among the forgotten.[4]

For the transgender women Miss Major works with, as in her own experience, even basic survival is a challenge. Social marginalization and economic oppression create a seemingly endless cycle of obstacles: unemployment, underemployment, homelessness, drug addiction, alcoholism, physical violence, sexual assault, police profiling, lack of health care, black market hormones, and imprisonment. She explains:
You say “get a job” like we can get one, but there’s no such thing if you can’t get work to maintain yourself, wash your body, have clean clothes, and feed yourself. What are you going to do if you have no way to pay for these things? You have to find something that’s outside of the law.

Having to deal with all that puts more pressure on you. The best way [for many] to deal with that pressure is to do drugs. Because if you’re high, you don’t give a shit.

Sex work was the most common thing for me because that’s what the older girls taught you to do. But this is because you don’t give us the opportunity. All of us do not hook or prostitute. But the concept is that we all do. So we’re at [the police’s] beck and call. If something happens and we’re in the vicinity, we get it. Someone attacks us, and we call the police, we end up going to jail, not the person who assaulted us. We’re profiled. You can’t even have a party with your friends without [police] pulling you over for hustling or loitering.

What do you think that tells a person? That you have no meaning. Society doesn’t give a damn about you. You’re the one who goes to prison and does time.[5]

The Prison Industrial Complex: Hidden Violence for Transgender Communities

Miss Major began her work at the TGI Justice Project in 2004. The mission of TGI Justice is to use “direct services and community organizing to support the leadership development and capacity building of the TGI communities, and especially of TGI prisoners and former prisoners.”[6] TGI Justice is the only organization in the United States dedicated specifically to transgender people in the prison-industrial complex, which means that though it is rooted in California and primarily serves California residents, transgender people and activists from around the country look to them to provide support and intellectual leadership.

Miss Major visits California prisons bimonthly to provide direct support to incarcerated transgender women and men, connect them to legal and social services, and encourage them to organize within the prisons. She meets with individuals and organizes support groups when possible. Fifteen to twenty transwomen regularly attended her most recent support group at the California Medical Facility. In between visits, she keeps in touch with people in prison via letters and the collect calls they make to the office. She also is an advocate, having testified about human rights violations based on gender identity and race before both the California State Assembly and the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva. There are at most five people in the United States who work full time on transgender rights in prison, which makes Miss Major an invaluable bridge from incarcerated transgender individuals to advocates and even advocacy targets like prison wardens and lawmakers.
Building on her work in prisons, Miss Major also organizes formerly incarcerated transgender women and men, which seems to mean being parent, sibling. friend, trainer, and resource to a lot of people. Because of her community relationships and because of prison demographics, she mobilizes primarily low-income transgender women of color. There is a reason Miss Major’s organizing is linked so heavily to the prison system: transgender people are overrepresented among the general population of people who have been incarcerated over the course of their lives. According to a 2002 study of the Bay Area transgender community by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center, 14 percent of respondents reported serving time in prison or jail at some point in their lives.[7] At the time, this was double the national average incarceration rate of people in the country as a whole. Miss Major put it this way: “If the world doesn’t approve of you, you’re not going to make it. Not everyone can live on the edge of society and be okay. Few people can survive and not go to jail.”

The range and scale of the abuse endured by transgender people in prison is hard to fathom.[8] Reports suggest that transphobic healthcare, including denial of hormones and discrimination in even routine medical attention, as well as excessive punishment and overuse of segregation, mean that the problems for transgender people in prison affect virtually every level of penal life.[9] Many of the problems start, however, with the fact that transgender people are housed in men’s or women’s prisons based on their genitalia.[10] This system of evaluation overlooks how people self-identify, how they have lived their lives, and how safe they will be. When asked about the impact of placing a transwoman in a men’s prison, Miss Major simply said, “It’s devastating.”

Physical and sexual abuse against transgender people in prison is rampant. A study by the Center for Evidence-Based Corrections showed that while 4 percent of people in men’s prisons in California reported experiencing sexual assault, 59 percent of transgender women in prison reported experiencing sexual assault, meaning a transgender woman is 13 times more likely to be victimized.[11] According to the same study, 75 percent of the transgender women who reported being sexually assaulted in prison reported that it occurred multiple times. Given people’s reluctance to report sexual abuse, we can surmise that even these numbers must be conservative. Informed by her own three and a half years in prison and from having worked with thousands of transgender people who have been incarcerated, Miss Major is unequivocal that corrections officers are active participants in the human rights violations that transgender women experience. She believes correction officers are routinely physically and sexually violent with transgender women and that even when they are not the perpetrators, their inaction sanctions abuse:

The girls usually keep physical violence [by correction officers] to themselves. They might say something if they can tell us directly, but they don’t write about it as much. The fact that people don’t talk about it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. It means that people are scared. There’s no way it can just be the inmates because the inmates don’t have access all the time. It’s the guards who have access. They see it and know what’s going on. If it’s happening, even if it’s another inmate doing it, then the guards are involved, because flat out, they’re in control.[12]

She adds: “[Correction officers] assume our behavior as transgender women is always sexual. They think we just see a dick and fall on our knees and worship it. This idea weighs heavily on how they see us. If we’re involved, they assume we’re guilty because we just have to have ‘it’. They ask, ‘What did you to do excite him and make him want to hurt you?’”

Discrimination and Poverty: the Economic Realities of Transgender People in the Labor Market

Research shows that transgender people experience widespread social exclusion, which leads to high levels of employment discrimination and poverty.[13] The 2011 report, “Injustice at Every Turn,” documented that transgender survey respondents experienced unemployment at twice the rate of the general population, near universal harassment on the basis of gender identity at work (90 percent), and rampant underemployment (44 percent).[14] The 2006 “Good Jobs Now!” (PDF) study of San Francisco’s transgender communities found that nearly 60 percent of study respondents earned under $15,300 annually, and only 8 percent earn over $45,900.[15] Only 25 percent of respondents were employed full-time. More than 54 percent reported experiencing employment discrimination. Another study, the 2002 Washington Needs Assessment Survey, found that nearly a third of the transgender population in the US capitol were unemployed, while another third reported incomes below $10,000.[16] Fifteen percent reported losing a job as a result of discrimination in the workplace. Clearly, transgender people whose appearances do not fit neatly into expectations for either their sex at birth or the gender they identify with experience extreme difficulty obtaining and retaining secure, living-wage jobs. Transpeople who can present as the gender they identify with or their sex at birth may find employment, but job insecurity and personal costs are high. And of course, it is difficult for transpeople who are fired for discriminatory reasons to prove their qualifications and employment history. Consequently, transgender people may be disproportionately concentrated in informal sector employment: work that doesn’t offer benefits programs like social security, health insurance, or paid leave.

When I asked Miss Major how the recession has affected transgender women and men, she laughed humorlessly and said, “We don’t have jobs to lose. We never had pensions for a company to take from us. I used to get $50 for a blowjob and now I get $25. The cost of me has gone down. And I’m going to accept it because I have to, whether it’s $25 or $50. I have to eat; rent’s due, I have to get it somehow.” Under the new economic regime, informal sector workers including transgender people may be working more hours and under potentially riskier circumstances. Miss Major estimates that since the start of the recession, twelve social service organizations in California alone have cut services that transgender clients depended on. She has extended her workday to include more one-on-one time and case management with community members coping with additional financial burdens.

The Impact of Personal Violence

Along with systematic oppression, low self-esteem is one of the most significant themes running through Miss Major’s analysis of transgender people’s relationship to poverty and incarceration. When people are rejected by their families, physically and sexually abused, and denied jobs and education because of who they are, it is not surprising that their survival skills could be impaired.

To me, Miss Major has always exuded strength and confidence, so it was especially poignant when she described some of the most vulnerable moments of her life: those defined by violence. She has been on the receiving end of violence at the hands of the state, her family, intimate partners, and strangers. Her family hit her for being transgender. During the Stonewall riots, a police officer knocked her unconscious with a blow to the head. A corrections officer broke her jaw when she was in prison. Intimate partners have beaten her. Whether violence takes physical, sexual, or emotional forms, it imposes additional burdens on a survivor that make life harder. Miss Major explained:

I’ve had my ass kicked by strangers. I’ve also been chased but not caught. You learn how to run in heels. But even if they don’t catch you, the fear is with you. It doesn’t leave. I’ve been waiting for a bus and had guys drive by and throw beer bottles at me. And I’ve felt the shards of glass rain down on my skin.

It’s not always physical contact—there’s mental, spiritual, and emotional abuse, too. The physical abuse you can get over, but if you say something to me, I will think about that every time I look in the mirror or see someone who looks like you. It’s a cloud that follows you, and let me tell you, it rains.[17]

It is impossible to say with certainty what percentage of transgender people are survivors of physical and sexual violence. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) tracks incidents of hate violence and domestic violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. While NCAVP reports higher numbers of LGBT violence than what law enforcement reports, to be counted among their numbers an LGBT person must both be victimized and report it to NCAVP. Because of this limitation, NCAVP does not attempt to extrapolate figures representative of national averages.[18] On a more local level, Miss Major approximates that 80 percent of the transwomen she works with are survivors of physical and sexual violence, including rape. While her estimate is based on a restricted sample and not intended to be scientific, the overwhelming majority of survivors among the women Miss Major works with highlights the grave need for service delivery and public policy that explicitly seek to reduce transphobic violence.

Miss Major works with social service agencies to ensure they are transgender inclusive, an issue she realizes requires both push and pull. Her voice heavy and measured, she described the difficulty in ensuring access to services for low-income transgender people of color: “The issue is getting the women to go, because we are so used to the abuse following us. I have gotten a few girls to go but it’s a slow process. There’s no speed with any of this. If you’ve experienced these kinds of abuses forever, there’s no hope that it’s going to end tomorrow.” Needless to say, if the service provider is not responsive to the needs of the women who do go, it is that much harder to convince others to follow suit. Guy Vandenberg, an HIV clinical specialist, explained how Miss Major helped train him as an HIV outreach worker:

As a medical provider, there are aspects of being transgender that we don’t know about, that we weren’t taught about, like transgender people who buy their hormones on the street or share needles to inject or use an iffy surgeon to get a silicone injection. We, of course, have our reactions about that: I and the other staff would be confronted by that and have this gut reaction that you shouldn’t do that. I would consult with Miss Major and ask how I should react and ask, tell me about the context […]. We [medical providers] would feel like we needed to do something but not alienate this very vulnerable community that needs so much support and was not getting it. Major formed the bridge to that. She really educated us about what is okay and what is not okay. The other very important thing was for her to provide this bridge—to act as this ambassador in a way [so that] people would even transfer their trust [to us] somewhat, and they would get the medical attention they needed.[19]

Drug and alcohol addiction, other issues that also benefit from support by service providers, are problems that plague some members of the transgender community. Miss Major explained, “They [offer] a sense of escape and fortification. The drugs lie to you, caress you, make you feel things that aren’t really happening. They’re like a lover you can’t afford.” She recognizes that most people can’t tackle addiction without support, so she tries to connect people who want help with recovery programs. To her, a harm-reduction model makes the most sense. She explained, “I’m not there to make decisions for them or judge them. We don’t insist on your coming in clean or sober because that’s not the reality of the people we work with.” Here, Miss Major’s goals are modest: provide support and minimize health risks. Billie Cooper, who had a decades-long addiction, explained why she and other transgender women with addictions turn to Miss Major for support: “We find in her someone who is caring. She understands that sometimes we won’t take the advice. She doesn’t tell anyone what to do. She let’s us know it’s up to us to take what we need and figure it out.”[20] Because Miss Major is realistic, understanding, and supportive rather than instructive, I believe that the individuals she works with are more likely to be able to effect change for themselves than if they interact with service providers who don’t have these qualities. Yet, not all treatment programs are transgender inclusive, creating a similar trust issue as in services for people who are HIV-positive and people who are survivors of violence.

Transgender Exclusion in LGBT Activism: Weakening a Strong Queer Movement

Unfortunately, it is not just health, legal, and harm-reduction services that all too often fail to be transgender inclusive. When we began discussing LGBT movement politics for this article, I heard anger from Miss Major that hadn’t been there before. I believe that it comes from profound disappointment. As I interviewed Miss Major and her colleagues, I was at times overwhelmed by the distance between the queer realities they described and the priorities that dominate the US LGBT movement agenda.

Miss Major paints a vivid picture of how she perceives the LGBT movement’s exclusion of herself and others, especially transgender people who are low-income, people of color, or have criminal records. She said, “I feel like we’ve been pushed to the outside and then prevented from looking in. It’s the stares, the noninclusion over decision-making, exclusion from events that would build this movement. I think if they could eradicate us, they would.” As a result, she now works primarily with other transgender men and women and only infrequently with lesbians and gays. She is deeply hurt by the exclusion, however, because she remembers fighting alongside multiracial transgender friends at the 1969 Stonewall riots that are credited with birthing the American LGBT movement. “Transgender people were the first to fight. Yet, [non-transgender] men and white people took over and fucked whoever was there before. It was an inclusive club until we stood up for ourselves, and then it became gay white men running stuff.”

This sense of exclusion is in direct contrast with how she believes power must be distributed, and, indeed, how she believes a movement should be built. Until low-income transgender people and transgender people of color are in positions of leadership, she doesn’t think the LGBT movement will understand or prioritize their needs, and, therefore, the movement will not be sustainable. Certainly, to be relevant into the future, a movement must speak to the needs of the people it seeks to represent—or else they will go elsewhere. I asked her what she thought of the politics of gay marriage, and she replied:

I worked with the Mattachine Society in Chicago in the 1960s. They wanted guys to wear suits and lesbians to look like moms with apple pies, so this marriage stuff is not new to me. But why try to assimilate into someone who hates your fucking guts? I do think these issues are important. These are people’s rights and if one set of people can do this, why not another set? However, do I think these are major causes to jump behind? No.[21]

And so there is a significant philosophical difference between existing LGBT movement priorities and what community activists like Miss Major prioritize. Mainstream movement priorities focus on removing the queer stigma from otherwise secure middle-class lives, which is why overt policy-based discrimination like marriage and hate crimes is the focus. Yet, the approach of Miss Major and other community activists like her is to say: How is discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation embedded in life’s hardships? How is it related to racism, classism, and sexism? Fighting for domestic partner benefits is important, but it means little to someone who can’t find a job. This argument not only means taking into account a broader range of issues that affect people’s lives than just sexuality or partnership status, but stands to infinitely strengthen the movement by prioritizing points of commonality with other struggles for justice and human rights. Bridge building helps us all. Andrea Bible, formerly of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, who has spent much of her career working with incarcerated women, commented, “I deeply appreciate that [Miss Major] has connected to the organizing efforts of people in women’s prisons, even though that isn’t the focus of her work. […] That approach serves the struggle in so many important ways.”[22]

Towards a More Inclusive Movement: Building Community Leadership

But what really sets Miss Major apart is her ability to organize others into spokespersons for themselves. And such organizing creates hope. TGI Justice is fighting for alternative sentencing for Bay Area transwomen and men in criminal court. The Transforming Justice Coalition has undertaken many projects, including building a national network to support transgender people as they transition out of prison. The LGBT Prisoner Safety Act, one of the policy priorities of the TGI Justice Project, would have amended existing California law to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of factors for consideration when classifying and housing prisoners. Though the bill was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010, it passed both the California Assembly and the Senate by overwhelming majorities, which was the successful result of a broad coalition effort by organizations like TGI Justice that effectively educated elected officials about the needs of incarcerated LGBT people.

But an example of a movement truly in motion came with the case of Alexis Giraldo. Alexis Giraldo is a transwoman who was housed in Folsom State Prison, the notorious men’s facility immortalized for its loneliness by Johnny Cash.[23] Over the course of two months, she was brutally beaten and repeatedly raped by her cellmate. Despite informing corrections officers on multiple occasions and following the steps the system provided, Alexis was kept in the cell with her abuser by correction officers. She kept copies of her grievances for herself and TGI Justice. When the prison finally took action, they placed both Alexis and her abuser in solitary confinement—he for three days, she for nine months. Because of Alexis’s fastidious documentation, when she was released, she was in a position to sue the California Department of Corrections. The gross injustice done to Alexis received media attention and widespread community support. TGI Justice organized a rally for Alexis during her trial. Miss Major reached out to people to attend.

I sent an email to all the organizations saying that we needed support, and they showed up at the courthouse at 7:00 a.m. There were so many people there that there were crowds on all four corners in front of the courthouse. Women’s rights groups, radical sex organizations, HIV/AIDS organizations, human rights organizations, transwomen’s groups, API groups, healthcare agencies. About 200 people just showed up. Everybody was there.[24]

Alexis lost that case, but a higher court ruled that the case must be retried. She has another chance. Miss Major explained the case has been so significant because, “[Transwomen] got to see that their actions have an impact.”

Lessons Learned

Chance encounters in the Bay Area have changed more than a few lives, and my encounters with Miss Major certainly changed mine. Working with Miss Major over the years has reinforced my commitment to activism that includes advocating at all levels of government (local, state and federal), utilizing all formal mechanisms available (judicial, legislative, administrative, bilateral and multilateral), and relentless community organizing that builds on informal networks, resource ingenuity, and community resilience.

We must abolish the prison-industrial complex. But until that day, we must reform the criminal justice system. Prisons are defined by control, and those who hold the keys control everything within their walls. Correction authorities must be held accountable for the human rights violations they are directly and indirectly responsible for. Toward this end, relevant existing laws should be enforced, and where necessary, new laws should be implemented according to higher standards of conduct. Transgender people in prison should be housed according to their gender, with safety as a paramount concern. There should be zero tolerance for physical and sexual violence. Survivors of violence must be given adequate physical and psychological care and must never be housed in the vicinity of their abuser. Prisons must provide adequate, transgender-inclusive health care, dictated by medical need rather than one-size-fits-all policy. Medical care must include access to hormones and other priorities for transgender wellness. The excessive punishment of incarcerated transgender people, including the discriminatory and abusive use of solitary confinement, must stop. Incarcerated transgender people must be made aware of their rights and instructed in methods for filing effective grievances and lawsuits. As a queer movement, those of us who live freely must build bridges with those of us who are incarcerated, and together we must pursue legal and legislative strategies to promote alternatives to incarceration, including drug treatment programs. The police profiling of transgender people that often leads to incarceration must also end. As Miss Major has demonstrated in her life and work, some of the best among us have been incarcerated and deserve another chance.

We must ensure financial security for all, with a focus on the most vulnerable, including low-income transgender people of color. The realization of this lofty goal would require a holistic approach to law and policy including free education and job training, universal health care, equal rights under the law regardless of identity, rights for workers and worker associations, and the decriminalization of sex work. Specifically, Congress should enact and enforce with ample funding the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, inclusive of prohibitions on discrimination on the basis of gender identity; should enact the Employee Free Choice Act, to increase the likelihood of transgender people gaining job security through union jobs; and should extend unemployment benefits (including extended benefits, unemployment insurance, and emergency unemployment compensation), at a time when millions of Americans are unemployed.[25] As Miss Major has taught us, everyone is entitled to the right to work with just compensation, and discrimination against those already at the margins creates even greater vulnerability to the gamut of human rights violations.

Finally, we must end all forms of violence. Until that day, we must provide emotional, financial, and health support to survivors of physical and sexual violence. Programs for survivors of violence must be transgender inclusive. We need popular education campaigns aimed at preventing violence, teaching survivors about their options, and fostering safer communities for all. We do not need increased policing and incarceration but community-based solutions. As Miss Major’s work demonstrates, cycles of violence can be broken and survivors can not only heal but thrive.

The quest for justice requires a combination of effective leadership and mass mobilization. Miss Major’s work provides LGBT activists with an inspiring example of both. She has responded to issues others have overlooked, supported people society has failed, and built a new generation of community members and leaders. Her work is transformative in its own right, but significantly, it is also more effective than mainstream LGBT organizing because it actively creates a space for all queers and our life challenges. She provides a model for an LGBT movement with priorities that are broader, more relevant to more people, more linked to other human rights, and defined by the most vulnerable among us. Her vision is one where we do not reject our queer selves or messy lives, but insist that the mainstream itself must change. Miss Major tells us that we must hold our heads high and say: This is what pride looks like.

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  1. Miss Major, personal interview, July 11-13, 2009, via phone. Transcripts on file with author. [Return to text]
  2. Billie Cooper, personal interview, July 15, 2009, via phone. Transcript on file with author. [Return to text]
  3. Yoseñio Lewis noted that Miss Major’s colleague, Hank Wilson, was also integral to getting TARC to provide refrigeration to its homeless clients. [Return to text]
  4. Yoseñio V. Lewis, personal interview, July 16, 2009, via email. Email on file with author. [Return to text]
  5. Miss Major, personal interview, July 11-13, 2009, via phone. Transcripts on file with author. [Return to text]
  6. Transgender, Gender Variant, Intersex Justice Project Web site. (Accessed July 18, 2009). [Return to text]
  7. National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center, TransRealities: A Legal Needs Assessment of San Francisco’s Transgender Communities (PDF) (San Francisco: National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center, 2002). (Accessed July 19, 2009). [Return to text]
  8. Sydney Tarzwell, “The Gender Lines are Marked with Razor Wire: Addressing State Prison Policies and Practices for the Management of Transgender Prisoners” Columbia Human Rights Law Review 38 (2006):167. [Return to text]
  9. Darren Rosenblum, “‘Trapped’ in Sing-Sing: Transgender Prisoners Caught in Gender Binarism” (PDF) (New York: Pace U School of Law: Pace Faculty Publications, 2000). (Accessed July 19, 2009). [Return to text]
  10. National Center for Lesbian Rights, Rights of Transgender Prisoners (PDF) (San Francisco, National Center for Lesbian Rights, 2006). (Accessed July 19, 2009). [Return to text]
  11. Valerie Jenness, Cheryl L. Maxson, Kristy N. Matsuda, and Jennifer Macy Sumner, Violence in California Correctional Facilities: An Empirical Examination of Sexual Assault (California: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 2007). (Accessed July 19, 2009). [Return to text]
  12. Miss Major, personal interview, July 11-13, 2009, via phone. Transcripts on file with author. [Return to text]
  13. L. Motet and J. Ohle, Transitioning Our Shelters: A Guide to Making Homeless Shelters Safe for Transgender People (PDF) (New York: The National Coalition for the Homeless and National Gay & Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, 2003). (Accessed July 15, 2009). [Return to text]
  14. Jamie Grant, Lisa Mottet, and Justin Tanis, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (PDF) (Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011). (Accessed January 10, 2011). [Return to text]
  15. San Francisco Bay Guardian and the Transgender Law Center, Good Jobs Now! A Snapshot of the Economic Health of San Francisco’s Transgender Communities (PDF) (San Francisco: San Francisco Bay Guardian and the Transgender Law Center, 2006). (Accessed July 19, 2009). [Return to text]
  16. J. Xavier, The Washington, DC Transgender Needs Assessment Survey (WTNAS) (Washington: US Helping Us, People Into Living, Inc., and Administration for HIV/AIDS, Department of Health, Government for the District of Columbia, 2002). (Accessed July 16, 2009). [Return to text]
  17. Miss Major, personal interview, July 11-13, 2009, via phone. Transcripts on file with author. [Return to text]
  18. National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects, Hate Violence Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and HIV-Affected Communities Violence in the United States in 2010 (PDF) (New York: National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects, 2011). (Accessed January 9, 2012). [Return to text]
  19. Guy Vandenberg, personal interview, July 14, 2009, via phone. Transcript on file with author. [Return to text]
  20. Miss Major, personal interview, July 11-13, 2009, via phone. Transcripts on file with author. [Return to text]
  21. Miss Major, personal interview, July 11-13, 2009, via phone. Transcripts on file with author. [Return to text]
  22. Andrea Bible, personal interview, July 14, 2009, via phone. Transcript on record with author. [Return to text]
  23. Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues,” With His Hot and Blue Guitar, Sun Records: 1955. [Return to text]
  24. Miss Major, personal interview, July 11-13, 2009, via phone. Transcripts on file with author. [Return to text]
  25. Heather Boushey, “No Time to End Unemployment Benefits” Center for American Progress 23 Nov. 2011. (Accessed January 10, 2012). [Return to text]