Clad in a flowing leopard-print robe, transgender rights and prison reform activist Miss Major said that as a black male-to-female transgender person, she has been ostracized and discriminated against since she began her gender transition in the 1950s. And although she said social conditions for transgender people have improved, she added there is still progress to be made.
“People take what goes on in their mind and make our bodies pay for it,” Miss Major said.
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At the Silliman College Master’s Tea Tuesday, Miss Major discussed a range of topics, tracing her involvement with the transgender rights movement in the 1960s to her current advocacy for prisoners’ rights. She said there are significant differences between the gay civil rights movement and the transgender civil rights movement: the public, she said, is more accepting of gay rights, and the legal system grants rights to gay people that it does not necessarily offer to transgender people. Students said the talk was interesting, as it represented the perspective of someone who had experienced the beginning of the gay and transgender civil rights movements.
The tea, which was sponsored by Silliman, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Co-operative and the Office of LGBTQ Resources, is part of the seventh annual Trans Awareness Week, a 16-day program featuring 12 events ranging from film screenings to a drag ball.
Miss Major, 67, has spent 40 years advocating for transgender rights and prison reform, and has raised six sons, three of whom are still alive. She recently became the Executive Director of the Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project, an organization that describes its mission as to “challenge and end the human rights abuses committed against transgender people in California prisons and beyond.”
Miss Major opened the tea with a photo slideshow of diverse transgender individuals she said was meant to “give a scope about the various things that happen and exist in the transgender community.” The slideshow, called “Strength, Courage & Wisdom,” featured the India.Arie song of the same title.
Miss Major went on to say she continues to suffer from the stigma associated with her gender identity, and she said she thinks transgender people often receive less respect than gay people.
“At the bottom of the totem pole are transgender people,” said Miss Major. “It chips away from us as a people.”
She also spoke about her experiences in the gay rights movement from its inception, including the 1969 Stonewall Riots. On June 28 of that year, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a New York City gay bar, and began arresting patrons, eventually using force when they resisted. For several nights in the wake of the raid, gay and transgender people and supporters rioted in the streets. This was considered the beginning of the modern gay rights movement in the United States, according to civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
Miss Major was one of the Stonewall patrons that night. Though the bar raided was mostly patronized by transgender men and women, she said, the transgender community quickly disappeared from the picture in the ensuing movement. Instead, she said, the gay community benefited most.
“We had no idea the impact we had by holding our ground,” Miss Major said of the patrons’ response in the bar. “From there, it became a thing of the gay and lesbian community. They are standing on our backs to reach the goals they’re trying to achieve.”
Miss Major said she was compelled to pursue prison reform after she spent three months in jail following the 1971 Attica Prison Uprising, when prisoners revolted in upstate New York, demanding better treatment for the incarcerated. She said many transgender people in jail had been forced into criminal activities because they are not guaranteed fair wages by law.
Three students interviewed after the Tea, including one of the Tea’s organizers, said they enjoyed hearing first-hand accounts of seminal events in the gay and transgender rights movements.
“It was great to hear about the history of where LGBT comes from,” said Sophia Shapiro ’11, co-coordinator of the LGBT Co-op.
Brittani Nichols ’10, who has been attending Trans Awareness Week activities for the past two years, said Tuesday’s Tea was the best Trans Week event she had been to yet.
“It was great to see a person of color who fits in all those categories,” Nichols said, referring to Miss Major’s race and gender identity.
In 2008, Miss Major testified at the United Nations about the abuses of transgender women of color in the United States.