Students, advocacy group representatives and activists covering a broad spectrum of age, race, gender and gender identity crammed into the Resident's Dining Hall of the 125-year-old Jane Addams Hull-House Museum at UIC's campus Sept. 4 for a conversation with Miss Major Griffin-Gracy.
Co-sponsored by UIC's Department of Gender and Women's Studies, Gender and Sexuality Center, Institute for Research of Race and Public Policy and Social Justice Initiative, the event celebrated the Sept. 6 birthday of Jane AddamsAmerica's first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and one of the most prolific social activists of the 20th century.
Affectionately called "Mama Major" by the many trans*women whose lives were saved from violence, destitution and homelessness by her mentorship, advocacy and support, Griffin-Gracy spent the latter years of that century as an activist on the forefront of trans*rights.
She was at the birth of the modern LGBT civil-rights movement, at New York's Stonewall in 1969. Two years laterwhile imprisoned in New York's Attica Correctional Facilityshe participated in the uprising that drew world attention to the horrific maltreatment of prisoners there. She has since rallied internationally on behalf of trans* women of color who have been systematically brutalized, murdered and are still suffering devastating human-rights abuses in America's prison system.
Today, she is the executive director of the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex ( TGI ) Justice Projectan organization of trans* individuals based in Oakland, Calif., and dedicated to the "fight against imprisonment, police violence, racism, poverty and societal pressures." She is the subject of an upcoming documentary, Major!, that looks back upon her life and achievements and according to filmmakers Annalise Ophelian and Storm Miguel Florez demonstrates "how caring for one another can be a revolutionary act."
In her introduction, interim director of the Jane Addams Hull House Museum Lisa Junkin-Lopez said that Griffin-Gracy's "ardent questioning of violent acts that are normalized in our society is also profoundly resonant in Jane Addams' life and work. In the face of inconceivable state violence, Miss Majors has offered an oasis to transgender women of color not to retreat from the violence of the world but to build strength and community for a lifetime of critical resistance."
Describing the trans* experience as "walking around with big 'X's on our bodies," Griffin-Gracy told the audience that there are stories that must be told if walls both physical and mental are to be torn down. However she also noted that "As quick as you tear one down, trust me those motherfuckers will throw another up like that. They waste no time in trying to keep what they feel is a danger to them out of their existence," she said. "The problem with that is we're not a danger to them. We suffer and go through a lot of stuff just to survive. You feel as if 'well I'm all alone and I'm on this island and I'm not going to make it through this and I'm going to die before my next birthday'."
Griffin-Gracy said that neither she nor any trans* person should require anyone's approval. "With all the stuff that we have to go through, it becomes a matter of being secure within yourself," she said. "Realizing the power you have for who you are and that you owe nobody an apology for wanting to pursue that, for utilizing it, for standing up and appreciating it and then taking it forward."
With almost everybody sharing some form of transition during their liveswhether as a teenager deciding upon self-expression or changes in a future directionGriffin-Gracy wondered why the trans* community still sits at the bottom of society's totem pole, subject to arrest even when simply fighting for their rights. "Why is it that this community is one that they're not going to talk about, that they're going to hide?" she asked. "We deserve to be loved and cared for and appreciated for who we are and how we represent."
Griffin-Gracy acknowledged that she was talking to an audience who do care and want to make a difference in society. However it is not an easy task. "It takes a lot of thought," she said. "By hearing somebody else's story you embrace your life and you embrace theirs. This world doesn't have time for that. They'd rather blow it up, kill it, shoot it, bury it and act as if it never existed. We're a room full of people that are going to make sure they know we exist and we're not going anywhere. Despite all the shit that you throw at us, we're a tough bunch of bitches and we're going to go on; forward."
In doing so she urged the importance of absolute inclusion in the fight for civil rights. "We cannot afford to throw anybody under the bus," she said. "With this gay marriage thing, they spent $300 million fighting that. What was wrong with taking some of that money to make schools for young gay, straight and transgender kids so that they don't have to be bullied?"
To Griffin-Gracy, caring about somebody else is a matter of being human. "It's really a difficult thing to not appreciate yourself because of the skin you have, or because of the shape of your body or because of how you think," she asserted. "Let that crap go. Open up your minds and your brains and your bodies and your hearts and your spirit to change."
Audience questions were moderated by national consultant, activist, educator and former director of the Young Women's Empowerment Project Shira Hassan, who spent almost two decades shedding light on the experiences of people involved in sex-work. She encouraged the audience to form groups and discuss how to incorporate the life lessons and accomplishments of Griffin-Gracy coming up withnot only a question for her but one concrete thing that can be done to make Chicago and the world in general a safer place for trans* women of color.
One group wondered how the celebrity of women like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock has helped the transgender community. "That has been a really wonderful thing," Griffin-Gracy responded. "We've become the flavor of the month in a sense. Everybody now wants to do some kind of transgender work." However, she went on to challenge such new advocates to include all transgender people, not simply those who can pass.
Off-stage, Griffin-Gracy talked to Windy City Times about the divisions in the transgender community. "We need to find something to pull us all together so that we create one solid voice," she said. "I think the way to accomplish that is by getting involved with organizations who are fighting for human rights. We're human and our rights are being violated regularly."
For more information about the work of the TGI Project, please visit www.tgijp.org/ .
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