Activist, Icon Reflects on Nights that Changed Gay History

Credit: “Major!”, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, an eyewitness to the 1969 police raid that sparked the Stonewall Riots, will be honored at Pride Fort Lauderdale events this weekend.

Transgender activist Miss Major Griffin-Gracy was inside the Stonewall Inn on a hot summer night in 1969 when police once again burst into the Greenwich Village gay bar. In those days, police raids were frequent and harassment of gays, lesbians, drag queens and transgender people commonplace. 

That night was different, though, and the fed-up patrons had taken enough. That raid sparked “three nights of absolute terror,” Griffin-Gracy recalled, riots that would mark the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement.

“…things went to west hell, as they say. And people think, ‘Oh, just one night of mayhem.’ That was three nights of absolute terror. It didn’t just happen that one day. Because people were fed up. The times are different. Everybody was in an uproar over the war, over the treatment of blacks, over the treatment of women. Everybody wanted their piece of whatever the American dream was at that time. And our community and the gays and lesbians were no different. And, so it was just a feeling of, ‘Well, God damn it, tonight we’re going to do something,’” Griffin-Gracy said. 

Her incredible story didn’t end in the back of a paddy wagon, however. 

In the decades since Stonewall, she has worn the hats of organizer and activist, sex worker, and transgender elder.

Griffin-Gracy found herself in Attica prison for a time (and suffered a broken jaw at the hands of another inmate). She has raised her voice most loudly for transgender prisoners—particularly those of color—who suffer regular injustices in the criminal justice system.

“I’m concerned about the things that are happening to my community that’ve been going on ever since I realized I was not like everybody else,” she told HuffPost in a 2018 interview. “It becomes a matter of when those things happen, what do you do? Do you run and hide, do you let stuff go on? And it’s hard to do that if you care about people. So, I just want to make sure that things are better, and not just for me and my folk, but for everybody.”

Despite the legalization of same-sex marriage and slowly advancing civil rights protections, Griffin-Gracy still holds a pessimistic assessment of the progress: “If Stonewall would have made a difference, things would be better today. If the civil rights movement had been a success, black people wouldn’t be 85, 90 percent in prison. So, the things that were, still are.”

She’s not one to give up a fight, however. Now a resident of Arkansas, Griffin-Gracy continues to advocate for transgender rights through her nonprofit, House of GG, and a powerful documentary, “Major!,” currently available on Netflix, preserves her story for new generations.

As the LGBTQ community—and the world, for that matter—prepare to observe the 50thanniversary of those terrifying nights and the changes that followed, South Florida also has an opportunity to thank one of the last remaining pioneers of an era.

“I’m not really anything special,” the demure Griffin-Gracy often says. “I’m just one of the girls.”

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy will be honored at the Stonewall National Museum and Archives gala on Friday, Feb. 22 at the Ritz-Carlton Fort Lauderdale. She will also be a grand marshal of the Pride Fort Lauderdale parade on Saturday, Feb. 23. 

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In addition to serving as SFGN’s arts & entertainment editor, J.W. Arnold is co-executive director of Pride Fort Lauderdale.