Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is remembering the time she was arrested, after fighting with a cop and knocking him out. “He tore my silk organza dress, girl. That is not a thing to do. Took me too long to find that dress in my size.”
One of the takeaways from Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s HBO documentary The Trans List, which premieres Monday night, is that Miss Major, a 76-year-old activist who is executive director emeritus of the Transgender Gender Variant & Intersex Justice Project, should have her own TV show, or just broadcast to America as and when she pleases.
Hers is a life fully lived, and a resonant emblem of the diversity of experience amassed by Greenfield-Sanders and fellow producer, the activist Janet Mock, who interviews off-camera the 11 talking heads in the documentary, and in a simple, powerful introduction notes that we have outgrown outdated categories of “he” and “she,” and “boy” and “girl.”
The participants in the documentary include Caitlyn Jenner, reflecting on a year since her high-profile transition, and recommending everyone has a sense of humor, and activists like Bamby Salcedo, a Latino activist who recalls sleeping on the streets, being raped, and how drugs gave her “the strength to survive.”
As Mock notes, for all the positive media coverage and interest around trans issues, trans people are still susceptible to HIV, criminalization, suicide, and violence. Transgender women of color have the highest rate of suicide in the LGBTQ community.
The imminent Trump presidency—his cabinet picks are so far uniformly anti-LGBTQ equality—looks set to be an era of alarming challenges to equality and civil rights, following “eight years of reprieve,” as Mock puts it.
Significant victories included a new law in 2010, as The Daily Beast’s Samantha Allen reported, that allowed transgender people to be able to change their passport gender markers with a physician’s certification showing that they had received “appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition,” rather than showing they had had sex reassignment surgery.
The purpose of The Trans List—as with Greenfield-Sanders’s other “list” documentaries, featuring black, Latino, LGBT, and baby-boomer participants—is to let a collection of trailblazers and groundbreakers reveal a cross-section of fascinating life experiences, with each participant’s chosen pronoun alongside them.
Mock told The Daily Beast she spoke to each interviewee for around two and a half hours; the editing process must have been a nightmare, because the stories are all vivid and all so different. “It is a landmark piece of mainstream media that allows trans people to speak uninterrupted for an hour,” she says.
The lawyer Kylar Broadus recalls growing up in Fayette, Missouri, “the buckle of the Bible Belt.” After school he would pray for the unity of his mind, body, and spirit, and hoped God would “fix” him. As it was, he was always masculine, and “never blinked an eye” when his father took Broadus trucking and people would say he had brought his son with him.
At 18, Broadus’s mother said, “You know you’re a girl, right?” Broadus wondered if he was a lesbian. He’d wear the corporate uniform of a female lawyer, and rip it off as soon as he got back to his car. He transitioned, and is now a campaigner himself, proudly advocating for “clear and explicit” legal protections for trans people.
The model and former James Bond extra Caroline Cossey recalls the British tabloids piling on her when she was out as transgender in 1981. Before reassignment she recalls not being accepted at gay clubs, but—so tall and thin and beautiful—she found a job as a showgirl in Paris. That job changed her life, she said: She met a fabulously wealthy partner, had reassignment surgery, and worked as very successful model.
“Everything crashed down” with the tabloid revelations, and some people’s perceptions that she was a “mutilated man.” But, she says, “I was born this way. I am just me.” And her beauty is still peerless.
The poet Alok Vaid-Menon speaks engagingly about rejecting all labels: “they” say their gender changes every day, and we are too focused on defining words and genitalia, along the restrictions we impose in our own and others’ physical appearance.
The photographer Amos Mac recalls thinking at age 5, “I should have been a boy.” From the girls’ section of Kmart, Amos would choose the most masculine, baggy things “that would hide my body.” Later, Amos wondered if he could get by without transitioning, but could not.
He founded the magazine, Original Plumbing, featuring the lives and experiences of trans and trans-masculine men, its title a playful take on the obsession with the genitalia of trans people.
Salcedo’s is the most moving interview. Compared to the LGB community, the trans community is 40 years behind in terms of political and cultural clout, she says. The murder of Gwen Araujo in California in 2002 was a turning point for Salcedo, who had herself been taken under the wing of a group of L.A. trans women in 1988.
Salcedo has suffered violence and incarceration, and feels like a “proud mama” now of all the younger trans people she has helped. “Yo soy milagro,” “I am a miracle.” There is a reason she wasn’t killed on the street, she says: She is supposed to be doing the activist work she is doing.
Buck Angel is a muscular hunky transgender porn star. He laughs now recalling the “male-identified female” a therapist once identified him as. And now he is “a man without a penis,” he says: a first in porn, he says, and a big turn-on apparently for some gay men who tell Angel that they’ve always fantasized about a man with a vagina.
Like the other participants, he recommends trans people watching the documentary, or people fretting about their gender identities, to be positive and not be scared. Angel remembers being the little kid who couldn’t see “the light at the end of the tunnel. There is light… You can be G.I. Joe. You can.”
The wonderful and charismatic Miss Major recalls growing up in Chicago, and concluding the city wasn’t big enough for her and her family. She found New York full of the vibrancy and fun she desired, but recalled how you could be arrested if you weren’t wearing at least three items of male clothing over or under your dress.
She was there at the Stonewall Riots, and wonders today why the T in LGBT isn’t at the start “of that alphabet soup,” because transgender people did the most fighting. On every level, she says, it is tough being transgender. “We are not safe. We are running around with targets on our backs. We are constantly on guard. I got grey worrying about this.”
Her legacy, she hopes, is, “She cared, she left. What else would there be?”
That legacy is visible in the energy and commitment of trans activist Nicole Maines, whose six years of campaigning led Maine Supreme Judicial Court to rule that officials at Maines’s school violated state anti-discrimination law when they would not allow her to use the girls’ bathroom.
She recalls eating waffle fries in the school canteen when her mom called her with the news, and the joy and vindication it symbolized. Growing up as a twin, her brother, she says, was always the one who was what society expected of him.
Maines’s dad had struggled with her being trans. “You’re not a girl.” “Yes, I am.” Now her father has become a formidable trans ally in his own right. Maines’s advice to others: “Advocate for yourself. Slay your own dragon. You can do it.”
U.S. Army Sergeant Shane Ortega, the first openly serving trans military person, says being a “badass motherfucker” made his transition not the overwhelming deal one might imagine in the armed forces. But those same armed forces Ortega has served so dedicatedly still define him as a her, which is humiliating and insulting.
Jenner looks happy and relaxed, and has obviously registered a lot of the criticism made of her, because she makes clear she speaks just for herself, a financially privileged, white, older person. Jenner “didn’t grow up as a woman” and does not want to disrespect women who did.
She wonders if playing sports was a response to prove her masculinity as Bruce Jenner, and finds it funny that people dressed up as her—in the spirit of her Vanity Fair cover bustier. She says she doesn’t mind people making fun of her, or if they use the wrong pronoun. Her recommendation is to keep one’s sense of humor.
Mock tells The Daily Beast she had received a lot of criticism over the inclusion of Jenner, given the latter’s conservative political ideology. “She is a fascinating, complex figure. I would say the trans community is not a monolith. We don’t all have the same experiences. My job is not the shame her, but to let her tell her own story.”
The hopes of the final speaker, actress Laverne Cox, who grew up in Mobile, Alabama—that art would be transformative for her—have been more than fruitful. The fame and approbation she has reserved are testament to that.
Inspired first by the statuesque command of Leontyne Price singing an aria from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, the young Cox thought, “I want to be like that.” It’s been a long road to stardom: Three years ago she was worried about being evicted. Agents didn’t know what work she could be put up for. And now the world is hers. “My voice matters, my truth matters,” she says.
Mock told The Daily Beast she hopes trans groups will rally and campaign against any attempt to roll back on the legal and cultural progress made in recent years, or any new attacks on them. She, like me, was most bowled over by Miss Major’s “realness.”
Certainly, the inspiration she displays in The Trans List should speak to activists, old and young—and what the objective of their activism and pride should be.
As Miss Major says, “I don’t need your acceptance, I just need your respect.”