How have the lives of trans women of colour been documented over the years? Many have spent years fighting tirelessly (and often invisibly) for the rights of their sisters. In Major! director Annalise Ophelian spotlights the fascinating life of Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and her contributions to the trans community.

From her participation in the Stonewall riots, her HIV outreach in the 1990s, her outspokenness on the daily threat of violence for transgender women, to her support and advocacy through the transgender Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP) for incarcerated transgender women, Miss Major has proved the enduring and lifesaving power of community.

We spoke with filmmaker Annalise Ophelian to find out about her experience making the film and meeting with this powerhouse woman, Miss Major.

Tell us your first impressions of Miss Major.

I was familiar with her work in the early 2000s and was awestruck by her; she seemed larger than life. In 2008 I started production on my first feature, Diagnosing Difference, an educational documentary with trans and gender non-binary folks talking about their experience of navigating medical and mental health care systems, using the Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis as a jumping off point. I created this sort of dream list of who I’d want to participate, and I asked Miss Major, thinking it was a long shot. And when I called she actually she said, “Yeah, that sounds important for the girls. I’ll do it.”

Everything about her is incredibly accessible, generous and focused on her community. She showed up for that filmed interview from her dialysis appointment. She had no make-up on, and when I asked if she’d like any for the shoot she said, “No, it’s important for the girls to see that they can have worth without having to paint.”

I foolishly scheduled that interview during Fleet Week, and the Blue Angels were flying overhead making this horrible noise, so we only had two minutes for Miss Major to speak before the sound was ruined. I’d set up the question, and we’d stare at the sky and wait, and then as soon as my sound guy said clear she’d bang out her points one after the other until it was time to be quiet again. She had such a great sense of humour about it, even though she’d already had this incredibly difficult day. Also, she thought my sound guy was cute and flirted with him all afternoon, which was delightful.

After working together on Diagnosing Difference my partner StormMiguel became the Administrative Director for TGIJP and I started spending time in the office. TGIJP is really a family, and Miss Major and I would talk and she’d describe how folks told her she should have a movie made about her. And one day she said she had a dream that the two of us were working on something together, and that she wanted to make this happen. I originally thought, “Yeah, let’s make a short about Miss Major,” which of course ended up being impossible; there’s just too much life there.

She’s incredibly funny and joyous, I don’t know that there’s anyone in my life I’ve ever laughed as hard and genuinely with than Miss Major, and she’s got a capacity for forgiveness that’s deeply inspiring.

Why is it important for you to share Miss Major’s story?

When I was coming out in the 1980s, it was into a culture of AIDS, a very highly political time with this imminent sense of the life and death consequences of being gay and of structural homophobia.
What I’ve come to understand through knowing women like Miss Major is that she is the reason I had community to come out into: Miss Major, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and countless other trans women of colour who put their bodies on the line for liberation and have always been the most visible and the most vulnerable and demanded rights as a matter of survival, these are the foremothers of my community and I owe them a tremendous debt. It’s important for me to share Miss Major’s story because I think it offers a corrective to history, which is so often whitewashed and distorted.

Miss Major really wanted to create a project for the younger girls, for the next generation, to see and know their history and to feel inspired. It was really important to us as we were making the film that at the end of the day, trans women felt like it was made for them and belonged to them, that it’s their story.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned through making this film?

This process has been such a great lesson in de-centering myself in the filmmaking process, stepping back from my own sense of directorial control and instead taking my direction from the expertise of the participants in the film.

I learned a lot about employing social justice principles in every aspect of this production. It was a highly collaborative project; Miss Major was involved in every stage from pre-production meetings, deciding who to interview, and what story arc to follow. She reviewed several rough cuts with us, she reviewed the art and the titles, and we also worked with a TPOC community advisory board who looked at the early assemblage, rough, and fine cuts and gave us input which we incorporated into the film. And then everyone who appears on screen was asked to review how we edited them and give us feedback, which felt especially important because trans folks and especially trans women of colour are so rarely centered in their own narrative. I think decolonizing the process of documentary filmmaking is incredibly important, especially for white filmmakers like myself, and working on this project really solidified the practice for me.

Which story did she tell you that you will always remember? Which one affected you most?

There were so many! We’re actually working on a series of web-based shorts, The MAJORettes, which are excerpts of interviews with Miss Major and the other amazing folks in the film that didn’t make it into the final cut.

I’m particularly struck by the fact that Miss Major graduated high school early at 16, and went off to college and was expelled for wearing dresses. Not once but twice. And after she was released from Sing Sing, she reported to her parole officer exactly as she was supposed to, but because she was wearing make-up and had arched her eyebrows she was violated for trying to “change her appearance in order to abscond from parole,” and was sent to Dannemora and ended up at Attica.

Some of the most powerful stuff would happen right after the camera stopped rolling, when we’d cut to take a break or change cards. Miss Major had told her story of meeting Frank “Big Black” Smith and other organizers of the Attica Uprising, and she read the voice over narration for that section of the film. And when we were done recording the narration she said, “You know I lost two friends in that riot, trans girls.” She described how they were fighters and she knew they must have been involved in rising up against the conditions in that prison. Just a reminder that trans women have always been disproportionately locked up.

How has your time with Miss Major altered your perspective?

Miss Major has this thing she says, often after describing something incredibly traumatic or hard: It be what it be. And there’s such grace in being able to simultaneously accept and let go of a thing you know you can’t control, while never stopping the fight and never settling for less than you deserve. I love that about her.

Major! screens Saturday June 4 (1:30 PM) at TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema 2.