Long before Pride became a mainstream celebration, complete with corporate parade floats and drunk straight people, it commemorated a riot where trans women of color put their bodies on the line to stand up against police brutality. Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, an activist who spent much of her life in the Bay Area, participated in the Stonewall uprising of 1969 in New York, when a confrontation between the Stonewall Inn's LGBTQ patrons and police birthed the modern-day gay rights movement.
Unfortunately, the contributions of trans women like Miss Major are often erased from the mainstream LGBTQ narrative. And issues like trans people's basic civil rights—which are newly under attack under the current administration—don't attract the same broad support as more conservative topics like marriage equality.
Bay Area filmmaker Annalise Ophelian seeks to set the record straight with her documentary, Major!, which chronicles Miss Major's half-century of activism as well as her important role as an elder in the trans community, where, too often, trans people are ostracized from their biological families—on top of discrimination in jobs, housing and the criminal justice system. At a time when the life expectancy for trans women of color is only 35 years old, mostly due to hate crimes, it's nothing short of a miracle that Miss Major is still organizing, fighting and providing crucial mentorship to LGBTQ activists at 78 years old.
After two successful years on the festival film circuit, Major! hit Amazon Prime Video earlier this year. A moving, personal look into Miss Major's life and activism, one of its standout features is its newly released soundtrack by Oakland singer-songwriter Star Amerasu, a.k.a. Ah Mer Ah Su, called Major! A Self-Care Soundtrack for Revolutionaries.
The songs Ah Mer Ah Su created for Major! cocoon listeners in airy, looped vocal melodies that nourish one's fighting spirit rather than beating the drums of the revolution. Her tracks, some composed entirely of wordless hums and croons, contain a knowing calm, as if acknowledging the struggle while gathering the strength to keep pushing.
"It’s so important that this movie happened, because Miss Major is still alive and we’re uplifting her narrative while she’s here and can see her impact," says Ah Mer Ah Su, who is trans herself. "I felt more in charge of my own destiny after seeing this movie."
Throughout Major!, music fuses with message in uplifting crescendos. And though the documentary gets into the harsh realities of survival sex work and incarceration that Miss Major and many of her adopted daughters experienced, it captures so much of the tenderness and joy in their chosen family. "And there was anger / And there was glee / And there was sadness caught in between," Ah Mer Ah Su sings on the track "7 / 15 / 13."
"There’s a trans trauma narrative that has infused documentary film," says Major! co-producer and editor StormMiguel Florez. "It was great to break from that to show complexity and joy and full range of human experience."
One of these joyful moments comes when Miss Major and Janet Mock (the author, Pose producer and trans activist) grand marshal at the 2014 San Francisco Pride Parade. The scene represents a full-circle moment: Mock, a gorgeous trans celebrity, joins forces with a selfless activist who paved the way for her success. Before Mock takes the stage, Miss Major implores her to remember that the fight is not over, sending her off with a warm embrace. As Mock addresses the crowd with a renewed sense of purpose, Ah Mer Ah Su's hums propel her speech forward with a gentle pulse.
"For decades, Miss Major—with little resources, no pay or accolades—has taken care of our sisters behind bars, our sisters working on the streets, our sisters looking for mothers," Mock says to the Pride crowd. "She is the blueprint for our liberation and has ensured that the path I walk on, that we all walk on, is less rocky because she exists."
Ah Mer Ah Su says she's inspired by the ways Miss Major took care of people in her community on a person-to-person level, buying her sisters meals or helping with rent, even during times when she was struggling herself. She spent over a decade with the Transgender, Gender-Variant and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), a San Francisco nonprofit that advocates for trans and gender non-conforming people in prison.
"So often, we feel powerless. And to take back your power from those who are trying to take it from you is so inspirational," Ah Mer Ah Su says. "So much of our community is indebted to these folks who started a movement for liberation. It was trans women opening the door for all of the LGBT community to boldly walk forward."
Major! A Self-Care Soundtrack for Revolutionaries is music you can light candles on your altar or write in your journal to, or just lay in bed and cry for a while. And in the documentary, that's the vibe Miss Major conveys, too: not only is she an adopted mother to her community of trans and gender non-conforming people, to many, she is the definition of home.
"She relates, and she understands, and she just accepts," says Lala Yantes, one of Miss Major's adopted daughters and a former legal coordinator at TGIJP, in the documentary. "It's what every family should be. It's the definition of unconditional love."
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.