Meet the LGBTQ+ Elders Who Rioted, Organized and Lobbied to Change History

Miss Major, Jewelle Gomez and Lani Ka'ahumanu. (Photo courtesy of the subjects)

Editor's Note: This article is part of KQED Arts' story series Pride as Protest, which chronicles the past and present of LGBTQ+ activism in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Learn more about the series here.

Pride season is upon us, with its parties, parades and rainbow regalia. But none of it would be possible without the tireless advocacy and protest power of our LGBTQ+ elders. Their stories of fighting for queer and trans rights should be permanently ingrained in our memories and the memories of those to come.

That's where Mason Funk comes in. In 2014, a question kept buzzing around his head: "How did I and millions of other LGBTQ+ people get from there to here?" Funk answered it by creating OUTWORDS, a multi-media archive, and its accompanying Book of Pride to tell the stories of LGBTQ+ pioneers.

The project includes over one hundred powerful interviews with subjects from all across the country. Here, we take a look at the stories of five changemakers featured in OUTWORDS, including a survivor of the Stonewall riots who isn't afraid to curse; an activist who won marriage rights from the California Supreme Court; a housewife who turned in her white picket fence for the March on Washington stage; a Two-Spirit activist who battled prejudice on the ballot and within the medical community and won; and a Yoruba priest who devoted himself to educating his community about AIDS.

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy

Miss Major at a Pride Parade in San Francisco.
Miss Major at a Pride Parade in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Miss Major)

If you've never heard Miss Major's name, where have you been? The veteran of the Stonewall Rebellion has been making waves for over 40 years, fighting for incarcerated trans people through San Francisco's Trans, Gender-Variant and Intersex Justice Project until her recent retirement. Her impact has been so—um—major that there's an entire film about it.

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The fighting spirit that made Miss Major famous has been with her since she was born so premature that she could fit in the palm of her father's hand. "I've been a struggling bitch from the moment I took breath, fighting to hang in there and survive and be here, and make myself known," she told OUTWORDS.

Born and raised in Chicago, Miss Major started secretly wearing her mother's clothes and clip-clopping around the house in her heels around the age of 15. When her mother found out, she was beaten. When her school found out, she was expelled.

An elated Miss Major.
An elated Miss Major. (Photo courtesy of Miss Major)

In the '60s, Miss Major found her way to New York, where the city's rich diversity instantly proved to be a balm. Soon, she found a sense of community on the streets with fellow working girls. "Hooking at that time was a f-cking blessing," she said. "The money was good. The johns were great." But things eventually took a turn for the dangerous around 1967. Girls were turning up dead, and the police didn't value their lives enough to investigate. So Miss Major and her friends started taking down license plate numbers, memorizing faces and crafting other methods of ensuring each other's safety.

Miss Major serving a look.
Miss Major serving a look. (Photo courtesy of Miss Major)

Sick of the mistreatment, Miss Major started carrying a hammer for protection; other girls carried knives. As she recalls, if a scuffle broke out, police let male instigators free and arrested the women for defending themselves. Miss Major became known as someone who would reliably accompany girls in trouble with the law to court (something she continued to do into her 70s).

In 1969, Miss Major frequented a Cheers-esque bar called Stonewall, where everyone knew her name and where she and her friends felt seen and understood. At the time, many aspects of queer and trans life were illegal, and police regularly raided the bar. They got more than they bargained for on June 28, 1969, when a group of fed-up people fought back. Miss Major was there. "I don't remember a shoe, a brick, a bottle, a body, a garbage can," she told OUTWORDS. "All I know is we were fighting for our life and we were kicking the cops' ass." That moment became the spark that ignited the modern-day LGBTQ+ rights movement.

Until her recent retirement to Arizona, Miss Major continued to make a difference in the lives of working women in Oakland, whom she calls her babies. "I'll take my cane and hobble across the street ... and sit on the bench and talk to them," she said. "The world doesn't care about us. I want them all to know that somebody does."

Marcus Arana

Marcus Arana's journey to becoming a Two-Spirit activist fighting for the rights of trans and intersex people can be traced all the way back to a movie theater. At four-years-old, he saw a blue fairy turn Pinocchio into a real boy. Assigned female at birth, Arana turned to his mother and asked for his own blue fairy. She explained that girls could never be boys. In that moment, Arana learned two things: that he was different and that he shouldn't talk about it.

Arana at age 25 at a Halloween dance as a persona called Dread Weatherly.
Arana at age 25 at a Halloween dance as a persona called Dread Weatherly. (Photo courtesy of Marcus Arana)

And he didn't throughout a lonely and rough childhood, which forced him to leave home at age 14. He eventually came out as queer and moved to San Francisco in 1976, which felt "like the sun coming out and you can hear the munchkins singing as we all went down the yellow brick road." But, just as Dorothy and her pals had to contend with the Wicked Witch of the West, Arana and other California gays faced off against their own villain: the Briggs Initiative, a 1978 ballot measure that, if passed, would ban gays and lesbians from working in public schools.

Inspired by California's first openly gay public official, Harvey Milk, Arana committed himself to fighting back through protest, grassroots organizing and visibility, and the Briggs Initiative was defeated at the ballot box by 16.8 percent.

That wouldn't be the last bit of change Arana had a hand in crafting. When he was 37 years old and working at Community United Against Violence, an organization dedicated to addressing violence against the LGBTQ+ community, Arana finally gave into the feeling that had been nagging him since he first saw Pinnochio. In a staff meeting, he blurted out that he's trans. "It was like squeezing a tube of toothpaste where all of this stuff comes out and you can’t cram it back in again, you can’t unring the bell," he told OUTWORDS. "It was liberating, it was magic."

Arana at age 38, early in his transition, when he began to smile in pictures for the first time.
Arana at age 38, early in his transition, when he began to smile in pictures for the first time. (Photo courtesy of Marcus Arana)

At the time of his transition, being trans was considered a gender identity disorder and treated like a psychological problem. Arana got back in the fight, educating commissioners, the Health Service Board, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and ultimately, through television appearances, the American public about discrimination against trans people in the health industry. Through his education, hearts and minds slowly began to change, and with them, policies and laws.

But Arana's proudest achievement as an advocate came in 2003 when he was working at the San Francisco Human Rights Commission as a discrimination investigator. Intersex activists came to him with stories of how those born with bodies that don't readily fit into what society considers male or female were assigned a gender through non-consensual surgery at birth or during childhood (often without the input of the parents, let alone the patient). This usually necessitated even more surgeries down the line and spawned all kinds of future physical and mental issues.

In an effort to prevent any more suffering, Arana wrote a report for the HRC that declared the non-consensual "medical normalization" of intersex people a human rights violation. The report is now used internationally and has helped change the way the medical community views and supports intersex children.

Lani Ka’ahumanu

Lani Ka'ahumanu had to come out multiple times: first as someone who no longer wanted a white picket fence and a husband, then as a lesbian activist and finally as a bisexual carving out a space for people like her within the gay rights movement. The unexpected zigs and zags of her life shocked her friends and family, and even herself.

Ka'ahumanu's junior prom in 1959 with future husband, captain of the football team and champion wrestler. (That's a mat burn from a wrestling match on his face.) (Photo courtesy of Lani Ka'ahumanu)

Growing up, Ka’ahumanu always knew what was expected of her: marry a man and have kids. And she played along for a while, falling in love with the captain of the football team, marrying him at 19 and having two kids by the time she was 24. But then she met a new friend who didn't shave her legs and shared stories of the women's rights movement. It wasn't long before Ka'ahumanu changed her honorific from Mrs. to Ms., got involved with the anti-Vietnam War movement, started collecting food for the Black Panther Breakfast Program and boycotting grapes alongside the United Farm Workers.

In the late '60s and early '70s, Ka'ahumanu started crying a lot and couldn't figure out why. She had the cookie-cutter picture of a full heterosexual life, but something was missing. As hard as it was, with her husband's support, she made the difficult decision to leave him and their kids behind and move to San Francisco. She enrolled at San Francisco State University, where she helped found the women's studies department and came out as a lesbian.

Ka'ahumanu with BiPOL’s contingent at the 1984 SF Pride Parade, led by a red convertible w/ Mayor “Bi-anne Feinstein” and “Princess Bi” from UK waving.
Ka'ahumanu with BiPOL’s contingent at the 1984 SF Pride Parade, led by a red convertible with Mayor “Bi-anne Feinstein” and “Princess Bi” from UK waving. (Photo courtesy of Lani Ka'ahumanu)

"You were becoming part of this growing community, this giant wave, and there was so much support, and a cheering section, literally," she told OUTWORDS. But there were limits to that support when it came to people who identified as bisexual. Ka'ahumanu realizes now that, back then, she was part of the biphobia problem within the queer community, actively shunning bi women for having "too much privilege."

Years later, while working as a chef at a new age, clothing-optional resort in Mendocino County, Ka'ahumanu met a younger man who wanted to chat about Adrienne Rich's poetry. Cut to them hooking up in the storage room.

Ka'ahumanu was the only out bisexual invited to speak on the main stage at the 1993 March on Washington.
Ka'ahumanu was the only out bisexual invited to speak on the main stage at the 1993 March on Washington. (Photo courtesy of Lani Ka'ahumanu)

Coming out as bisexual to her newfound community back in San Francisco was rough. Ka'ahumanu felt like "the lesbian who fell from grace" and that she had to prove that she wasn't a traitor.

This experience inspired Ka'ahumanu to dedicate her activist muscle to organizing the bisexual community. She spent the latter part of the '80s establishing an organization called BiPol to bring bi people from across the country together. From there, she planned the 1990 National Bisexual Conference and pushed for more visibility within the queer community, specifically having the word "bisexual" baked into the name of the March on Washington. In 1993, Ka'ahumanu and her cohorts won a partial victory. The word "bi" would be included, but only if the "sexual" was lopped off. When it came time to speak at the march, Ka'ahumanu realized she was delegated to the last slot out of 18 speakers. As she took the mic and said, "Aloha. It ain't over 'til the bisexual speaks," the stage behind her was actively being dismantled.

Even though that March on Washington wasn't perfect, Ka'ahumanu still takes pride in all that she and her organization achieved. "We were at that national table. We did the work. We were there."

Blackberri

AIDS educator. History-making musician. Uplifter of queer Black men. Yoruba priest. Blackberri is all of those things and more, and the seeds of his multi-faceted personality sprouted from the very beginning.

Growing up, Blackberri couldn't get enough of music. He spent his time pretending to be a conductor in front of the radio, playing the harmonica or singing pop songs from his front stoop to the kids in his neighborhood. He also couldn't get enough of sex. After his mom caught Blackberri and a friend with nothing but pillows in their laps, the mother and son had a heart-to-heart. "From that day on, that was my liberation notice," Blackberri remembered in his OUTWORDS interview. "I became more flamboyant and more out and just totally unafraid."

Blackberri in the Navy.
Blackberri in the Navy. (Photo courtesy of Blackberri)

Years later, Blackberri was drafted into the military. He was initially interested in going into the Air Force, but changed his mind when he saw all the Navy boys' bell bottoms and "nice round butts." Dry-docked on the East Coast, there was plenty of time to get down. Blackberri narrowly avoided a dishonorable discharge for expressing his sexuality.

After his time in the military, Blackberri moved around, performing in Wales and spending some time at a feminist collective in Tuscon, Arizona where a lesbian called Hummingbird anointed him with his name (she thought he was dark and sweet).

Blackberri performing at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre.
Blackberri performing at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre. (Photo courtesy of Blackberri)

Music eventually brought him to the Bay Area, where he wrote songs with lyrics like, "You're such a beautiful black man / But you walk with your head bent and low / Don't do that anymore / I see the beauty I wish that you knew." In 1975, he made history on KQED airwaves by starring in a concert called Two Songmakers, which marked the first time music about the gay experience was featured on public television in San Francisco.

Blackberri's career as a singer-songwriter eventually took a back seat due to the AIDS epidemic. Blackberri worked in the AIDS ward at San Francisco General as a death and dying counselor with the Shanti Project. Witnessing the effects of the disease inspired Blackberri to shift his focus to prevention, specifically as it pertained to the black community.

Blackberri and his guitar.
Blackberri and his guitar. (Photo courtesy of Blackberri)

"Black people have always been negroes, always been considered ugly," he said to OUTWORDS. "So there's a lot of internalized stuff around how we look, how we are, our hair, our lips. Some people buy into it and that internalized self-hatred has driven the AIDS epidemic. People didn't feel they were important enough to take care of themselves."

Through workshops, field trips, film screenings, meals, affirmations, meditations and visualizations, Blackberri helped build people up, made them feel special and convinced them that they were worth saving.

Thanks to the work of Blackberri and people like him, the LGBTQ+ community is in a better place than it was during the worst days of the AIDS epidemic. But we still have fights ahead. And the only way we win them, according to Blackberri, is if all marginalized communities stick together and show up for each other. "Until we build alliances, we're not gonna go anywhere," he said. "When all the fingers close, then you have a fist."

Jewelle Gomez

Jewelle Gomez at NYC Pride in 1989.
Jewelle Gomez at NYC Pride in 1989. (Photo courtesy of Jewelle Gomez)

From combatting media bias against gay men during the AIDS crisis to challenging discriminatory marriage laws, Jewelle Gomez has dedicated her life to standing up against injustice. She got her first up-close look at bigotry in her youth.

For the most part, Gomez lived a quiet, happy childhood with her great-grandmother in Massachusetts. But that changed when Gomez visited her mother's home in a faraway mill town and learning an ugly truth about this country. Because of her mother's lighter complexion, her neighbors assumed she was white. When they saw Gomez, her grandmother and her great-grandmother, "it became this horror show," she told OUTWORDS. "People burned trash on their front yard, threw bricks through their window, called with threatening phone calls day and night." The harassment continued until the 95 Interstate cut through the neighborhood, forcing everyone to move.

The experience instilled an internalized racism in her mother, who didn't approve when Gomez stopped straightening her hair and got involved with African-American culture. But for Gomez, it was a call to fight back against intolerance by being fully herself.

Jewelle Gomez with family in Boston in 1948.
Jewelle Gomez with family in Boston in 1948. (Photo courtesy of Jewelle Gomez)

After defending herself from a particularly egregious instance of street harassment, Gomez channeled her rage into a novel called The Gilda Stories about a queer vampire, which was published in 1991 with the help of mentor Audre Lorde.

Jewelle Gomez with Audre Lorde, filming 'Before Stonewall' in 1984.
Jewelle Gomez with Audre Lorde, filming 'Before Stonewall' in 1984. (Photo courtesy of Jewelle Gomez)

In the 1985, Gomez became one of the founders of Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), now one of the country's most prominent LGBTQ+ organizations. When the mainstream media covered the AIDS epidemic by focusing on what was "wrong" with gay culture—the sex, the bathhouses—Gomez and other GLAAD founders protested the demonization. In 1987, they landed the first editorial meeting that The New York Times held with a gay organization, and worked with them on changing the national conversation. For Gomez, that moment was proof of the LGBTQ+ community's capacity to join together and take back power.

Decades later, another battle was brewing: the one around marriage equality. While Gomez always had misgiving around the institution of marriage, as it was designed to keep women in their place, she and her partner agreed to become litigants in the ACLU and NCLR suit against the State of California. After spending four years on the campaign trail, telling her story and advocating for equal treatment under the law, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor in 2008, a feat that had seemed impossible just a few years prior.

Jewelle Gomez with spouse Diane Sabin in 2013.
Jewelle Gomez with spouse Diane Sabin in 2013. (Irene Young)

Through her fiction, her advocacy and sharing her life story through projects like OUTWORDS, Gomez hopes to continue bridging the gaps between communities, "whether that means a person who lives in Idaho who's never met a black lesbian or a person who lives in New York City who's too cool to hang out with an old lesbian."

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More information on Mason Funk's The Book of Pride and OUTWORDS' digital platform can be found here

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