Miss Major Griffin-Gracy has been fighting for the rights of trans women of color for over 40 years in New York, San Francisco and many cities in between. Her life story is told in “Major!,” a touching portrait not only of Miss Major, but also the complex communities she has helped to unite. Miss Major will be presented with the Kaleidoscope Humanitarian Award at a reception at the Arkansas Innovation Hub at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 20.
I spoke to “Major!” director Annalise Ophelian about her creative process and her desire to reshape the way stories of transgender people are told.
I know you self-identify as a white cisgendered female. “Major!” is now your second documentary and your second documentary on transgender issues. What’s drawn you to cover transgender issues, and why specifically did you choose to do so on film?
My first film, “Diagnosing Difference,” came out of my graduate training in psychology and the historical harms the field had perpetrated against trans and gender nonbinary folks. Looking at the available “research,” so much of it was being written by cisgender people; the whole history of the field was really cisgender people appointing themselves “experts” on trans lives and experiences. So I went to 13 trans and genderqueer folks, artists, scholars, activists, and asked them a series of questions about how they experienced and navigated medical and mental health systems, using the Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis as a jumping off point. And then I used a framework of involving the folks in the film in how it was edited, first by coding the interviews and letting the themes that emerged guide how the story was told.
Miss Major was part of that project, and after working together we remained in contact. My partner, StormMiguel Florez, started working as the administrative director of TGIJP, the Transgendered, Gender-Variant and Intersex Justice Project [of which Miss Major is a former executive director], and I started spending more time in the office, and Miss Major and I would talk and she’d say, “You know, people keep telling me I should have a movie made about my life, and I want you to do it.” We’d have conversations about what this might look like, and over the period of a couple of years it kept coming up. It was pretty organic. But also complicated, because I have deep critiques of the way cisgender people have historically been in control of the narrative of trans lives. I think there are actually significant parallels between the sort of gatekeeping that happens in medicine and the sort of colonialism that happens in filmmaking. So a huge part of working on both projects was being aware of my own cultural position and bracketing that, working to undo or not to replicate the harms cisgender people bring to these projects.
Tell me about the filmmaking process for “Major!“ You seem to follow Miss Major around the country and for quite a long period of time. Was that part of your initial goal when planning the film?
My biggest goal in making the film was to center Miss Major and the folks who participated in the way the story was crafted and told, and to create work that pushed back against the “traditional” documentary film process that tends to replicate colonial dynamics. I didn’t want to be this white cis person dropping into TPOC [transgendered people of color] communities, recording all their stuff and then taking it out of the communities it came from and … presenting it to other white cis people for “entertainment.”
We were in production on the film for about two years and Miss Major was involved in every aspect of the project. We had pre-production meetings and I asked her questions about the trajectory of her life and work, and what she felt were the most important things about herself and how she’d want her story told. I learned pretty early on that the traditional production workflow of hiring a crew and renting gear wasn’t going to work for seated interviews because her health concerns were unpredictable. … So I started coming over, just me with my camera and a small lighting setup. … And we’d have conversations, using those pre-production notes to guide what we talked about. The time was pretty split between these sit-down interviews, most of which happened by Miss Major’s bed, and following her at events or places where she was speaking.
In post-production, we worked with a Community Advisory Board of trans folks of color, who looked at the project at the assembly, rough and fine cut stages and gave us feedback around story structure and community accountability. Because trans folks, and I think especially trans women of color, are so often spoken of or for, and in incredibly harmful ways that perpetuate stereotypes. So by asking, “Did we get it, does this represent what you said authentically?” we were able to make course corrections and ensure that we weren’t driving the narrative, that the people living the story were telling the story.
Throughout the film, I was struck by Miss Major’s enduring optimism and tenacity. Is that a message you hope your trans audience will take away from the film? What other messages do you hope to convey?
I think when cis people tell trans stories there’s often this sense of “trauma porn,” or this fascination with the “before and after,” and when I listen to the women in my life about how they’ve navigated the world, what they’ve endured and how they’ve survived, I’m definitely filled with their sense of enduring optimism and tenacity. And I think Miss Major absolutely embodies that and has passed that down through all these generations of girls. It’s part of why we end the film the way we do — the first cis people who saw the fine cut of the film all told me they thought it had ended with the “in memoriam” section, and I thought, “Really? That felt like the end of the story to you?” Because living in this community what I witness over and over is resilience as a form of resistance.
Are there any upcoming projects you’d like to discuss?
StormMiguel and I are working on a web series we’re calling the MAJORettes, which we hope to launch this fall. It will be a series of one- to three-minute clips using some of the amazing interview footage from Miss Major and the other participants in the film that couldn’t find a place in the final cut, and we’re hoping it can also help broaden the discussion of issues facing trans folks of color. And I’m working on a community engagement strategy for “Major!” that will connect the film with community-based organizations around the country.