If today’s healing justice movement is a holistic response to our current political and economic landscape, what we can we learn from the legacy of Black, Brown, and Indigenous ancestors who resist our political present and imagine a just and liberated future?
As NPQ continues to honor and highlight Black histories this month, we present an essay from a new anthology that reclaims this political legacy. Healing Justice Lineages elevates Black, women of color, queer, trans, and abolitionist feminist-led traditions of liberation and survival that have been left out of most history books—even as they continue to this day.
The following text has been lightly edited for republication here and is excerpted from Healing Justice Lineages: Dreaming at the Crossroads of Liberation, Collective Care, and Safety by Cara Page and Erica Woodland, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2023 by Cara Page & Erica Woodland. Reprinted by permission of North Atlantic Books.
This piece lifts up the Queer and Trans, Women/People of Color, and feminist organizing legacies that fought for the visibility and power of our communities. We give thanks:
- To the courage of the revolutionaries from the 1960s to the 1990s that carved out dark spaces and safe harbors for our kinfolk.
- To the dives and bars for Black and Brown people, Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, Queer, Two Spirit, Intersex (LGBTQTSI+), sex workers, and drag queens that spun sanctuaries and spiritual spaces that saved our lives.
- To the feminist bookstores, healing circles, and women’s health clinics that we relied on for our physical, emotional, and political/cultural survival.
- The raves and club scenes that took us off the streets to avert the killings, disappearances, policing, and surveillance of our communities.
- From the Compton Cafeteria Uprising in 1966 in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco to the Stonewall Uprising in New York City in 1969.1 To the Trans and Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Queer of Color formations like the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (aka STAR), founded in 1970 by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera in New York City.2
- To the Black Lesbian–led Combahee River Collective in 1974 that amplified a Black feminist socialist political analysis and agenda for our futures.
To the many organizations that left their indelible marks, blueprints/blackprints for our freedom and revelations for our movements of collective power, care, and safety.
Integral to these blueprints/blackprints for freedom and resistance… was the leadership of two revolutionary Black women… visionaries who changed the future of our grassroots liberation movements.
The late 1970s and 1980s would also bring a critical time of uprisings against war and US imperialism, the swell of Global South/Feminist of Color movements, environmental justice, reproductive health, and antiviolence movements led by Indigenous and Women of Color. The HIV/AIDS epidemic was another pivotal moment for LGBTQTSI+ leadership to build collective care strategies outside of the state. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) initiatives and grassroots organizations swept across the country to respond to the AIDS epidemic and answer the call for our communities’ safety and survival. This deeply shaped the legacy of BIPOC/LGBTQTSI+ movement leadership. We lift up the institutions that still hold our communities today, including the GLBTQ+ Asian Pacific Alliance (formerly known as Gay Asian Pacific Alliance)3 in the Bay Area; the National Native American AIDS Prevention Center (1987);4 and the Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS Community Health Center (APICHA CHC) in New York City (1989)5. As well as critical Black women–led organizations, including SisterLove (1989)6 as the first women’s HIV, Sexual, and Reproductive justice organization in the southeastern United States; and Women with a Vision (WWAV) (1989)7 founded in New Orleans, Louisiana. These are still some of the organizations that continue to deepen political analysis inside of a public health response that often does not center our people nor confront the massive health inequities of structural oppression.
These were but a few imprints of our liberation movements and a sign of the times. Integral to these blueprints/blackprints for freedom and resistance in these decades was the leadership of two revolutionary Black women, Miss Major and Barbara Smith. They are both visionaries who organized against state and communal violence and changed the future of our grassroots liberation movements.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and Barbara Smith organized against policing, state violence, and structural oppression alongside the rise of radical liberation movements of the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement (AIM), Young Lords, and the Asian American Student and Yellow Power movements, and the anti-Vietnam war campaign that was also rising globally. But often divides inside these movements were wide because of rampant misogyny, xenophobia, transphobia, and homophobia. Both of these leaders witnessed critical moments that would greatly impact their leadership. We lift up these legends and Black warrior elders who changed political direction with their vision and set a course for our movements that would impact many of our lives.
I’ve been involved in this since back a long time ago before most of (you) were born, and I’m still here, and I’m still fighting the good fight.8
As a Black Trans woman warrior, Miss Major has played a critical role in Trans herstories since she has been leading resistance for Trans Women of Color, BIPOC/LGBTQTSI+ liberation in response to criminalization and state violence. The neglect and invisibility of the Trans community by the state and our movements has caused immense pain, harm, and isolation for Trans People of Color. Miss Major would push against this in her leadership. “As a veteran of the infamous Stonewall Riots, a former sex worker, and a survivor of Dannemora Prison and Bellevue Hospital’s ‘queen tank,’ her global legacy of activism is rooted in her own experiences. She continues to uplift transgender women of color, particularly those who have survived incarceration and police brutality.”9
For Trans People of Color, there were multiple fronts of struggle: the increase of state violence and the invisibility resulting from movements not responding to the conditions of Trans People of Color in their communities. It is necessary to name these deep fissures within community health and feminist care strategies, especially during the 1980s and 1990s. Often feminist health clinics and LGB communities would create a transphobic, anti–substance user, and anti–sex worker culture, leading to wide gaps in services and care for Trans communities. Trans Women of Color had to become adaptive and visionary in their organizing of collective care and safety as a liberatory practice outside of the state and, at times, without other communities. Miss Major reflects on this in the following:
We were concerned that so many girls were dying, so many girls were disappearing . . . It was about us taking care of us, as we had done for years. We continued then, and we continue to do so now and always. We had been on the outskirts looking in. So that not one person is left behind, and all of us are taken care of. It should be equitable straight across the board. That’s the way it should be.
In the 1980s and 1990s BIPOC/LGBTQTSI+-led initiatives and grassroots organizations swept across the country to build advocacy and harm-reduction strategies that became a necessary salve and liberatory practice rooted in pro–sex worker, abolition, anti-capitalism, and street/survivor economies. Critical to Miss Major’s leadership was meeting other liberation organizers along the way who would support her vision for the safety and dignity of Trans People of Color.
Black, Indigenous, and People of Color who were incarcerated at Attica would risk their lives to expose the truth of inhumane treatment within the prison industrial complex, and this would greatly shape prison abolitionist movements globally. Miss Major recalled a poignant turning point in her leadership when she met Black,10 one of the organizers of the Attica Prison Uprising, in 1971.11
When Black got transferred to the prison after Attica that I was in, he told me what it was that I was doing was not helping the community. So, it made me think of becoming more aware of what was happening, more aware of what I can do to make sure my girls were safe, secure, and out of harm’s way. So, that is something that I will always remember, you know. That’s the one thing that stays constant.
This inspired her to build more organizing strategies for the livelihood, safety, and dignity of Trans People of Color, especially Trans Women of Color who were experiencing heightened racist, transphobic, and misogynist violence, both inside and outside of prisons, that was often fatal. Integral to this vision was her work at the Transgender, Gender-Variant, and Intersex Justice Project (2004).
Transgender, Gender-Variant, and Intersex Justice Project
The Transgender, Gender-Variant, and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP) was founded by Alex Wick in San Francisco, California, as “a group of transgender, gender-variant, and intersex people, inside and outside of prisons, jails, and detention centers, creating a united family in the struggle for survival and freedom.”12 TGIJP quickly rose up to become a political sanctuary for Trans and Intersex communities and a critical voice for prison abolition at the intersections of housing, prisons, and health care for Trans and Intersex communities. Alongside such Trans-led political organizations as the Transgender Law Center, Trans Queer Pueblo, Casa Ruby, [email protected] Coalition, LaGender Inc., the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and Trans Justice, a program of the Audre Lorde Project, they brought to the forefront a Trans justice political agenda that has changed BIPOC/LGBTQTSI+ liberation movements.
Miss Major was deeply involved in the leadership and legacy of TGIJP as the former executive director. There she led a Trans justice vision that centered the livelihood and safety of low-income Trans People of Color, especially those who were formerly incarcerated and living within a street economy.
TGIJP became a really vital and unique resource for the Trans community. I was in charge of the women in the system, who got out [of prison] without nothing. No chance for survival, no subsidized housing, no place to go, no place to live, no place to eat . . . We would write the girls in prison, and when they came out we would meet them. We treated them like they were family, and that is so important even today. Because when somebody calls us a faggot or points at one of us, or tries to kill us, we have us to turn to. We have us to rely on, to stand up and say, “No Motherfucker! BRING IT ON!”
Since rolling out of TGIJP, she continues to fight for rights and justice work that focuses on the conditions of incarceration, poverty, health, employment, and heightened violence deeply impacting Trans and Intersex People of Color. This work includes the […] personal support she provides as an elder in the community […] and speaking on legislation that advocates for safety and liberation of Trans communities. She is also fiercely committed to elevating BIPOC Trans and Intersex leadership within BIPOC and LGBTQTSI+ liberation movements.
“Care and resistance, they have to be together and they have to work together. …it is so important to care for the people you are building power with.”—Miss Major Griffin-Gracy
Miss Major speaks to the strategy of care as being inseparable from resistance and recalls it as being deeply undervalued in our movements. She has always been fiercely committed to centering collective care and safety strategies for Trans Women of Color as integral to her political vision.
Care and resistance, they have to be together, and they have to work together. One thing that has really used to drive me crazy was the fact that we always separated care. We kept care over here, and every time you try to bring it together, our communities and movements separate it again. And the fact that it’s been so hard to do both. One of the things that I have found is, when I work on different aspects of the community, like civil rights or gender [justice] . . . that it is so important to care for the people you are building power with.
She continues to influence and transform so many of us with her powerful voice, humility, power, and righteousness as a Black Trans woman leader.
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Black feminist organizing built a political environment in which one could assert the importance of [Black women’s] work and not necessarily just lose everything—one’s sanity, one’s job, one’s status, one’s credibility. We were building a real-life context in which Black women could, if not be free, at least be free to express what we needed to express.13
Another legend of our movements, Barbara Smith, is a renowned Black feminist, Lesbian activist, and author of such seminal writings as “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,”14 and “Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology.”15 Her writings have been formidable and groundbreaking across social justice movements. She is founder of the Black-led Kitchen Table Press16 and co-founder of the Combahee River Collective,17 a Black Feminist Lesbian organizing collective founded in Boston, MA, and known for the powerful “Combahee River Collective Statement.”18 Barbara has spent her lifetime fighting against state and communal violence and building a Black socialist feminist ideology at the intersections of many social justice movements.
In 1974, the Combahee River Collective would rise as a critical Black feminist political voice centering socialism through a gender, race, class, and sexuality lens as a pivotal voice for global feminism and social change. As Barbara Smith recalls, “In the 1960s there was a Third World Women’s Alliance and they had a newspaper, Triple Jeopardy.19 They were looking at race, class, and gender, but they were not talking about sexuality . . . Combahee was unique because we had a socialist analysis and the fact that we were talking about the oppression of people who were not Black cisgendered heterosexuals . . .” Their work centered a political analysis against state and communal violence that was unprecedented. One example is the campaign they led to respond to the murders of Black women.
Combahee’s Response to Black Women Murders in Boston in the 1970s
In 1979, the level of violence targeting cisgendered Black women in Boston was heightened during a period of back-to-back murders.20 Barbara Smith reflected on this as a pivotal moment for the organizing of the Combahee River Collective: “I consider the organizing in response to the murders of eventually twelve Black women in 1979 to be the pinnacle of Combahee’s political organizing and political practice . . . We were motivated, of course, as Black women, to speak out about violence against Black women.”
They organized Women of Color and white women allies to form a Women’s Coalition of Safety and to mobilize rallies in response to the murders. No one else was organizing against the murders, let alone building safety strategies with Black women during this time. Barbara recalled the misogyny at the rallies from Black men. “The Black community, at the time, they didn’t have any thoughts about violence against women as being even real. That was not even something that they would have been able to wrap their minds around. The suggestions that were made, or the advice that was given from the stage, was that Black women always needed to go somewhere with a man to be safe . . .” This led her to writing the pamphlet called Six Black Women: Why Did They Die?,21 which highlighted strategies of safety and care for Black women and presented a gender, sexuality, race, and class analysis on the root cause of why Black women were being killed.
In addition to organizing rallies and meetings, the Combahee River Collective also created spaces to care for Black women.
We created a rich Black women’s culture in the context of Combahee. Demita Frazier [a member of the Combahee River Collective] for me was key to bringing wellness because of her commitments to healing and well-being.
We were all devastated during that period because every time we looked around, another Black woman was being murdered. After one murder that happened in late April, my sister Beverly and I decided to have a Mother’s Day brunch. And that was our effort and desire to acknowledge and to give people something to experience that wasn’t tragedy.
This strategy built an essential space for collective grief and reflection while organizing against these murders, showing building care strategies as integral to our political liberation.
The Combahee River Collective also organized for reproductive rights and fought against the continued use of state-coerced sterilization abuse under the guise of population control22 and the US government’s belief that single Black welfare mothers were a national threat to security. Barbara expounded on the work of Combahee in these moments, “We worked with the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse. We also were actively involved with the founding of the Abortion Action Coalition in Boston, which was a leftist, socialist feminist response to the Hyde Amendment.”
“I don’t think that movements are supposed to be safe… You can’t be safe under systems of massive oppression.”—Barbara Smith
In her recent organizing, in response to the police killing of George Floyd, Barbara Smith has written a proposal for an anti-racist program, the “Hamer-Baker Plan” (in honor of Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker). In the plan she calls for a “comprehensive racial justice program that would imagine new ways to challenge systemic racism.”23 Barbara Smith continues to be innovative and a powerful force of Black feminist organizing and leadership for our futures.
Toward Our Collective Healing Futures
When we asked these two warriors to radically imagine and dream for the collective care and safety for BIPOC and LGBTQTSI+ futures, Miss Major and Barbara Smith were clear in their vision. Barbara Smith said,
I don’t think that movements are supposed to be safe. I think that people should be respected in movements and that they should not be abused within movements, but that, to me, is maybe word choice. I would not talk about that as safety, per se, because the thing is I feel like if the focus is on safety, we may not go to the wall when we need to go to the wall . . . You can’t be safe under systems of massive oppression. It’s not possible while we live under heteropatriarchy and racial capitalism . . . We can draw lines about what we will accept, as far as our physical integrity and our emotional and spiritual integrity in our lives. But we can never expect to be safe under white supremacy.
Healing justice… requires we embrace principled disagreement and struggle in relationship to knowing our collective oppression and generational trauma have greatly contributed to our pain and discordance with one another.Healing justice was never meant to ensure safety, but as Barbara speaks to, HJ was to be in the practice of building care, respect, dignity, and protection that was self/community determined. HJ does not discard struggle but instead requires we embrace principled disagreement and struggle in relationship to knowing our collective oppression, and generational trauma have greatly contributed to our pain and discordance with one another.
Miss Major spoke about collective care as the sanctuary she is building in Little Rock, Arkansas, for Trans Women of Color, known as Telling It Like It Fucking Is (TILIFI), formerly named House of GG:
It’s a place of complete serenity and tranquility. I want it so that girls can come, relax, and rejuvenate themselves . . . to touch nature if they so choose. To relax and understand what it is they’re doing, because doing this work is not easy. It’s not easy, it’s not! You’re not going to get rich doing it. You’re not going to all of a sudden become the head of the ball. It becomes a really tough thing to do, and when you come here you let go of all that. You simply relax, feel good about yourself, which is so important. Then you go back and you prepare to fight again . . . which is also important that we must always be prepared to fight and win because we’ve got to.
[These leaders] love with strength and clarity, pushing forward a dream for our people without apology to offer safe harbor and political power in teaching us how to set the political and spiritual mandate for our futures.
Barbara Smith also reflected,
Our ancestors want us to transform oppression and eradicate it. They want us to fulfill the beautiful potential that we are born with and that almost never, or so seldom, comes to full blossoming under the systems in which we live. They want us to live as the cherished babies they think we are . . . Our ancestors want that for us. They also want us to fight. They want us to be as courageous as they were.
We give our deepest gratitude to the leadership of these two legends who live and struggle and breathe among us, embodying our collective liberation and practice. They love with strength and clarity, pushing forward a dream for our people without apology to offer safe harbor and political power in teaching us how to set the political and spiritual mandate for our futures.
- “The Stonewall Uprising: LGBTQIA+ Studies A Resource Guide,” Library of Congress, accessed July 2021; Sam Levin, “Compton’s Cafeteria Riot: A Historic Act of Trans Resistance Three Years before Stonewall,” The Guardian, June 2019.
- “Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR),” Global Network of Sex Work Projects, accessed September 2021, www.nswp.org/timeline /street-transvestite-action-revolutionaries-found-star-house.
- Gay Asian Pacific Alliance (GAPA), accessed, January 2022, www.gapa.org/.
- National Native American Aids Prevention Center, www.nnaapc.net/.
- Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS Community Health Center (APICHA CHC), accessed January 2022, www.apicha.org/en/about.
- SisterLove, accessed February 2022, www.sisterlove.org/.
- Women with a Vision, accessed February 2022, https://wwav-no.org/.
- Lucy Diavolo, “Miss Major Griffin Is Still Here and Wants Young Activists to ‘Keep Fighting,’” Teen Vogue, June 17, 2020, www.teenvogue.com/story/miss-major-griffin-gracy-still-here-young-activists-keep-fighting.
- “Miss Major,” accessed February 2022, https://missmajor.net/.
- “A Nation of Law? 1968–1971,” Eyes on the Prize, directed by Louis J. Massiah, Thomas Ott, and Terry Kay Rockefeller; highlights an interview with Black, who was incarcerated at Attica during the uprising, www.imdb.com/title/tt0896125/.
- Stanley Nelson, “How the Attica Prison Uprising Started—And Why It Still Resonates Today,” Interview by Terry Gross, Fresh Air, NPR, October 27, 2021, www.npr.org/2021/10/27/1049295683/attica-prison-documentary-stanley-nelson.
- Transgender Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project, accessed January 2022, www.tgijp.org/.
- Alethia Jones and Virginia Eubanks with Barbara Smith, “Building Black Women’s Studies.” Chapter 4 in, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith. Albany, State University of New York, 2014, https://barbarasmithaintgonna.com/.
- Barbara Smith, “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” Conditions, Vol.1, no. 2 (October 1977): p. 25–44. Reprinted by JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable /20709102.
- Barbara Smith, Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Naid Press, 1983.
- Barbara Smith, “A Press of Our Own Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press,” Frontiers, Vol. 10, no. 3 (1989): p. 11–13. Published by University of Nebraska Press.
- Combahee River Collective, accessed January 2022, https://combaheeriver
- “Combahee River Collective Black Feminist Statement” (1977), https://combaheerivercollective.weebly.com/the-combahee-river-collective-statement. html; www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/combahee-river-collective-statement-1977/.
- Third World Women’s Alliance, accessed December 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Third_World_Women%27s_Alliance
- “Roxbury Murders,” accessed December 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roxbury_murders.
- Combahee River Collective, accessed December 2021, Six Black Women: Why Did They Die (pamphlet), 1979.
- Population control (see glossary).
- Barbara Smith, “How to Dismantle White Supremacy: To end systemic racism, the country needs a comprehensive racial justice program even more sweeping than the Marshall Plan,” The Nation, September 21/28, 2020 Issue, www.thenation.com/article/politics/how-to-dismantle-white -supremacy/.