What We Know about James Clay Jr. A Digital Story by Joy Michael Ellison

Artist's Statement

I met James Clay Jr. on the pages of a history book about Chicago's early queer and trans political movements. Clay's life story took up less than one page and was dominated by the circumstances that led to Clay's murder. The author described Clay as a Black "transvestite" or "street fairy" and detailed how two Chicago police officers, assuming Clay to be a sex worker, gave chase and shot Clay eight times. In that text, I learned that following Clay's murder, queer and transgender people organized, led by Black community members. In Clay's honor, activists forms Chicago's first formal transgender organization. It was called the Transvestite/Transsexual Legal Committee, and in that book I found even less information about it than about Clay.

The description I found of Clay and the Transvestite/Transsexual Legal Committee is typical of historical scholarship and queer theory accounts of transgender lives. Hampered by a lack of readily available sources or presented with official records that do not present the self-understandings of transgender people, historians often say very little about trans people. Sometimes, they draw conclusions that contemporary transgender people, like me, find suspicious, as they contradict our own lived experiences of gender and sexuality. In response to a lack of sources, queer theory scholars have tended to "read the absences in the archive," creating accounts of how power structures formed trans subjectivities. Some scholars have fetishized the lack of information, celebrating transgender historical figures as flexible and unknowable, as ghosts haunting the archives. Both of these approaches have never satisfied me. As a transgender person, I know that transgender people do not live haunted, unfixed, ethereal lives. I yearn for stories of my transgender ancestors as people with desires, beliefs, and demands. I am convinced that transgender people of the past left traces of the way they lived and knew themselves. More than that, I am certain that transgender people have long intentionally narrated our lives to ourselves, to our community, and to the general public.

As a feminist historian, I research transgender movements in the Midwestern United States, from 1945-2000. Beginning with the few paragraphs I found about James Clay Jr., I have been able to piece together an account of some of the earliest transgender feminist organizing in the Midwest. I spoke with a member of TLC and read TLC's papers, unfolding an incredible story of multiracial, multi-gender solidarity and radical organizing. But, like so many Black trans-feminine historical figures, James Clay Jr. remained elusive. Even after meeting with a friend of Clay, what I didn't know about Clay's life seemed much longer than what I did. A traditional historical account of Clay was all about absence, lack, and death. I struggled to find a way to write about Clay as someone who lived, loved, and was loved in return. I yearned to talk about Clay as a co-struggler, as a part of my lineage as transgender person and as a Chicago activist. I wanted to pay homage to Clay's life in a way that, as Black feminist scholar Saidiya Hartman writes "exceed[s] the fiction of history. ..that constitute[s] the archive and determine{s] what can be said about the past."

Faced with this challenge, I switched mediums, eventually settling on digital storytelling. I created a film that discusses what we know and what we can imagine about James Clay Jr. My approach is informed by Hartman's concept of critical fabulation, which invites researchers to use imagination to fill the gaps of archives, while calling attention to that act. I am also inspired by Black trans filmmaker Touramline's films, such as Happy Birthday, Marsha! While Tourmaline focuses her lens on Marsha P. Johnson's "beauty and the beautiful ways that she and her fellow street queens made life and meaning out of the world around them, outside of the gaze of the state," my focus is on Clay's beauty and confrontation with the state, highlighting the ways that Clay lives after death as a part of a legacy of Black-led queer and transgender resistance.

My work also aims to highlight both the connections between Clay and my life and our embodied differences. While Clay lived near my home and we are both gender non-normative people, there are also many differences between us that go beyond living in very different eras. As a nonbinary person onto whom masculinity is sometimes projected, my gender non-normativity is generally read as less indicative of deceptiveness and criminality than Clay's femininity. Likewise, I am a white person, and thus am largely left alone by the police. While I have lived in extreme economic precarity due to transphobia and homophobia, I currently live in middle class comfort. I enjoy both privacy in my daily life and the ability to narrate my identity on my own terms and in ways that may stand the test of time. Clay and I have participated, however, in the same Chicago movements for racial and gender justices. By acknowledging both our differences and our points of connection, I hope to raise questions about solidarity and the possibilities for movement building.

About the Images

I used a simple collage technique to layer together images drawn from primary source documents about Clay's life, pictures of well-known Black transgender women and queer Black people, images of contemporary Chicago protests, along with stock footage and abstract images. Having no pictures of Clay saddened me, but I attempted to evoke Clay's presence through an images of a Black woman walking through water, over pictures of Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major Griffin-Gracie, two Black transgender women who were contemporaries of Clay.


To me, this project remains open-ended, as I have tried to present Clay's life. There are questions that still haunt me: How can critical fabulation be done responsibly when transgender people, especially Black transgender women, often serve as a sort of imaginative resource, through which non-trans people project a range of desires? Can one engage in critical fabulation without sharing the identity of the historical figures one researches? How much similarity must one share? One thing, however, is very clear to me: Clay's life can best be honored by participating in movements against police violence and for Black trans lives.


In order of appearance:

  • Butler, Sheryl M. 1970. “‘Female Impersonator’ Killed by Cop in W. Side Street Brawl.” Chicago Daily Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1966-1973); Chicago, Ill., November 28, 1970.
  • Photography by Victor Albert Grigas (1919-2017) 00380 Chicago Loop Christmas time - developed March 1970, used under a Creative Commons license.
  • A Photograph of Marsha P. Johnson
  • Major! n.d. Accessed July 29, 2020. http://reelingfilmfestival.org/2016/films/major/.
  • Chicago Gay Alliance Newsletter. 1971. “Peace and Brotherhood,” December 1971. QHQ75.C27 Chicago Gay Alliance Newsletter. Chicago History Museum.
  • Transvestite/Transsexual Legal Committee. 1972. TLC Newsletter, July 1972. 20th Century L Am Serial. Northwestern McCormick Special Collections.
  • Transvestite/Transsexual Legal Committee. 1972. TLC Newsletter, September 1972. 20th Century L Am Serial. Northwestern University McCormick Special Collections.
  • “Ortez Alderson.” 2019. Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame. 2019. http://chicagolgbthalloffame.org/alderson-ortez/.
  • Photos by Sarah Ji-Rhee
Created By
Joy Micheal Ellison


Created with an image by Kevin Young - "Sunset city skyline"