I was first introduced to Shakina Nayfack two years ago. She was quickly garnering a reputation as a performer to watch, largely thanks to her powerful autobiographical One Woman Show at Joe's Pub.
The night I went to see Post-Op, her follow-up show at Joe's Pub about her journey to Thailand for gender-confirmation surgery, goes down in history as one of my favorite New York nights. There she was, bearing her soul. She expressed the love she had for her new vagina, the wonder of rediscovering her own body, and the pain of mutilating it in the hopes of achieving something greater. She was raw and transcendental. Her strength rippled off the stage and through the crowd, propelling us into the night.
Since, Shakina has toured her follow-up show, Manifest Pussy,throughout North Carolina in protest of HB2 (a.k.a. "the bathroom bill") and booked a leading role in the Hulu series Difficult People. She also continues to run the Musical Theatre Factory, the nonprofit arts organization she launched in 2014.
We sat down in her new office downtown, just across the street from where I first saw her perform, and chatted about advocacy, rocking a shaved head, and why being in a loving relationship is the most radical, subversive act there is. Our interview was an unexpected, instant connection. I was blown away by her graciousness and philosophy on life.
Olivia Clement: Let's talk about Lola, your character on Difficult People, why is she such an important character to have on TV right now?
Shakina Nayfack: I could be wrong, but I think that she's the first genuinely comedic trans character on television. Comedy is not created at her expense; she's actually generating jokes and laughs. I think that's pretty radical. Also, she calls out assumptions about transgender women and deflates them right then and there. I have a line in season two where I say, "Just because I'm trans, you think I'm a sex worker." Or: "I'm a trans woman, not a drag queen." And I'm not doing any of those things; I have adventures that are just fun and ridiculous, that aren't focused on my trans identity as a plot point. There's also the fact that I'm an unconventional body type, which is again disrupting assumptions about what trans women have to be like.
OC: I know a lot of people see you as a role model. Do you see yourself that way?
SN: I'm aware that I'm a role model, and I take it very seriously. It informs a lot of what I do because I feel a responsibility to my community.
OC: You do so much — you're an advocate, an actress, and you run your own theater company. What drives you?
SN: I have my own drive. I value discipline and process, and I value virtuosity. I aspire to it. I don't think there's anything wrong with setting a high bar for yourself. At the same time, I believe in rising tides lifting all boats — especially coming from a community that's been so heavily oppressed for so many years. I have a sense of who has helped me come up in the world, and I feel an obligation to share the wealth. I try to balance my own drive and motivation to succeed with my passion for advocacy and supporting other people. Happiness is only valuable when shared, and there are plenty of pieces of the pie. If you're in the business of manifesting miraculous things like I am, then poverty consciousness doesn't help. You need to be able to see beyond the illusion of limited opportunity in order to embrace limitless opportunity.
When we think of representations of trans women, whether it's in entertainment media or social media, we're not afforded a lot of images of trans people in healthy, loving relationships.
OC: Earlier, you said something about Lola breaking down the barriers of how a trans woman is supposed to look. You do that in real life too. Tell me about your shaved head.
SN: It's a combination of things. I began shaving my head when I was twenty, when I started doing Butoh dance, but I also started losing my hair really young and I was more comfortable having a shaved head than balding — so there was a bit of vanity. There was also the thought, Physical form is fleeting, and this is how I honor that. Those worked together.
When I got back from Thailand [after my gender-confirmation surgery], I needed a way to show people that things were different, that there was a fundamental difference in who I was and what my body was doing. So wearing a wig became really useful in order to be a little more passable. I was going through such a difficult recovery process, and I didn't need to be getting called out on the street or subway. Wearing hair helped me blend in and also gave me an opportunity to glam up in a different way. I was really invested in that for a bit, but at the end of the day, I would have to take off my wig. I'd look in the mirror, and I would see a man with a pussy. It was heartbreaking. I was feeling really bifurcated. It was my boyfriend who helped me come back to my own center, my own self, and to feel comfortable returning to my shaved-head look — a sense of myself as an integrated being with my new body parts.
OC: Let's talk about your boyfriend, Daniel. You have a photo album on Facebook of images of the two of you titled: The Radical Act of Being a Trans Woman in Love. Why did you name it that?
SN: It's one of the closing lines of my show, Manifest Pussy. Also, here's why: I had had such a terrible experience in my dating life up to the point of meeting him. The majority of my experiences were with dudes who were really into fucking me, especially when I still had a dick, but who would never want to be seen in public with me. Sometimes, there were moments where I thought, All right, this is fun! I'm a sexual object. I could enjoy being objectified like that, and there was a certain kind of reward to it because I had denied myself of my own intimacy for so long. It didn't matter that it was a commodity situation, because I was at least receiving something and feeling desired. But then I thought, It would be nice if we could go out for a coffee. That's how I met Daniel. I was on Tinder, and I said: "I want to go on a date. Like an out-in-public dinner date." When we think of representations of trans women, whether it's in entertainment media or social media, we're not afforded a lot of images of trans people in healthy, loving relationships. It's part of my mission to show other trans women that they are worthy of love and to show the rest of the world that loving a trans person is just as awesome as loving anybody else. When you're a trans woman who's out and about trying to live her life, to survive all of the things you're set against, and to come through it and learn how to love yourself and love someone else — to exchange that love is really radical.
OC: And the photos look just like any other couple who's in love.
SN: In a way, it's like assimilation, but it's also subversive. There are still power structures set in place in this country to prevent me, and people like me, from experiencing wholeness — from existing in our public and private lives with a complete and valued sense of self. Whatever you can do to challenge that is a radical act. Being in love and sharing love is fundamentally and universally the most radical thing you can do at any given time.
OC: You've also pointed out in the past that social change is about those who are privileged using their status to dismantle the kinds of power structures you mention.
SN: If you are a person who experiences privilege in one regard and you want to be involved in social change and social justice, you have to look at how your privilege may, at times, come at the expense of someone else's well-being or rights. If that's the case, then you need to offset your privilege footprint. Just like a carbon footprint. There are ways to use your platform for good. Cis people can end transphobia. Trans people can't do that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Olivia Clement is a writer and playwright based in New York.