When I think about the greatest live performances I've ever seen, Shakina Nayfack always comes to mind. Best known for her role on the TV series, Difficult People, Nayfack is also a celebrated member of the New York theatre community and it is there that I saw her in her one-woman rock musical, Manifest Pussy.
With extraordinary vocals, Nayfack takes you through her life just before, during, and after confirmation surgery. The musical serves as a reframing of the trans experience: yes, there are struggles, of course, but it's also a beautiful thing. Nayfack shares this joy, opening and closing the show with the song, "B.N.P.", an acronym for Brand New Pussy.
Audiences who missed the show will be able to see Shakina Nayfack in the Transparent musical final that premieres September 27. Nayfack plays Ava, a newcomer who helps the Pfefferman family move through their grief over the loss of Maura.
Nayfack also served as a writer and producer on the finale. Originally brought in as an actress, creators, Jill and Faith Soloway soon learned about Nayfack's background in developing new musicals. "I asked Jill and Andrea Sperling, their producing partner at Topple, if I could join the writing and producing team and they welcomed me with open arms."
In this conversation, recorded live at the Big Queer Pod Fest in Brooklyn, Nayfack talks on the LGBTQ&A podcast about why it's important to her to talk publicly about her gender confirmation surgery and what a radical act it is to be a trans woman in love.
Shakina Nayfack says that it is her mission to prove to trans people that they're worthy of being in healthy relationships. "I talk a lot about the radical act of being a trans woman in love, and what it means to be told your whole life that you are not worthy of love. And I think most queer people have that experience at some point in their lives when there's the realization that who you are attracted to is forbidden. For trans people, it's double, triple.
It becomes incredibly subversive to just embrace yourself as a sexual being worthy of love and affection.
And then when you learn how to do that, then you can help other people do that too. You needed to learn it yourself."
Shakina talks about why it's important for her to talk publicly about gender confirmation surgery. "I tell myself be open about the issues you're processing because someone else can learn from that as you're going through it. I've always dealt with my personal issues in a public forum, as a performance artist or a writer. When it came to my vagina, all the stuff that I had read about was so clinical and I just wanted to craft a new narrative around that.
Also, in the New York theatre community, I thought, "Oh fuck, I have to explain to everybody what's going on." I thought, "Let me make a show about it, and then I'll answer preemptively every question in the show, and it'll be on my terms."
Shakina learned a lot about herself watching porn. "I had done all this research on gender confirmation surgery and it was all so clinical and kind of terrifying. So I was like, "I just want to watch some porn and see a real awesome postoperative vagina in action." I found this porn star and I read about her story and I watched her enjoying sex and read her writing about it.
That started a kind of awakening in me as I realized, Let me just seek out images that actually correspond to how I want to be treated. And so now I watch all these soft-focus-for-ladies porn with lots of eye contact and caressing."
Shakina talks about how people can be better allies. "Something I've been educated on recently that was a linguistic change that came out of Native organizing, out of the Standing Rock movement: it was a call to abandon ally-ship and pick up the cause of accomplice-ship, being an accomplice.
Because for an ally, there's ultimately nothing at stake. It's, "Yeah, I'll help. I believe and I trust you. I want to support you." And an accomplice is like, "I'm willing to go to jail for you. I will stand up and take a risk, take a hit."
Shakina talks about wearing wigs. "Hair was a big part of my journey when it came to understanding myself as a trans woman. I was bald. I've had a shaved head for like 20 years.
Basically, in college, I started losing my hair, so I shaved my head. And then from that point on, shaving my head gave me this reminder that physical form is fleeting and you just can't fully invest in that to be there for you.
The thing about wearing a wig for me, at first, was that every day when I came home and took the wig off, it was like, "Oh no, I'm just a bald man with a pussy." It didn't feel like it like there was a rupture in my sense of self. For trans folk, this dysphoric relationship with your body is really complicated, really hard to deal with. I thought, "Oh that'll be over when I finish my confirmation."
And then it was all in the hair and not about the genitals.
Daniel [Shakina's boyfriend] and I were in a long distance relationship for the first year of our relationship, year and a half. He was visiting me and I hadn't made this change in my beauty regimen. It was his first night over and, and I was like, "Hey, so do you mind if I just take my hair off before I go to bed because it's so much easier to not have to deal with that."
Sleeping with a wig on is a lot of work. He says, "I know what you look like. Yeah."
And so I did it. I took my hair off and I had my little ponytail, mad-scientist hair and I was in the bathroom naked, brushing my teeth. He came in and he put his arms around me and did that hug thing that boyfriends do. And I started crying because I saw myself naked in the mirror with my crazy mad-scientist hair being hugged by this gorgeous young man.
He asked, "Why are you crying?" Then he looked at me through the mirror. He looked at me and said, "You think I don't accept you like this?" Then he turned me, and he said, "You're beautiful." And I just cried. Oh my God.