I first saw Shakina Nayfack on Difficult People and in YouTube clips of her one-woman show Manifest Pussy. As a performer and a writer, Shakina has always pushed the boundaries of respectability — finding humor and thoughtfulness within that rebellion.
Her play Chonburi International Hotel & Butterfly Club was just released on Audible as part of the virtual Williamstown Festival with a star-studded trans cast including Shakina, Angelica Ross, Ivory Aquino, and Kate Bornstein. The play follows a group of trans women staying at the same hotel in Thailand while awaiting or recovering from gender confirmation surgery and it provides a window into conversations among trans women we so rarely get to hear. I talked to Shakina about the play, her role on NBC’s Connecting…, and what she feels is missing from trans narratives.
Drew Gregory: Despite quarantine you’ve had an exciting creative year — starring on NBC’s quarantine sitcom Connecting… and now being part of the virtual Williamstown Festival. Do you think these less conventional modes of storytelling driven by the pandemic have more room for trans voices?
Shakina Nayfack: That’s really interesting. It’s totally true that I’ve been blessed in this moment with opportunity when a lot of my colleagues haven’t been. I’m really aware of that and it influences how I feel about all of my work. But it’s gratifying to me that our call for representation has been upheld even in this transition into alternative media that we’ve been forced to embrace. Because oftentimes people say they just didn’t know how to find trans people or they just didn’t know where to go for diverse writers in their writers room and things like that. But I think the long term work we’ve been doing to achieve better representation managed to crest the tide as the wave broke into this new media frenzy. And you need the support of institutions, right? It would’ve been really hard to independently produce a play that has nine trans actors even as a radio play. If Audible hadn’t sent their caliber of recording equipment to the entire cast for two weeks of use I don’t know that we would’ve been able to do it.
Drew: It’s interesting to think about that, right? Sometimes changes in media create further exclusion but sometimes they create a mindset of newness and risk-taking in content as well as form.
Shakina: It’s also because there was this massive cultural reckoning that had to do with race during all of this so I think people’s ears were really perked up to the accountability factor of representation. In a way it bums me out that I’ve been wanting to break through the barrier of a network sitcom for years and I finally got to do it but I never left my house. But at the same time it’s nice to see we’re still able to push things forward even when the industry overall is struggling.
Drew: Yeah absolutely. I was lucky enough to see your show Manifest Pussy and like Butterfly Club that also centers around bottom surgery. As a community we talk a lot about cis people’s obsession with genitals, but do you think we’ve now gone in the opposite direction and don’t talk about genitals and surgery enough? Is that part of what you’re pushing back against?
Shakina: Absolutely. I think we all have a job in the revolution. Everyone has a different role. And my role at least for a portion of my life has been about telling this story and creating awareness and community around the experience of bottom surgery and gender confirmation. Part of it is writing for my sisters who never get to hear about this side of the story. But I’m also aware that I’m writing for cis audiences who — as taboo as we’ve made it — still kind of crave a window into understanding this really formative experience of transfemme identity. In some ways for cis audiences I see Manifest Pussy and Butterfly Club as edutainment. I’m throwing them a few bones of facts and things to know. But I’m also calling them to a higher order. Luring them in with the pussy and then challenging them with postcolonial theory.
Drew: (laughs) I know for myself I’ve only learned about surgery from talking to friends. The media that’s out there is very limited and anytime as a trans person you’re trying to learn anything about transness from Google it can be a total nightmare. So it’s interesting that even these things we say are constantly being talked about — like genitalia or transition stories or whatever — it’s like yeah okay but there aren’t a lot of good ones, there aren’t a lot of good conversations out there.
Shakina: Right. I talk about that actually in Manifest Pussy. When I was doing the research I was so turned off and terrified by what I was finding online that I resorted to trans porn to see what a real post-op vagina was capable of enjoying. And of course that’s a very sort of specific performative use of a neovagina. That’s why I was motivated to create Manifest Pussy — to sort of give people another way in, figuratively and literally.
Drew: Yeah totally.
Shakina: I’m so glad that you got to see it!
Drew: Me too! I’d seen part of it on YouTube early in transitioning so I was really happy to see it live last year.
Shakina: Oh at the Rockwell! They had that big light up cross on the ceiling. I loved that.
Drew: It was great. So I would say — and I think you even say this in your work — that you definitely have a rebellious streak.
Drew: You’re definitely pushing back against certain conventional trans narratives. And I think I feel a similar desire to push back against the ways cis people talk about certain things or what cis people expect of me. But sometimes I wonder if that’s just a different way of centering cis people — they expect me to say this so I’m going to say this instead. I’m always trying to find a balance so the rebellion doesn’t become the point. Do you have any thoughts about that?
Shakina: I spent a fair number of years in my younger life as a radical youth organizer moving from a really reactionary standpoint. I was really focused on being resistant to all those gazes and expectations. And now I feel like I move from a more decisive place of taking action where I feel like my soul is motivated to express and it just so happens that that commitment to my own authenticity might push back on the respectability politic of the day. But I don’t really feel like I’m being driven to create out of a retaliation in the way that I used to, you know? I still feel like I’m seeing the negative space and seeking to fill it when I think there’s something missing in the narrative. But I’ve also become aware that if you’re constantly on the defensive then you’re really still playing the game of the oppressor.
Drew: Do you think about different projects as having different audiences? When it comes to the work that you’re writing are some parts for a trans audience and and other parts an awareness that cis people will be watching or listening?
Shakina: I think in both Manifest Pussy and Butterfly Club l give cis people a little trans 101 in nuggets. But I’m really conscious about that. The reason why I posted that I needed some trans people to listen to Butterfly Club and engage with me critically was because all the reviewers were cis and they were like obsessed with literally a 25 second moment in the play when the character Jerri played by Bianca Leigh describes for Kina the intricacies of the surgery — like what tissue used to be what tissue and is now something else.
Shakina: It’s literally a 25 second moment that I wrote in as few words as possible! I did the same thing in Manifest Pussy. There’s a moment where I describe how the surgery works and then I take a drink and move on. And it was just so predictable to me that the New York Times said the play is confusing and about too much but in one moment it achieves the specificity it needs to soar.
Shakina: The specificity of this used to be my ball sack and now it’s my vaginal canal? But I knew that that paragraph would be candy for cis ears. And I don’t knock cis people for having curiosity about how it goes down. If you’ve lived an entire life feeling totally great about your genitals it’s probably hard to imagine wanting to reconfigure them.
Drew: (laughs) Sure.
Shakina: It’s certainly important to let folks know when it’s inappropriate to ask about those things but in a way opening up a parenthetical moment to answer questions gives people a little more knowledge and a little less ignorance and so they make fewer assumptions. That’s all that is.
Drew: Yeah absolutely. I like how the play shows the ways that different generations of trans women have different comfort levels with gender nonconformity and different ideas about what you have to do to be a proper trans woman. Have you faced that a lot? And do you have a lot of older trans women in your life?
Shakina: I have a few elders who I hold very dear who have always been supportive of my journey and the way that I’ve chosen to manifest my gender. But in my early days of coming into myself as a trans woman I experienced a lot of sideways glances and backhanded comments from trans women who jumped through all the hurdles in the decades before me who just had different expectations. And sometimes those people were younger than me. It’s weird how trans generations aren’t always age-based especially now that there are more young people who have been able to be out and socially transitioned longer than adult people who are transitioning later in life. They might be younger in human years but they’re older in trans years. It’s kind of a crazy phenomenon.
Drew: Yeah that’s so interesting. I definitely feel like based on the conversations I have with trans people that second age is more what factors into beliefs and experiences.
Shakina: Right and there were different societal expectations and different experiences based on the time you transitioned. Kate Bornstein talks about her gender confirmation process — she was alone with a bunch of nuns and had to drive home afterwards. The fact that she got to sort of reclaim a kind of sisterhood experience through being in the play that she didn’t get to have in her actual confirmation process was sort of magical.
Drew: Yeah wow. I like how the play shows a sisterhood but also shows some of the growing pains to get to that sisterhood. When you were first coming out, how did you form your community of trans women?
Shakina: I talk about this in Manifest Pussy but soon after I first came out as trans I lost a trans friend to suicide and then had an experience with sexual violence and I sort of reverted back into gay maledom for awhile. I held onto my trans identity but I just sort of lived in the world as an admitted imposter. So during that first period of time I started to forge some trans community but then I retreated back into the mask of maleness.
I didn’t really start to develop the community I have now until I began performing and telling my story. I stepped into a place of suddenly becoming a beacon for a lot of trans folks who sought me out and then I felt like I was maybe more of a mentor than a member of a community. But with Butterfly Club — by welcoming a bunch of other trans artists into this process of creating — I really started to feel like part of a roundtable, you know? Kina’s story is very much my story — I was very I’m a loner Dottie I’m a rebel. But then I needed people. That was new for me and challenging and also really exciting to feel the heart opening that happens when you let other people in. And so many more trans folks than are represented on that recording were part of creating Butterfly Club because the play has gone through so many different readings and iterations over the years. I have called upon so many friends and colleagues to come in and help me work through the material so you might hear nine trans folks on that recording but I would say there are probably twenty plus who have engaged with Butterfly Club in some way to help shape it into what it is today.
Drew: That’s beautiful. It’s a conversation that I find difficult to have or just complicated to have. But I think a lot of trans people have the experience of feeling like an outsider or a loner and struggling to initially make that community. I don’t know maybe it’s because we’re a particularly traumatized group of people so even in friendships and coming together there’s going to be difficulties. But I really like the idea of art and creating and collaboration being a sort of unifier because I definitely have experienced that myself.
Shakina: Yeah and I think political organizing works that way too. Some of the people that I’ve grown close to were people who were engaged in social justice so that became the kind of common denominator of our community. Folks expect that marginalized people just clump together and become besties but community doesn’t really work that way. Folks are more likely to congregate with people who share their interests or their passions or their career fields. Getting together with a bunch of trans people just means a bunch of different points of view and perspectives that are going to clash as much as they harmonize.
Drew: I really love how you show that in Butterfly Club. All of these women are very different and have some very different points of view — some to the point of having views that clearly you and your character and I find reprehensible. But still there’s some connection. What you’re saying is totally true and something I had to learn — of course you’re not going to get along with all trans people, you’re going to get along with the trans people who you have other things in common with or other compatibilities with. BUT ALSO when you’re forced to be in a room of all trans people, all trans women, there is something that connects you, right? There is this thing. And I think you show that so well in Butterfly Club where there is still some magnetism that pulls your character together with those other women. I really appreciated the portrayal of the difficulties and the ways even people who are vastly different having this one experience does create some sort of common ground.
Shakina: Thank you for saying that. Angelica or Ivory pointed out that folks haven’t really gotten to hear conversations between trans people like this before. Like outside of Pose, which is set in a specific historical time period, the ways that we talk together have really been kind of private. This represents a window into transfemme conversations you just haven’t seen or heard if you’ve been isolated in your transness or if you’re cis. That’s really exciting to me.
Drew: Yeah. Also I loved that you have Angelica’s character identify as a gold star lesbian. That made me laugh. Which leads to my next question — what aspects of transness do you feel still aren’t being discussed enough in art?
Shakina: I cast a wide net in Butterfly Club to try to pull in as many different perspectives because so many haven’t been given voice. I’m really into showing relationships and trans people being worthy of love. I want more examples of trans folks in healthy loving relationships that don’t necessarily have to follow a heteronormative model. I mean, I happen to be in a relatively heteronormative relationship right now, but I consider myself queer and my partner has also taken on that label even though he wasn’t really part of the queer community before we got together. But we never really see trans/trans love. That’d be nice to see more of. I really want to focus more on showing how worthy trans people are of love — look how wonderful it is to love trans people, look how great it is to be trans and be in love, you know? And just kind of painting that picture for folks.
Drew: Yeah because when we don’t see that it becomes I don’t know—
Shakina: Hard to imagine.
Drew: Well yeah. And when it does happen — and obviously it happens because we love each other and there are plenty of cis people who love us — I think it gets a heaviness that frustrates me. We’re just dating like anyone else! We have good dates, bad dates, bad relationships, good relationships, flings, whatever. Stop thinking every encounter is important! Stop settling! Obviously I think people should do whatever makes them happy — or whatever they think makes them happy — but sometimes I get frustrated with other trans people where I’m like you’re just a person you should have the same standards that any other person has. But I’m single so what do I know.
Drew: But yeah I definitely think about which trans love stories we get to see — and which we do not. Even though you’re saying your relationship is heteronormative that detail that your partner previously didn’t identify as queer and now owns that identity — that’s so interesting to me! That’s different than the usual narrative where we’re insisting if a cis man is with a trans woman he can still be straight — which like yes, totally, absolutely true — but I love the idea that being around queer people and queer community opened up that cis man’s queerness. I love that narrative.
Shakina: Yeah and I’m also not going to allow my being in a relationship with a cis man to erase my own queerness.
Shakina: I’ve worked very hard to claim that space and own that space. But going back to what we were talking about representationally, I think it’s important to show people what’s possible. Because with all the discrimination and internalized transphobia we face it’s really important that folks with a platform use it to create hope. I went through the ringer too in my dating life, but I just have so many trans friends who feel hopeless in their search for love and companionship and it’s really important for me to show them that what they seek is out there and that they deserve it and they will find it. And also in my particular experience for cis men who might find themselves attracted to a trans person to see the joy of being in that relationship. Or like in Butterfly Club the cis women who are partnered with trans women. I just think we need to see more people loving trans people so that more people realize that not only is it okay but it’s actually really fucking great.
Drew: I’ve mentioned this before on Autostraddle but when the first season of Euphoria came out two summers ago all of a sudden all these cis women were telling me that Hunter Schafer was their celebrity crush as a way of hitting on me. I don’t look anything like Hunter Schafer but I was like oh for the first time they saw a queer women romance on TV where the desired person was a trans girl and so now that’s their point of reference. They now think this is something they could do because who doesn’t want to be Zendaya?
Drew: I loved how — and maybe this is me projecting my own whatever — but I loved how the cis partners in Butterfly Club were both very loving and supportive and enthusiastic and also sometimes crossed a certain line into — (sigh) — I don’t want to say too enthusiastic because that sounds mean and it’s not quite fetishy or chasery really it’s just like — it’s just cis people, right? Even good ones. Being comically over the top where you’re like okayyyy.
Shakina: Well cisness is like whiteness in that way. Regardless of best intentions there are things about your privilege that you are never going to fully grasp. And so yeah it was important for me to show those cis allies/lovers/accomplices misstepping. But also show them being forgiven and welcomed back and realizing what they don’t know. Some people are so afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing and it’s like honestly if you’re walking on eggshells around me that’s just more painful than you saying something ignorant.
Drew: Absolutely. That’s something I feel like I face a lot dating in the queer world and dating cis queer people. Sometimes people are so worried about doing the wrong thing and I’m like I am just at a bar trying to have a random hook up it doesn’t have to be a whole thing. Like the level of, again, heaviness they’re attaching to a bar make out is very silly. And that cautiousness isn’t necessarily bad — maybe it’s even good — but it’s something people need to work on and work through because it’s annoying and othering.
Shakina: Right. And just having more examples of trans romance in media is going to be so helpful. The more that we see rom coms with trans people the more people — cis and trans — will understand that the messy comical nature of romance is actually pretty universal.
Drew: So you’re work is also very Jewish—
Drew: I’ve been thinking a lot about how for me my transness and my Jewishness are not separate identities. They feel very intertwined. And I was wondering if they feel connected to you and if you could talk about that a bit.
Shakina: I consider myself kind of an interfaith priestess. You know, I’m Jewish, but I also was baptized Christian and have studied Buddhism from a couple teachers, a couple gurus, who I have a profound connection to. So I think my spiritual journey is inextricable from my transness and therefore my Judaism is a part of that. But the truth is I also have a lot of religious trauma around my transness and Judaism. I also had a lot of religious euphoria but there was a lot I had to reconcile and part of reconciling that for me has been stepping into my identity as a Messianic Jew. I grew up for a time in an interfaith family and while my stepdad converted to Judaism I still chose to become baptized in my own life. And that choice to become baptized was really linked to my decision to finally begin my medical transition. So overall I think the artillery I want to bring to the world in that regard is to tell trans folks that we are welcome in any spiritual tradition that calls us, we are welcome to have a relationship with the divine, and I’m going to show you as many pathways as I’ve encountered so you have some options. That’s what I’m trying to do all the time in my work. And obviously I bring my culture and my heritage and my ancestors with me so the Jewishness is always there. But also in Manifest Pussy when I talk about being a Eunuch of Heaven or in Butterfly Club all the Buddhist influences to talk about death these are all things that I really care about and I want trans people to have access to.
Drew: I love that. So I was really fascinated with the tone of Connecting… It’s a sitcom that takes place in 2020 and you know 2020 wasn’t great and there was a lot of trauma but it’s still a sitcom. And I think in your own work you’re hilarious and also dealing with things that are serious. I guess that sort of feels like an inherent aspect of transess that if you’re going to be funny there’s going to be a certain undercurrent of trauma or something. How do you strike that balance? Does it come naturally from expressing your own experiences or is it something that you’re consciously thinking about?
Shakina: I’ve always turned to humor as a way to process and deal with trauma. But I also don’t shy away from the gratuitousness of trauma either. For example, in Manifest Pussy it took several iterations of that show before I was able to talk about my experience of being a survivor of sexual violence because I didn’t want to put it in the show until I could end it with a joke. I was only going to tell that story if I could make people laugh at the end of it. I didn’t want people to sit there feeling sorry for the trans woman who was assaulted — that’s not what I want.
With Connecting… I think we all felt a responsibility to bring joy to people in a time of great trauma and trial. There was a sort of agreement amongst all of us in the cast and creative team that we weren’t going to shy away from anything in the cultural moment, but that we were always going to try to do it in a way that brought people together and put people at ease and gave people hope and comfort. It was really exciting to be a part. I’m bummed we didn’t get a second season because God I would love to be making that show right now. It certainly didn’t seem like the kind of show that had ten years of longevity, but for the experience of commenting on the world while in quarantine it was a really great outlet. I hope people will still return to it and see it as a time capsule of what 2020 was because I don’t think there’s any other media that came out last year that really tracked what we were all going through — and certainly not doing so while making you laugh. It feels like a really special offering. I’m really proud I was a part of it.
Drew: Yeah I definitely think people will revisit it. You’re right it’s a total time capsule. And I’m also bummed that it didn’t get a second season. The industry gives and it takes away.
Shakina: Yeah. The truth is it was a heated political moment and we were decisive about what side of history we were going to fall on. I think that presented certain challenges for a network whose audiences lie in multiple demographic groups. But we posed that challenge and I’m so glad we did.