Talking with Reina Gossett and Grace Dunham About Everyday Activism and Why Empathy is Everything

When I met with Reina Gossett and Grace Dunham to talk about activism, the LGBT community and the ways they’re working to change the world, it was immediately obvious how much they love one another: truly, platonically, mutually, completely. The camera isn’t running and Gossett has left the room when I comment on how slickly they finish one another’s sentences. “Well,” says Dunham matter-of-factly, “Reina changed my life.” And this becomes the overarching theme of our conversation: how interpersonal relationships can be more transformative than Big-A Activism. I had heard about their close relationship, and how it was informing some incredible work together, so I sought them out to find out more — over the course of our afternoon together in NYC, our conversation covered everything from the damages of biological essentialism to the radical power of empathy to how important it is to feel sexy sometimes. Though the duo cover every topic from transmisogyny in the lesbian community, to empathy and self-examination, to filmmaking, the major takeaway from our conversation was how interpersonal relationships can be the breeding ground for empathetic, transformative, revolutionary acts of everyday activism.

Grace Dunham (who uses both she/her and they/them pronouns) and I met when we were 12 at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn. Despite a reputation for whitewashed privilege, a pervy founding headmaster and an extremely competitive college admission process, St. Ann’s is a safe space for strange kids — a unique departure from most of New York’s elite prep schools. Our friendship was shortlived, because as soon as I found my niche of weirdos, I realized Brooklyn Heights wasn’t ready for this jelly, and I bounced on out of private school. Years later, when Grace’s sister Lena created the breakout hit Girls, I found myself wondering what had become of them. Grace had a reputation at St. Ann’s as a phenomenal playwright; their graduation speech had been re-published and circulated for its succinct and impressive rhetoric. Certainly she had a platform from which to project her voice, so why hadn’t we heard from them yet?

And then a whiskey-fueled encounter at a local Bed-Stuy queer haunt, One Last Shag, brought us full circle. There we were, nearly fully realized gay grown-ups: I, a writer for the dopest queer lady publication this side of the Atlantic, and Grace traveling the world to bring awareness to feminist and trans issues. I learned that Grace had been working with The Reina Gossett, the silver-tongued trans activist whose name and work is tossed around feminist and prison abolitionist communities more often than the word “intersectionality.” The duo had been traveling the country, researching, learning and storytelling about the history of cross-dressing laws, transphobia in the queer community, building community through nightlife, all while trying to live authentically as queer friends in the public eye.

I asked if I could talk to Gossett and Dunham about their work, and so a week before Pride, we were three queers on a couch overlooking New York City, home of the Stonewall Riots. In the weeks before our interview, Grace mentioned that their research is partially focused on identifying and critiquing transphobia and transmisogyny in the lesbian community. We know it’s there — the transphobia — but the circles I run in deny it vehemently. I hear about these radfems who make a big stink about excluding AMAB women all the time, but I’ve never met one. As a person who thinks about race and racism a lot, I think it boils down to this: just because you don’t ride around rocking a white sheet, doesn’t mean you aren’t racist. Similarly, just because you don’t go around bashing trans women doesn’t mean you aren’t transmisogynistic. Everyone’s a little bit racist. And we’re homophobic, transphobic and classist, too. Gossett and Dunham are committed to recognizing the ways state violence and oppression move through us, even as (or especially because) we push away from it.

For clarity, the oppression of trans women and AMAB gender-nonconforming people is a symptom of transmisogyny, which occurs at the intersection of transphobia and misogyny. However, Gossett was very clear about why they often choose to use the term “transphobia” in place of or in addition to addressing transmisogyny.

“It’s important to me to say not just transmisogyny but also transphobia,” Gossett said. “The same kind of biological essentialism that says trans women should not be in women’s spaces, or that so comfortably uses biology to define what it means to be a woman, or so comfortably uses unreflective and frankly white supremacist and transphobic ideas of being ‘socialized as a girl or socialized to be a woman,’ so often allows trans men or female assigned trans people to take up space. Why? I think because they are using a biological essentialist understanding of what gender is and… I am just so over it!”

For Reina, transphobia refers to our tendency to discriminate based on outward appearances; a tendency which has reproduced violence in the most horrible and dehumanizing ways possible. The same tendency to privilege what we perceive to be male is the same tendency that devalues what we perceive to be female, all of which is an entirely fabricated social construct. Reina identified one major event as an example of how violence reproduces itself.

“In 1973, for instance, this organization called the Lesbian Feminist Liberation [LFL], was really dealing with a lot of sexism within the ‘Gay Movement.’ And they were like ,’This is not okay, there’s so much sexism and we need to stop this. We need to form our own organization.’ So, at the 1973 Pride, Sylvia Rivera gets on stage and starts talking about the Gay Movement forgetting about trans people in prison — and queer people and gay people in prison. At that same Pride, LFL was handing out pamphlets saying that trans women are a mockery of women — specifically, trans women who are getting any kind of income or have a monetized relationship to being trans. I think that is still deeply rooted, in at least queer communities, and has definitely largely affected my experience.”

“I think that it’s complicated in that visibility doesn’t necessarily in and of itself stop violence from happening.”

A major issue here is visibility. “I think that it’s complicated in that visibility doesn’t necessarily in and of itself stop violence from happening,” says Gossett, a point she has made time and again in public appearances. “In fact visibility can be a big form of violence, and something they don’t get to choose… and not bring with it material or emotional or soulful or energetic positivity or liberation or things that help you live day to day.” This consistent pattern is why so many queers are concerned that the recent marriage equality ruling is actually a major setback for other sexual and racial minorities. For this very reason, Gossett and Dunham are concerned with examining social movements prior to Stonewall; prior to “visibility.”

This idea of queer and trans community pre-Stonewall is a major point of interest in their research, flipping the script on when, where and how LGBTQ activism got its start.

“A lot of our process is just asking the same questions over and over and over again, and getting deeper each time,” says Gossett. “We were in Indiana at the Kinsey archives and we were asking questions about cross-dressing laws and how they were playing out in the 50s before Stonewall… and then we were in LA asking the same questions again; asking people who were creating nightlife spaces or inherited spaces from the 50s [about] the overlap between anti-black racism and cross-dressing transphobia.”

There is this sense that LGBTQ activism began in a vacuum at a gay bar in New York called The Stonewall Inn. And even today, at the height of trans visibility, the media tries to paint the Stonewall riots as a white male-centric movement. This is evidenced by the recent feature film Stonewall, in which gay director Ronald Emmerich attempts to paint “the definitive story of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City for a new generation.” There’s just one problem — the lead character is a fictional amalgam of influential fire-starters represented by a very white, very cis, gay male named Danny Winters (played by actor Jeremy Irvine). But anybody who has bothered to lift a finger to examine this historic moment knows that the Stonewall riots were championed by lesbians and drag queens and kings and trans women of color like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.

Gossett and Dunham prefer not to expend their energy hollering about the ways in which the patriarchy is presented to us, but rather to create their own spaces to tell the stories that need to be heard. Not a direct response to Stonewall but certainly a healthy alternative, Gossett and her filmmaking partner, Sasha Wortzel, are currently producing a film called Happy Birthday Marsha! about Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and their roles as trans activists before, during and after Stonewall. This version of the Stonewall Riots presents us with an intimate portrait of the two women who were truly at the center of the riots: trans women of color. And though a narrative with this lens is essential to the queer film canon, Dunham and Gossett also seek to highlight the ways in which trans and queer activism was absolutely happening before anybody had heard the words Stonewall.

“Stonewall was every single Friday when you were out there trying to be with your friends and trying to survive, and also trying to have fun, and also trying to get laid… and also trying to wear what you want to wear!”

Dunham and Gossett want us to look outside the west village and find the queers who were existing, truly existing, in other cities and towns across America in the decades before Stonewall was even a glimmer in Marsha Johnson’s sequin bustier. “Stonewall is ‘Stonewall’ — Capital-S STONEWALL — but for a lot of people Stonewall was like every night of their life,” Dunham said. “Stonewall wasn’t just like one thing. Stonewall was every single Friday when you were out there trying to be with your friends and trying to survive, and also trying to have fun, and also trying to get laid… and also trying to wear what you want to wear!” Dunham is referring to the many little movements that took place in a person’s everyday life. Something as simple as wearing a dress outside in the face of strict cross-dressing laws was a form of civil disobedience that sparked many confrontations and riots. One being the Los Angeles Cooper’s Donuts riot of 1959, ten whole years before Stonewall. Another is the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riots in San Francisco. “What does it mean,” asks Dunham, “to not look for the event or the moment or the person that has the capital letter, but to look for the life that’s expansive and doing all of this work that doesn’t get remembered in the way that institutionalized histories and institutionalized success gets remembered?” Gossett and Dunham are trying to live that “expansive life.” And I would say they are succeeding.

Part of the life that’s expansive is about our human connections, the small moments of choosing whether to reach out or push away that make up the emotional network that is the LGBT community. Dunham and Gossett argue that empathy is at the heart of movement building, especially as trans and genderqueer activists in feminist and lesbian communities. “There’s also just so much biological essentialism that it’s really hard to then not take that on myself and then do it to other people, right?” Gossett is explaining the ways in which we reproduce violence onto the communities we believe are holding us back from achieving our activist goals. This includes both other oppressed minorities, as well as privileged individuals we perceive to be oppressors. “That’s why I have so much empathy… like I’m so hurt by transphobia and that’s why it’s so important for me to not assume people’s pronouns and definitely not assume their gender. People walking down the street, we can talk about in all different kinds of ways. We can talk about all the harmful things a person might have done without being like ‘that man, y’know, did this thing… That cisgender man said this to me… It’s really wonderful I think right now to leave space for everyone’s gender self-determination.” The two are really diligent about using self-reflection as a means of identifying harmful aspects of the culture within they participate. Dunham grew up in a liberal ‘supportive’ environment, but still experienced the weight of biological essentialism on her gender expression.

“I so wish that when I had been young there had been adults and mentors and worlds that had welcomed me into a way of understanding myself as queer without enacting biological essentialism onto myself,” Grace said. “I was a little kid who was told I was a girl but who intensely asserted that that’s not who I was. I was like call me Jimmy, get me a leather jacket, I want a babysitter that is on a motorcycle and has a very large beard. And because of the way I was enacting who I was, the thing I got reflected back at me is ‘oh you’re a lesbian,’ not ‘oh, this is a young person who doesn’t feel good about the role they’re being told to inhabit.”

But instead of developing resentment toward the people who assigned Grace’s gender for them, they work toward recognizing that same tendency in their self, and fighting it. “It’s easy as somebody who is consistently read as a white lesbian and as someone who came into my queer identity having a relationship to that history to feel a lot of anger at the ways in which people who came before me enacted these kinds of violence, but I think [it’s better to look] at those moments as an opportunity to think about just how deep the state goes into us and into the ways that we reproduce the state’s violence.”

Okay, so after this self-examination, what are the next steps to building trans-inclusive lesbian and feminist communities? “I think I have this moment with you again and again,” remarks Dunham to Gossett, “where we realize the work we want to do we’re already doing… There’s so much pressure to find the right thing to do, or find the right work to do or do the most impactful most ambitious thing, but chances are you’re already doing it.” Gossett couldn’t agree more.

Activism isn’t necessarily about being at the protest or at the organizing meeting, but about being in a practice. “Having a space to be in a practice where you do it in small ways every day for a while, rather than thinking that it’s outside of you and you have to do some huge thing and organize around it that way. We can do small everyday ways of being fabulous and it’s transformative. Or, small everyday ways of being in a collaboration-slash-friendship.” For example, on July 11th, Dunham and others hosted a reading and party, Summer Nights On Jupiter, at a historic Lower East Side community garden called Le Petit Versailles. The house was packed. Afterwards the stage became an open-mic where audience members were invited to sing and share their own poetry. This on its own was a simultaneous act of celebration and mourning for the pioneers of trans liberation.

“Feeling beautiful, feeling hot, feeling sexy, is getting things done.”

“How are you supposed to get things done if you don’t feel good about yourself?” Dunham proposes, while Gossett counters with, “Feeling beautiful, feeling hot, feeling sexy, is getting things done.” They are, of course, in agreement. “Feeling good is some of the hardest work that we can do,” Dunham says, “You’re not just an activist if you try to change legislation, you’re also doing amazing transformative work if you teach your friend to do her make-up. You’re also doing amazing transformative work if you find a way to go steal some dresses with one another and make sure you don’t get caught so that you have the clothes you need to be who you want to be. That’s what I’m so into right now.” That is the space Dunham and Gossett aim to create.

“It’s actually is really risky to have fun in a way you’ve been told not to… so, we’re starting to work on planning a big costume dress-up party where we’ll have lots of clothes from different decades, different periods, different themes and sets and tons of our friends and young people who maybe have gotten to experiment with the clothing that they like, and maybe haven’t… will have a safe space to go fucking wild.”

How do Dunham and Gossett manage to feel safe when they are so often concerned with making others feel safe? How do they maintain their exuberance and optimism when they are entrenched in the tragedy that appears to be the trans experience in the age of information, visibility, and media corruption? How do they protect their big and open hearts? Grace puts it in terms I can fully understand: “I feel like I really loosely use the term research to talk about what we do together, because a lot of what we do together is just be in a friendship with one another,” Dunham says, unafraid to complicate the terms of their partnership. “We’ve just been doing a lot of storytelling… this is what is sexy to us, this is what inspires us, this is what makes us feel like the world is this magic place.”


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Profile gravatar of Hannah Hodson

Hannah Hodson is a 22-year old Brooklyn-bred writer and actor. She graduated Hampshire College with a very valuable BA in Theatre and Black Studies. She currently resides in DUMBO, Brooklyn, where she admires the view while writing poetry about gentrification, climate change, race, class and other heavy stuff, but tries to keep a positive outlook on it all. She recently met Abbi and Ilana from Broad City (IRL), and has photos to prove it. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter, for her thoughts on Beyonce.

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17 Comments

  1. Thanks for this. Although I kind of doubt that you’ve never actually met any self-identified radical feminist who holds trans-misogynistic views. I’ve never met anyone either who expressed such views in my presence, but I know there are still lots of people like that out there, and the chances are that they’re a lot more careful about where they express such views these days.

    Also, one small correction: in all her writings, as far as I know, Sylvia Rivera spelled her first name with a “y,” not as “Silvia.”

  2. Thought provoking stuff – grand! I’m drawn to two ideas – how has trans – and queer questioning/challenging – life in history played out. Like homosexuality, non-cis and trans lives existed throughout time and place, but how were they lived? The more history I read, and the more I delve into the primary sources of a period, the more I realise that what gets published as History (with some kind of assumed more-or-less truthiness) is often not accurate at all, and even when it is ‘accurate’ in a sense, it has been stripped of much of its context. So I’m looking forward to the results of Reina and Grace’s work.

    The second thing that strikes me is the idea that we are all a little bit racist, homophobic, trans misogynistic and so on. The thing that intrigues me (because it feeds into a general history of ‘othering’ and its consequences) is in what situations and to what extent would each of us express or reveal that racism, homophobia etc? And WHY?

  3. “but the circles I run in deny it vehemently. I hear about these radfems who make a big stink about excluding AMAB women all the time, but I’ve never met one.”

    How about someone like StaceyAnn Chin, who explicitly supported Lisa Vogel’s actions at MichFest and appeared there for many years even when other writers and performers had decided to not be connected with that space? How about Toshi Reagon who kept her mouth shut about MIchFest’s policies while continuing to perform there in spite of speaking out about practically every other issue? How about someone like Julie Goldman who in 2014 said “I will perform at Michfest whenever Lisa Vogel asks me to”… she’s someone who had a lot of connections to Autostraddle for many years? I bet you can find lots of them if you’re willing to really listen to what they’re saying and, more importantly, what they’re doing.

    • Not to mention people like Germaine Greer (given what she just said about trans women not “looking, sounding, or behaving like women”) — and all the feminists who still defend her, and advocate giving her a platform so “both sides” can be heard. As if her viewpoint is marginalized in the world.

      • I hear you all. I’m trying to convey the fact that just because I have never personally been exposed to “a particular flavor of bigotry” within the lesbian community, doesn’t mean that it isn’t there and also doesn’t mean I don’t perpetuate it, however inadvertently. Bigotry and oppression are systemic and therefore we are all accountable. Would hate to make it seem as though I’m claiming, by some miracle, that I’ve never met a transmisogynist lesbian/queer. They just didn’t come up to me and announce it.

        • Thank you.

          I am sorry if I came across as overly confrontational, but I have heard similar (possibly unintentionally) dismissive seeming statements from both cisgender lesbians and trans guys far too many times.

          I had a feeling your heart was in the right place and I am glad you know you have met them, even if they only show off their bigotry when they have a target.

  4. One small example I like to cite of trans people having always existed: a primary source dealing with the life of a transgender sex worker in 14th century London:

    http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/1395rykener.html

    The Questioning of John Rykener 1395: Translation

    On 11 December, 18 Richard 11. were brought in the presence of John Fressh, Mayor. and the Aldermen ofthe City of London John Britby of the county of York and John Rykener., calling [himself] Eleanor, having been detected in women’s clothing, who were found last Sunday night between the hours of 8 and 9 by certain officials of the, city lying by a certain stall in Soper’s Lane committing that detestable unmentionable and ignominious vice. In a separate examination held before the Mayor and Aldermen about the occurrence, John Britby confessed that he was passing through the high road of Cheap on Sunday between the abovementioned hours and accosted John Rykener, dressed up as a woman, thinking he was a woman, asking him as he would a woman if he could commit a libidinous act with her. Requesting money for [his] labor, Rykener consented, and they went together to the aforesaid stall to complete the act, and were captured there during these detestable wrongdoings by the officials and taken to prison. And John Rykener, brought here in woman’s clothing and questioned about this matter, acknowledged [himself] to have done everything just as John Britby had confessed. Rykener was also asked who had taught him to exercise this vice, and for how long and in what places and with what persons, masculine or feminine, [he] had committed that libidinous and unspeakable act. [He] swore willingly on [his] soul that a certain Anna, the whore of a former servant of Sir Thomas Blount, first taught him to practice this detestable vice in the manner of a woman. [He] further said that a certain Elizabeth Bronderer first dressed him in women’s clothing; she also brought her daughter Alice to diverse men for the sake of lust, placing her with those men in their beds at night without light, making her leave early in the morning and showing them the said John Rykener dressed up in women’s clothing, calling him Eleanor and saying that they had misbehaved with her. [He] further said that certain Phillip, rector of Theydon Garnon, had sex with him as with a woman in Elizabeth Bronderer’s house outside Bishopsgate, at which time Rykener took away two gowns of Phillip’, and when Phillip requested them from Rykener he said that [he] was the wife of a certain man and that if Phillip wished to ask for them back [he] would make [his] husband bring suit against him.

    Rykener further confessed that for five weeks before the feast of St. Michael’s last [he] was staying at Oxford, and there, in women’s clothing and calling himself Eleanor, worked as an embroideress; and there in the marsh three unsuspecting scholars – of whom one was named Sir William Foxlee, another Sir John, and the third Sir Walter – practiced the abominable vice with him often. John Rykener further confessed that on Friday before the feast of St. Michael [he] came to Burford in Oxfordshire and there dwelt with a certain John Clerk at the Swan in the capacity of tapster for the next six weeks, during which time two Franciscans, one named Brother Michael and the other Brother John, who gave [him] a gold ring, and one Carmelite friar and six foreign men committed the above-said vice with him, of whom one gave Rykener twelve pence, one twenty pence, and one two shillings. Rykener further confessed that [he] went to Beaconsfield and there, as a man, had sex with a certain Joan, daughter of John Matthew, and also there two foreign Franciscans had sex with him as a woman. John Rykener also confessed that after [his] last return to London a certain Sir John, once chaplain at the Church of St. Margaret Pattens, and two other chaplains committed with him the aforementioned vice in the lanes behind St. Katherine’s Church by the Tower of London. Rykener further said that he often had sex as a man with many nuns and also had sex as a man with many women both married and otherwise, how many [he] did not know. Rykener further confessed that many priests had committed that vice with him as with a woman, how many [he] did not know, and said that [he] accommodated priests more readily than other people because they wished to give [him] more than others.

  5. wow. a few days before I read this I just had this moment of empathy thinking about the word “Kiki” in butch-femme community, a word that it’s my understanding was used to marginalized non Butch-femme sexuality the same way queer is used to marginalized non- hetero sexuaility. and at first I’m thinking wow that was really fucked up (and probably responsible for some of the backlash against butch-femme). but then I had this moment of empathy thinking about what kind of external pressures created that word. externally policing creating internal policing.

    It makes me realize why my mom says she pity’s my nanna who damn near tortured her. she sees all the social,meconomic and mental health strain that she found an outlet for on a well-behaved 4 yr old.

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