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Shakina Nayfack made trans history on network TV. That’s just for starters.

Website:
The Daily Beast

Date:
November 3, 2020

In NBC’s ‘Connecting,’ Shakina Nayfack was the first trans actor to be a series regular on a primetime network comedy. She tells Tim Teeman about faith, porn, and making history.

The slogans on the shirts read, “Enough,” “Silence is Complicity,” and “Resist.” But Shakina Nayfack told the NBC costume department that her character Ellis was only going to wear one that said, “Black Trans Lives Matter.”

The standoff came while filming an episode of Connecting, in which the characters—a group of friends connecting via Zoom during the pandemic, hence the title of the show—wear protest shirts in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. The costume department said they needed to give the network “options,” Nayfack laughed, retelling the story. “I said, ‘OK, here’s a shirt that says ‘Black Trans Lives Matter’ in black-and-white, and here’s one that says it in the colors of the trans flag. So, there are your options.’” In the end, they chose the one in the trans flag colors.

After Nayfack and I spoke, it was announced that Connecting had been canceled; its remaining episodes will air on Peacock, the NBC streaming service. Whatever, Nayfack, who before Connecting appeared in the series Difficult People and Transparent, is proud to have made history as the first trans person to be a series regular on a primetime network comedy. The character she plays is also trans.

“On one hand I want to claim it because it’s radical and I should claim it. On the other hand, I am excited to get past narrative of ‘firsts’ and start to zoom out and look at the sea change that’s been created by a community of trans actors who have fought their way to the top,” said Nayfack. “There are so many groundbreakers who came before me.”

Of the show’s cancelation, announced Monday, Nayfack told The Daily Beast: “We were the only new scripted show to make it to broadcast this season, and Connecting will always exist as a time capsule of this historic moment. I think from the beginning the idea was to drive NBC viewers to Peacock, I’m just surprised it happened mid-season and not with a renewal. Part of me thinks maybe NBC was scared, of me chanting ‘Black trans lives matter!,’ and an episode set to air immediately post-election all about defunding the police.

“The network wanted ‘relatable content’ but they never knew what to do with us. We were on at 8, then 9, then off for a week, then on at 8:30. They also fired the whole marketing team in the middle of all that, and the most press we got was when I called out NBC for bumping us for the Trump town hall stunt after he chickened out of the second debate.”

Nayfack strongly denounced NBC’s decision to cancel the show.

“No other show on television, let alone a network sitcom, has tried to take on the issues that Connecting tackles in our first eight episodes. I think it’s possible that NBC is afraid of the backlash against the progressive social message of our show. After all, the president and his followers are out here acting like the very premise of our show—a pandemic that has us all trapped at home—doesn’t even exist.

“Throw in our discussions about Black Lives Matter, defunding the police, and a trans woman being worthy of love—no matter how funny and accessible we tried to keep things it’s possible the network was just too scared to put their money where their mouth is.

“I’m so proud of the show we made, and I hope our audience of over 2 million viewers will still find us on Peacock, because my best work this season is yet to come! As for getting cancelled, our show didn’t fail the network, the network failed our show, and that’s all I have to say about that.”

One moment that meant a lot to Nayfack was when Ellis told the group how much their friendship has meant, throughout her life. “The truth is trans people face so much isolation, especially before they come out, and in the awkward stages of transition. I’m the most fully realized I have ever been, and this is just a TV show, but that meant a lot—to let people know they’re not alone and there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

There were several times during rehearsal when Nayfack burst into tears because the material was so powerful, “but what I wanted to bring to the taping was trans joy and trans triumph. That’s more important to me to put out into the world than more trans trauma. All of us read the pilot, and knew this was something more important than just a sitcom.”

Nayfack is also proud to have broken new comic ground as Lola in Difficult People. “It hurt not to be included in” Disclosure, the acclaimed documentary about trans representation on screen, Nayfack said, considering what Lola represented in terms of on-screen trans evolution. (Nayfack had been interviewed in the research for the documentary, and hopes that if it becomes a longer-running series, that she, and Lola, will feature.)

Connecting’s wide reach was important, said Nayfack. “Every time there is a trans person on a television show, there is an opportunity for someone else somewhere else in the world to meet a trans person. To me, the NBC sitcom is the cornerstone of family comedy. I grew up with them. The fact there is now a trans woman in Middle American living rooms talking about real, live 21st-century issues is the thing that’s so important and radical.”

On Connecting, Ellis—at least so far—has honey-colored hair, a wig. Today, speaking via Zoom from the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut where she is teaching, Nayfack is au naturel: bald.

“I have the wig in a box over here in case they need to film anything while I’m away,” she said. “As a gender non-conforming trans woman, I think it’s cool to shatter the expectations of what a woman or trans woman needs to look like. As much as I am happy to play a blonde bombshell again on TV (as she also did as Lola), it’s also nice to go free and easy.”

Nayfack had androgenic alopecia and started losing her hair when she was 20, and was already “out and trans, but hadn’t started transitioning yet. I adopted the shaved head look as a badass brand. I rock it often, but I also love being able to dress it up as I want. It’s a whole canvas: I have used glitter, makeup, and jewels on it for the red carpet.”

Even now, many years and a lot of glitter later, dealing with alopecia can still be difficult. “So much of my female identity and trans identity is wrapped up in my hair. Part of claiming my bald head so early on in my journey was making space and finding power in it so other people could also feel inspired. All that I do is about challenging my own issues in a public forum, so people also going through the same thing have someone to look to going through it with them.”

Connecting’s actors filmed their scenes, just as the characters do on the show, in their own homes. Nayfack is the only lead cast member based in New York, the others are in Los Angeles. Forty other people involved in the production are also on the Zoom calls, doing all the jobs they would usually do if filming in a studio.

Nayfack, who began her performance career in theater, “came in swinging” when it came to the creation of Ellis. The character originally wasn’t written as trans. There is “a lot” of Nayfack in her eventual character, particularly when it comes to “maintaining appearances as a trans woman during quarantine.” A trans writer, Chloe Keenan, was also in the writers’ room. The only thing that isn’t Nayfack-sourced is Ellis’ love of the LA Clippers (“I grew up in a Dodgers family, and by virtue of that also a Lakers family”).

The actors and crew all met in real life for the first time in Los Angeles at a socially distanced celebration for the show in the backyard of Keith Powell and Jill Knox, who star in the show. Nayfack started crying when she finally hugged cast-mate and friend Otmara Marrero.

Prior to the show’s cancelation, Nayfack had been heartened by rising viewing figures, and what she saw as the enduring principle of people enjoying storytelling as a way of making sense of reality.

“This moment is traumatic: the pandemic, the racial reckoning, and political turmoil. I love that our show lets people revisit what we have been through with a sense of humor and a lot of empathy. I’ve heard from people that it’s helping them take the pressure off this moment, allowing them to feel that they’re not going crazy watching this group of friends go through what they are going through.”

She has been moved by the messages from trans people, both out and closeted, as well as the parents of trans kids and parents generally “wanting to make sure their kids grow up with options. I’ve had messages from people telling me I’ve saved their lives.”

Her tattoos, occasionally seen on Connecting and today on our call, also have a profound meaning.

“I certainly didn’t expect to have career opportunities as young trans person,” said Nayfack. “I didn’t have role models doing this sort of thing. At the time it was like the film Memento. I wanted to record my history on my body in case people came along and tried to deprive me of that history. I thought I would have a living record.” Of the text-based graphics, across the top of her chest one reads poet Alexander Pushkin’s “Lie still on the day of pain and the day of joy will greet you.” (Nayfack saw it on a knock-off Hello Kitty pencil-set found in a 99-cent store.)

Another reads: “Am I not here, I, Who am Your Mother,” as said by Our Lady of Guadalupe, a testament to Nayfack’s belief in “the eternal presence of the divine feminine.” The Hebrew word, “V’ahavta” (And thou shalt love), is written next to Nayfack’s heart.

Her very first tattoo, done when she was a teenager, was of two intertwined male symbols. Nayfack did it herself with a bottle of ink stolen from her school’s art room. “In the town where I grew up, a bashed and bloodied body of a gay man had been found at the bottom of a staircase. I thought, ‘If they find my body, bloody and bashed somewhere, they’re going to know that I was proud to be queer.’ Having tattoos for me has always been about claiming a story and claiming an identity because I came of age in a really resistant time in terms of forging a queer sense of self.”

 

“I was bullied all the time, not just because of my sexuality, but also because of my gender identity and gender performance.”

Nayfack grew up in Laguna Beach, California. Her parents broke up when she was six months old. Her dad remarried, and Nayfack shuttled between two homes. She has an older brother, an older stepbrother, and two younger half brothers.

“Once, our town was a gay haven, full of artists and hippies. Then when I was growing up, it became extremely conservative and homophobic. They had a Pride march, then they stopped having a Pride march. The gay bars that were open when I was young went out of business. It was a strange time. It’s good to see demographic shifts changing the area again now, back—I hope—to a more progressive place.”

Her mother was a legal research attorney who, now retired, works for the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, providing free legal services to disadvantaged people. “She just told me she was leading a Zoom training on human trafficking. I was like, ‘Great mom,’” Nayfack said laughing. Her mom was “very open to my sexuality when I came out young at 15. But she had a harder time with the gender stuff. She had never experienced a trans person at all.” Nayfack’s aunt worked in theater, so had gay friends; her mom knew queer people, but not trans people.

Nayfack’s childhood and teenage years were tough. She dropped out of several schools and went to continuation schools, “because no one knew what to do with me, including myself and my family. I think I had a lot of depression and anxiety, because I had this crazy disharmony with my body that I couldn’t articulate.

“I also knew my sexuality was taboo, and I was being bullied all the time, not just because of my sexuality, but also because of my gender identity and gender performance. There was a lot of harassment every day, which I internalized a lot when I was younger. I self-harmed, and started ditching school a lot. I started using drugs in high school, got caught, and kicked out.”

The bullying began in junior high and was carried out by both male and female students, the latter was “really painful because I wanted to be like them and be their friends.” In one coffee shop, she recalled a member of the Slick 50s gang jumping her and shoving her against a wall. (One of their fellow gang members had been expelled from school for harassing her.) “I was like, ‘Do it now, kill me, I’m done.’ I was ready for it.” Then a member from another gang came up, and said, “You mess with Shakina, you mess with the Wanderers.”

“It was so cinematic,” recalled Nayfack. “For this other guy to come and defend me was wild. It was real.”

In junior high, Nayfack “tried to swallow a bunch of pills, but they were like Tylenol. It wasn’t anything that could do anything. It might sound silly, but I’m a spiritual person and I believe in magic. In high school, I remember feeling quote-unquote not-strong-enough to do it myself. I cried, and prayed that I would die in my sleep.

“When I woke up the next morning, it felt somehow that I had abused my power as a spiritual person. It took years to feel OK about praying again. I had somehow damaged that relationship. I had asked God to end God’s own creation, which is not what God does. When I woke up the next day I felt I had betrayed God by asking for that. It took me a long time to heal that.”

Nayfack’s faith has been “the most lifesaving thing. Just to have something to believe in and a relationship with the Divine feels intimate and one-on-one. In God, I have someone I am always able to turn to and always be there for me.” Nayfack is “interfaith,” having been “baptized Christian and grown up Jewish,” including having a bar mitzvah. The high schools she dropped out of were Catholic.

“One of the things I am most passionate about is the reclamation of spirituality and Christianity for queer people,” she said. “I believe in the salvation of grace.” She has given a TED talk about “radical forgiveness,” an important message because of how religion has been “weaponized” against queer people, she said. “We, and especially trans people, have been used as a wedge issue in religious and cultural politics. I know that Jesus loves me.”

She laughed, recalling that she faced a Westboro Baptist Church protester holding a “God Hates Fags” sign outside the Supreme Court when the Court was hearing the recent history-making Title VII discrimination hearing (ultimately decided in favor of LGBTQ equality). “I told the protester that Jesus died for all our sins. He was like, ‘Nah.’ I was like, ‘Read your Bible. That’s the point.’ My faith is hugely important to me.” She laughed again. “When I had my gender confirmation surgery I prayed like, ‘Get me through this, make me famous, and I’ll bring people to you the only way I know how.’”

As a child and teenager, her grandparents were loving and supportive, but Nayfack felt “no one understood the pain I was in. We didn’t have the language around trans identity, especially for young people, that we have today. It was almost like ‘Why can’t you just be gay? Why isn’t that good enough?’ I didn’t know how to tell people my body was wrong, because it didn’t compute. It was like a secret, painful shame.

“My family tried their best. There was a lot of turmoil in my teenage years, but we managed to get through it all right, and now I have great relationships with everyone in my family. I think there’s some sort of agreement unspoken with my family that we try not to go back and wish things would have been different because it’s hard. Therapy is great,” Nayfack laughed. “Everyone should go to therapy.”

Nayfack was “really aware” of her queerness from a young age, and told friends she was gay when she was 11. “I was never a ‘practicing homosexual,’ I was just a little kid. I didn’t have context for understanding my sexuality. I was a little kid.”

At the time, “I knew I didn’t like my body,” said Nayfack. “I knew I was uncomfortable with my genitals and didn’t like their size and shape and the way they were changing during puberty. All these things made me unhappy and uncomfortable, but it never occurred to me there was another option.”

It was a time of relative trans and queer invisibility in pop culture. “You had to piece together a puzzle out of the scraps you could find,” Nayfack said. “I had seen trans people on Jerry Springer and Maury Povich, and been so enchanted and entranced. But they were always positioned as freaks and they were older too. I was a kid, and the distance between me and these club kids seemed so far. I didn’t know how I would ever make it.”

What really helped, said Nayfack, was performing and attending UC Santa Cruz where she created performance pieces based on her adolescent experiences. “They were aggressive, radical, and hardcore, but brutally honest about what life had been like for me up to that point. People really responded to that. I started identifying as transgender, and began creating performances for other people to look to about the abuse I had suffered and the gender crisis I was experiencing in my body.”

In her freshman year, as she turned 18, a dear friend lent Nayfack Stone Butch Blues, the novel by Leslie Feinberg, whose gender non-conforming protagonist, Jess, has a loving relationship with the trans Ruth. “I was like, ‘This is who I am. This makes sense.’”

Before Nayfack had “true trans role models,” Frank-N-Furter (from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Hedwig (from Hedwig and the Angry Inch) were “hugely influential,” despite them not being “role models for consent.”

For Nayfack, “they had the transcendent gender liberation that I craved so badly, and still crave because it’s not a given. I probably internalized a lot of their way of being in the world as my only option. They were lifesavers, and there were also other moral lessons to take from them later. You have to pick and choose and learn critical translation as a spectator—how to write yourself into a narrative in which you are not the target audience, and also parse out all the problematics.”

Her “first real trans hero” was the actor and playwright Kate Bornstein, whom she met after Bornstein spoke at her university. “She became my friend-tor,” said Nayfack, and Bornstein will soon appear in Nayfack’s play Chonburi International Hotel & Butterfly Club, about the patients, clinicians, and various people that Nayfack encountered during her gender confirmation surgery in Thailand seven years ago. It is centered on the hotel where the patients stayed.

The play was supposed to premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival this summer. Instead, it has been recorded for Audible and will be released in December; Nayfack hopes it can be recorded for TV at some point.

Chonburi is based on the “temporary sorority” that formed at the clinic and the hotel, with “all these post-op trans women waddling around with new vaginas,” as well as the healthcare workers, sex workers, and hotel workers she met. “I really wanted to honor all of them, and how much their support meant for me at that time of my life.”

The play, which has nine trans cast members including Angelica Ross, was inspired by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman’s 1936 play Stage Door, about a group of actresses living in a hotel in the New York City of the era. “I wanted to write a Stage Door for these trans women in a hotel in Thailand. It has a sepia-toned veneer over it, and yet radically contemporary characters.”

 

“My gender confirmation surgery really was a confirmation. I had put a lot of time, energy, and thought into what I needed to assert and establish for myself.”

Nayfack declines to give her age, preferring “perpetually youthful” as a descriptor. Wikipedia isn’t so mysterious, but she asked that The Daily Beast say she grew up in the ’90s. “The reason I don’t identify with my age is because I didn’t become myself til 7 years ago, so some part of me still feels like I’m in my early 20s still figuring things out.

“I’m not ashamed of the years I’ve lived or the wisdom gained from them, but as a Christian woman, I also believe that all things will be restored to me including the years of not being true to myself. Aging has been like another dysphoria for me. Don’t tell me I am entering mid-life, because it feels like I’m just starting.”

Sometimes, Nayfack says she “has to stop and mourn for my lost girlhood, things still come up that I am learning.” She has been out as trans for 20 years, and transitioned seven years ago. “A lot of my trans identity was spent in a gender-fluid spiritual and political exploration of trans identity without trying to change my body. As a spiritual person and a feminist, I was really trying to critique what it meant to have to change your body in order to ‘become’ a woman. My gender confirmation surgery really was a confirmation. I had put a lot of time, energy, and thought into what I needed to assert and establish for myself.”

Besides this, Nayfack said she had a lot of internalized transphobia. “I’m 6’2,” and I’m built big. I was quite hairy after puberty. I never understood how I could ever become an attractive woman. I thought it would never work, so thought I would try and find a different way to be happy.” She also studied the Butoh Mexicano Ritual Dance, with its founder, Diego Piñón. “I was really invested in trying to dance my way out of the binary. For a long time, I felt at peace being transcendent of physical form.”

Then, seven years ago, Nayfack felt as an artist that she wanted to use her body “in my life, work, and love. The physical form mattered to me. I felt I had to line that up.” She also had a dream about aliens coming to earth, an alien doppelgänger for every human being that represented “the most fully realized self of that person. Mine took me by the hand. She was a beautiful, bald woman, and led me into this laboratory which was very much like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when they get to the Emerald City, ‘A Pat, pat here, Pat, pat there, And a couple of brand new straws.’ The dream was so powerful to me. I woke up and thought, ‘I have to transition.’”

Earlier this year, Nayfack had a revision to her surgery, “which felt like going through the whole process for a second time. When I was walked by the nurses into the operating theater, it was undeniably the space from my dream. I thought, ‘This was it.’ It was truly mind-blowing.”

For Nayfack, “It was one part of my body I was changing, but in so doing I was allowing everything to change.” The gender confirmation surgery opened up her life in many ways, she said. She became an actor, and her confidence and sense of self aligned. “I really think lining up anatomically helped me make sense of who I am in the world.”

Nayfack created art from the experience. She “felt the responsibility” not just to help others, but also educate her peers in the Broadway community, “so they would understand what I was going through in front of them.”

She created two shows—one about why she was doing what she was doing to help raise money for the surgery, the other about the experience of surgery and what happened next—and then wrote the play Manifest Pussy to represent “the whole journey. I didn’t know how to make sense of myself without the tools that performance offers. It became a way for me to integrate my new being.”

The media has been criticized for focusing on the surgical details around transition.

“I respect the general consensus among the trans community that we need to get away from the biological essentialism around focusing on our genitals and bodies,” Nayfack said. “But I also think cis people literally cannot comprehend the desire to transform their bodies in the way trans people do. I’m trying to give them an inside peek into what that journey does. Demystifying the process and emotional reality behind it helps to dismantle some of that fear.

“Also, everyone has some kind of insurmountable quest to become who they are. My gender confirmation and that whole journey was mine. But the lessons I learned in it and put in Manifest Pussy are universal. If people can see a trans story and understand their own life in it, there’s more empathy—and that’s what trans people need more than anything right now from cis people.” (She hopes Manifest Pussy can be filmed at some point.)

Nayfack founded the Musical Theatre Factory in 2014 “in the back of a hardcore gay bareback porn studio.”

“It was old, quintessential New York. I felt like I got the last bit of it,” said Nayfack, whose friend ran the porn studio. Together they ran a carefully composed calendar balancing porn shoots (him), and rehearsal and writer get-togethers (her).

“In an effort to keep the lights on, every month there would be an epic sex party in the theater,” Nayfack recalled. They called it ‘the sausage factory.’ There were times when an unsuspecting musical theatre worker would stick their hand in a puddle of jizz. One day I walked in the writers’ group—where the Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael R. Jackson worked on A Strange Loop before it was the sensation it is today—and there was a pair of handcuffs hanging from the rafter. I told the group, ‘Sorry, I don’t have the keys for that.’” There were also stacks of hardcore gay porn DVDs, which actors loved to rifle through.

Porn has been important to Nayfack. “It’s such a part of our culture, and I believe sex work is work and probably one of the forms of media that most everyone engages with in some way, whether we talk about it or not.”

When Nayfack was trying to gain the confidence to move forward with her gender confirmation surgery, all the websites available at the time felt “clinical and really kind of disturbing,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘I’m going to research some post-op porn stars and see how they’re enjoying sex.’”

She watched porn featuring such actors “that was really healing for me. I have always interrogated my relationship with porn, and been conscious of the media I am consuming and how it affects my sense of self. I think porn can be really addictive and destructive, but it’s definitely been a big part of my journey.”

Nayfack has also appeared in two porn movies as a character actor. In Voluptuous Biker Babes (a porn remake of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), she played “a drag queen cult leader that drugged and kidnapped porn stars and forced them into a dance gang, which was amazing.” Just before her surgery, she appeared in Death Drive, “a really aggressive film about the gay impulse to self-destruct,” that included her dancing a 10-minute solo. “It really represented my quest for healing in the face of my desire to self-annihilate. For that to be in a piece of erotica is really exciting.”

When she moved out of the hardcore porn studio, she moved into Saint Joseph’s Immigrant Home for women on 44th Street. “I was this bald trans woman living in this Catholic home for women for nine months in this tiny room with a cross over my bed. It was amazing. It was a very beautiful place to live and work, and really a godsend for me. I just loved it.”

She laughed. “What a New York story: from porn studio to convent.”

Nayfack is “heartbroken” by Broadway’s shutdown. She wishes theater sound-stages could be being used to record productions that could stream online.

“I think what folks outside New York City don’t understand about Broadway is that it isn’t just actors. It’s all the people who work backstage, in hotels and restaurants,” Nayfack said. “Broadway is the entire center of New York City, and all these people are out of work. It’s painful. So many productions, with years of heart and labor, have stalled and may never come back. I miss gathering with people in the dark to watch a story unfold. I miss seeing people sing live in front of me.

“I hope we find new ways to innovate as we creep back in to TV and film production—and hopefully theater—soon. I hope we find ways to innovate that keep people safe, and also back to work. One of the most important things you learn as a theater artist is the innovation born of limitation. Unless you are in the biggest budget Broadway show, you have to know how to make believe with less. We’re scrappy by nature, and if theater has survived this long I can’t imagine one more plague is going to get us down.”

As well as overseeing the production and release of Chonburi International Hotel & Butterfly Club, Nayfack is also working on a new musical adaptation of Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, and is enjoying rewriting that show’s trans character. Nayfack is also workshopping a rock opera she has been working on for two decades, called Junk (written with Swedish band Brainpool), with a view to producing it in the spring as a piece of online theater.

She is no longer artistic director of the Musical Theatre Factory but still sits on its board. Nayfack is also co-writing a Lifetime movie—based on the parable of the Prodigal Son, with gospel music—about a Black trans woman returning home to her Southern family.

Of theater’s post-pandemic return, Nayfack said, “Theater invented catharsis. I feel like people will need that and we’ll be there for them.” She imagines returning shows having their own branded masks, which people will eagerly collect along with their Playbills. She hopes that the theater that emerges takes action over the many calls for racial justice that have been made, including the issues raised in the multi-signed “Dear White American Theater” letter. She also hopes theater becomes more economically accessible, “because theater should be for the people.”

 

“Black trans joy is perhaps the most resilient and resistant force that exists in this country, even in the face of tragedy and trauma.”

Nayfack has been with her partner Daniel for five years. She had a couple of loves before transitioning, she said, “but they were both sabotaged by the reality I could not face or share with my partner. Then I just kind of closed up shop. I was trans-identified but then male-bodied. Had I gone looking it would have just been false advertising.”

Post-transition, “the floodgates opened. I had never had so much sex, because suddenly I was a fetish object. I was like, ‘This is great.’ As long as I had agency and I was safe, I was able to have a lot of experiences that allowed me to discover myself as a sexual woman. But they were all hookups. No one would ever want to go out and have coffee after. It was just the sex, and often it was less than lovely. Daniel was the first guy who took me out on a proper date”—vegan Mexican food in San Diego—”and then it just stuck.”

Daniel has been her rock, “even in the tough times.” The relationship has “softened and strengthened” her in many ways; and Daniel has been a brilliant production assistant, setting up the lights and camera in their 400-square-foot Harlem apartment to shoot Connecting. “We’re both really committed to self-growth individually and as a couple. That’s been our saving grace,” said Nayfack.

During quarantine, Daniel, who is interested in engineering and environmental sustainability, has built a “vertical farm” to grow fresh produce. Nayfack’s quarantine began a month early, as she recovered from the revision to her gender confirmation surgery.

She has welcomed Joe Biden mentioning trans people, and the murders of trans women of color, during his election campaign and looks forward—if he is elected—to holding him accountable for his pro-LGBTQ promises.

“America owes so much of its culture to Black trans joy,” Nayfack said. “We wouldn’t have Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ if we didn’t have Black trans joy. Black trans joy is perhaps the most resilient and resistant force that exists in this country, even in the face of tragedy and trauma. It is a celebration of life in the face of atrocities.”

She remains optimistic about the future, and hopes the surge of support for Black Lives Matter and Black Trans Lives Matter holds. “Black people on their own can’t end racism, any more than women can end sexism and trans people can end transphobia. That has to come from the people who hold the power. Black trans women are the most vulnerable group within a vulnerable group. It was really painful to see in the days after George Floyd’s death there was a black trans woman (Iyanna Dior) accosted by a group of people outside a store a few blocks from where he was killed.”

Americans need to engage in the fight for trans equality and understand and actively engage in valuing Black trans lives, Nayfack said.

“What I hope people realize is how trans identity has been weaponized and used as a wedge issue to legitimize state control over women’s bodies and all bodies,” Nayfack said. “I live in confidence that the Trump administration will not strip all our rights from us. Even if there are temporary setbacks, I hope science and decency will prevail.

“If we lose the election, it’s going to be pretty terrifying for trans people. As a trans person, my existence is political from the beginning, and my existence is resistance. Just by being, I represent the fallibility of the most trusted system of social hierarchy and exploitation. That’s why I think transness is radical.”