A Lively Roundtable of Transgender Topics

Event organizers Lewis and Braithwaite discuss the personal and political aspects of the transgender experience with Nayfack, Updike, Duffy, and Degnore. “We as an organization believe you should always listen to how a person labels themselves,” Duffy said.

One day in 2012, Shakina Nayfack was getting dressed to go out. Though she identified as transgender, she was still biologically male. But as she got out an electric razor and prepared to shave, she thought, “I just want to be pretty.” What had been up that point a spiritual and political journey suddenly became about literally changing her sex.

“In trans narratives, you often hear about this moment—when you reach a decision and there’s no turning back,” Nayfack explained at FIT’s Trans Talk, a panel discussion held November 19, about the political and personal experience of transgender people. Nayfack and Kita Updike, who studied Image Consulting in FIT’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and now works as a model and stylist, shared autobiographical insights. They were joined by Tim Duffy, president of the Gay Officers Action League and NYPD LGBTQ liaison to the police commissioner; and Roberta Degnore, who teaches psychology at the college.

Having reassignment surgery is not an essential aspect of being transgender; some members of the community avoid discussing their genitals at all, and consider it rude to ask about it. Nayfack, however, has made it part of her practice as a performance artist. She even wrote a musical called Post Op. Inspired by transgender activist Kate Bornstein, Nayfack has been out, loud, and proud about her personal journey. She likes the term “genderqueer,” which is used by some trans people to defy normative expectations of gender identity.

Updike described her own experience as “the exact opposite” of Nayfack’s. “I love how you’re on the edge,” she said, “but I always wanted to be the girliest girl I could possibly be.” Until recently, when she joined a modeling agency for trans people, she said, “I’ve lived ‘stealth’”—trying to “pass” as a heterosexual woman. The strategy can be tricky, especially when it comes to dating: “You never know when to tell them.” She has been assaulted for being trans, and subject to a range of microaggressions, which included being told, “You will never be a real woman.”

FIT Alumna Laverne Cox on the cover of Time Magazine in 2014

As transgender people have gradually become more vocal and visible—FIT alumna Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have recently entered the spotlight—the NYPD has struggled to keep up, Duffy said. In 2012, the department created a written policy for addressing, processing, searching, and housing gender non-conforming people. Degnore said the field of psychology is also adjusting; in the most recent edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, what used to be called “gender identity disorder” is now called “gender dysphoria.” The change, Degnore said, means the field no longer considers transgender a mental illness and instead focuses on an individual’s degree of discomfort with their assigned gender.

The event was hosted by FIT’s Residential Life Program, and moderated by Carli Braithwaite and Kathrin Lewis, senior resident assistants and residential life educational programming coordinators. The organizers created a hashtag, #FITtranstalks, to stay in touch via social media.