“It’s interesting how you don’t think about how everything you do is gendered,” the curator and Metropolitan Museum social media manager Kimberly Drew told the filmmaker and activist Reina Gossett as the two friends got their nails done recently at Chillhouse, a cool Lower East Side urban relaxation spot. They’ve known each other less than a year, even though they’ve been following each other’s work for longer. They have the common experience of being black in creative spaces, and both women have public profiles that allow them to advocate for social justice. But one quality sets them apart — Kimberly is cisgender while Reina is trans.
That difference meant that while Kimberly’s memories of manicures was having relatives taking her to nail salons, Reina’s was of painting her nails in her room and taking them off before she went out the next day, so that no one but her would see them.
“I’ve always had a fear of having a manicure in public,” Reina admitted, as she talked specifically about how scared she was to wrap her hand around a subway pole and for the wrong person to notice. Trans women of color get harassed and attacked in public at such alarming rates that the instinct to hide often becomes ingrained.
Perhaps that’s why spaces of self-care become particularly important for trans women when we find ourselves welcome there among friends. Because, as Kimberly pointed out, these spaces are usually highly gendered, whether implicitly or explicitly, so trans women often don’t have access to them until after transition. Getting nails done with a girl friend, which is such a common ritual among cis women, takes on a different quality for trans women who don’t grow up thinking of this experience as normal, let alone encouraged.
Maybe that’s part of the reason Reina felt comfortable talking about her anger and sadness over the release of David France’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, a documentary about the historic black trans activist who was a major figure in the Stonewall Riots. Reina herself conceived of a Marsha P. documentary with her producing and directing partner Sasha Wortzel, but France was such a well-established filmmaker (he directed the Oscar-nominated How To Survive a Plague about the early years of the AIDS crisis in America) that he was able to access resources and secure funding while Reina and her team struggled. This led to Reina deciding to forego her documentary plans and instead direct the short fictional film, Happy Birthday, Masha!
Even as much of the media has focused on Reina’s accusation that France stole her work and his denial that such theft took place, what’s undeniable is that there are many odds stacked against a trans filmmaker of color trying to get a movie made in a mainstream environment. And when that movie is about a black woman who had to navigate similar conditions in order to survive and ultimately be celebrated, the outcome of a white gay man ultimately receiving the spotlight becomes so much more pointed. And for Reina, the specific black trans woman who was unable to make the movie she wanted, that pain was particularly deep.
“For a long time, I’ve been doing this work, I’ve been taking really big risks,” Reina said. “Sasha and I, together, were spending years working on this film, and we’re really deeply hurt by this person.” Reina thought people wouldn’t believe her because of France’s credentials, so she was particularly touched by the widespread support she got, including from Janet Mock, who publicly advocated on Reina’s behalf.
“I want there to be so many more Reina’s,” Kimberly said, noting how hard it is for trans women of color to have the opportunity to demonstrate their talents in a world that still consistently privileges cisgender white men. “I’m so deeply proud to be someone who is lucky enough to know you.”
And when Kimberly went on to say, “If there’s any way in our friendship that I can continue to be a mirror,” so that she can affirm and support Reina’s continued artistic work, there was in that moment a sudden sense of possibility. Though cis and trans women have different histories and experiences, they don’t have to be so different that it prevents us from reflecting each other in the best ways, not with the assumption that trans women are just there to live up to cis women’s standards, but that we too can inspire cis women and allow them to see themselves in us, and not just us in them.
Meredith Talusan is Senior Editor for them. and an award-winning journalist and author. They have written features, essays, and opinion pieces for many publications, including The Guardian, The Atlantic, VICE, Matter, Backchannel, The Nation, Mic, BuzzFeed News, and The American Prospect. She received 2017 GLAAD Media and Deadline Awards, and has contributed to several books, including Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America.