Look at the above photo and tell me, what's wrong with this picture?
The picture warrants a second look because it depicts a woman sitting on a urinal meant for standing men. It's a visual that plays with the binaries most of us have been indoctrinated with since birth — a binary Shakina Nayfack will blur during an upcoming visit to North Carolina. Nayfack recently announced she will be touring the state with her new autobiographical rock musical, Manifest Pussy, in protest of the recently passed House Bill 2.
"I look forward to performing in the beautiful state of North Carolina while following the law as it is currently written," Nayfack wrote in a statement that served as a not-so-subtle provocation to those interested in enforcing HB2. She is a post-operative transgender woman with male listed on her birth certificate.
When I spoke with Nayfack over the phone from New York in the days leading up to the tour, I asked about what she meant. She remained nonchalant.
"I definitely am planning a tour of the State Capitol [building] and Governor's Mansion while I'm in North Carolina with my band and I just imagine that I might have to pee while I'm there," she said, a slight chuckle hidden behind the words.
The idea for the Manifest Pussy tour was born of a joke about touring North Carolina alone, taking selfies in the "wrong" bathrooms in towns big and small. Within a couple weeks of HB2 passing, Nayfack decided the selfies wouldn't be enough. The performer mashed together her two autobiographical rock musicals into one show, titled Manifest Pussy, and will premiere it with a crowdfunded tour through a state in which leaders have recently made it clear folks like her aren't welcome in.
The selfies, however, will still play their part.
"I'll be documenting the whole trip," she says. "The thing that's most important to me in this whole thing is to find humor and irreverence in the face of what is really a human rights travesty. So, by doing selfies and stuff I can show how we're just living our lives."
- Shakina Nayfack
Nayfack is well known in New York City's theater, activist, and transgender communities — three worlds that often overlap for her.
She premiered her first rock musical, One Woman Show, in 2013 to a sold-out crowd at the famous Joe's Pub in Manhattan. The popularity of the show helped her launch a groundbreaking crowdfunding campaign — which she called KickStartHer — that funded her gender confirmation surgery in Thailand.
When she returned from that six-week journey, she began working on her next musical, titled Post-Op. The show "blurs the line between sacred and profane," according to her website, and tells of the elephants, strippers, trans sisters and soccer players she met along the way.
Clips of Post-Op performances range from metal songs about the details of her surgery to more stereotypically flamboyant show tunes. Nayfack wrote some of the songs and brought on help from up-and-coming Broadway composers for others.
"It's all original music," she says. "There are 11 songs and they vary. There's a folky song, there's gospel pop, there's a straight-up melt-your-face-off musical theater song, then rock 'n' roll. It's all types."
This will be North Carolina's first look at the accomplished performer, writer, producer and director. After spending her youth as an activist in California fighting for causes like LGBT non-discrimination policies in public schools, she moved to New York City with an eye on theater.
She's the founding artistic director of Musical Theatre Factory, a volunteer-based organization aimed to help musical theater artists develop and show new work. She recently won an Outstanding Individual Performance Award at the New York Musical Theatre Festival for her portrayal of Lady Liberty in Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty.
Last year, she became the first transgender woman to receive a Lilly Award, which recognizes women who make remarkable contributions to American theater. Later this summer, she'll join Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner as a regular cast member on the popular Hulu show Difficult People.
But before then, she'll be telling her own story with her newly developed Manifest Pussy mash-up.
- Nayfack at a past performance.
"I kind of put the greatest hits together — the best of both," she says. "The easiest way to describe the piece is like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, only real. It's me up there with the band, telling my story with stories and songs that weave back and forth in time. Basically, you're following the line of my pilgrimage to Thailand for gender-confirmation surgery, but also going into these flashbacks to other formative moments of my life when I came to understand my trans identity."
Combining One-Woman Show and Post-Op had always been in the plans somewhere down the road, Nayfack says, but HB2 sped the process up exponentially.
"When HB2 hit I was like, 'Now is the time because it makes sense. Let's put it together and take it on the road,'" she says. "That was really the galvanizing choice for creating this show."
Nayfack says she has multiple goals for the Manifest Pussy tour, including bringing joy to a group that feels attacked by the state they live in, educating people who aren't familiar with the trans experience and using her platform to continue the conversation about why HB2 is a horrible law.
She's watched as performers like Bruce Springsteen and businesses like PayPal have canceled shows and pulled out of plans to invest in North Carolina, respectively, and she applauds those moves.
"For the large corporations and celebrities to take a stand sends a clear message to the people who stand to profit from their participation in the state and also sends a national or even international message that draws attention to the issue, so that's why I stand behind those actions," she says.
From a theatrical standpoint, however, she felt the state needed her, as it was losing culture that could help those who need it most.
"I was first motivated because of action taken by the Broadway community to restrict rights of certain musicals to be done in North Carolina," Nayfack says. "For example, Wicked and Westside Story both are shows that fundamentally show us about living with each other and how to embrace differences. The fact that those shows that have such huge power to change people's hearts and minds are not going to be done in North Carolina made me mourn for the empty space left in the arts and culture. I thought, I have this little rock 'n' roll show that can fill that space."
She'll also use the tour to raise money for several LGBT groups throughout the state, donating money raised from each show to different, local nonprofits. For example, the proceeds of the Charlotte show being held at UpStage in NoDa will benefit Charlotte Trans Pride, Charlotte Pride's transgender community outreach collaboration with the Charlotte Lesbian and Gay Fund.
Nayfack launched a second KickStartHer campaign to raise funds for the tour, and even on short notice the campaign exceeded the $7,000 needed for her and her band to hit the road.
"My goal was not to take money out of the state," Nayfack says. "The majority of the people who contributed to the crowdfunding are people outside of North Carolina, mostly New Yorkers. Everything we're doing in the state is a sort of in-kind sharing. It's all been done through social media, I just started posting and asking. That's how we found the venues, that's how we found housing, the people who are feeding us. The band, we're being fed by potlucks in every place we go. We had no money to make this happen."
It will make for some hardcore traveling conditions, but Nayfack doesn't think of that as a sacrifice.
Her past as an organizer comes out when she addresses how she chose which charities to contribute to within a limited time to do so. It's clear how important fundraising the fight against HB2 is to her.
"I'm not an organizer on the ground [in North Carolina] and I'm not connected with every grassroots organization doing the hard work of fighting this law," she says. "Having been a radical organizer in my day, I'm ready to receive some criticism for any oversight we've made in planning this tour, but I think the good will and good karma of this collective effort far outweighs any other criticism we could receive from either the far right or far left."
Nayfack has now turned her focus to not only entertaining but educating those North Carolinians interested in coming to her shows. While some in New York have expressed concern about her bringing Manifest Pussy to the South, she's kept a positive outlook.
"I'm definitely excited to bring it to a new audience," she says. "I keep telling people — everyone is so concerned about my safety — I just keep saying, 'I have a higher expectation of humanity.' These venues are excited to have me. The people who are going to come to the show are excited to see it. I just hope it can be a celebration of our defiance."
Nayfack's presence in the Bible Belt will underscore some of the more subversive points of Manifest Pussy, which touch on her devout Christian faith. At least one part of the show is a comedic conversation between herself and God.
"This is an assumption, but I would venture to say there's a large overlap between people who support HB2 and people who also harbor fundamentalist Christian beliefs that motivate them to support this law," she says. "So when I, as a trans woman, get up there and talk about the role Jesus played in my transition, it's kind of a game changer."
The site Nayfack has used for each of her KickStartHer campaigns, a free crowdfunding site called YouCaring.com, focuses on "humanitarian" causes, especially faith-based ones.
During her first campaign, a spokesperson for YouCaring called the campaign "disturbing" in a New York Daily News story, saying the site was supposed to be used for cancer treatments, mission trips and adoptions. (She has filed both campaigns as mission trips.)
Shortly after the Daily News piece went to print, Nayfack received an email from the site's CEO pledging his support for her.
"I am proud to be hosting this fundraising campaign on a site that stands for spreading the message of God's compassionate love, and loving one's neighbor as oneself," she wrote on the site after receiving the email.
"It's inarguable," she says now of the new campaign being listed as a missionary trip. "I am practicing my ministry on this tour, so that's it."
While faith plays a role in Nayfack's show, HB2 is at the root of why she's performing for the first time in the South, and she says she was hugely affected when she heard the details of the law.
"What hits me the hardest is to see rights and protections being stripped away from marginalized people," she says. "While the attention has been primarily on the bathroom issue, people have glossed over the fact that LGBT people as a whole have been removed from any sort of statewide anti-discrimination policy. If someone loses their job or someone gets kicked out of their house or if someone is bullied at school because of their sexual orientation or gender identity or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, they have no protection under the law."
It's a part of a larger trend that pains Nayfack to see, especially after spending much of her youth as an LGBT activist in California.
"In every social movement in this country there's a period of backlash and, if we don't remain vigilant, we've seen that it's really easy for rights that have been hard fought for to be lost when we don't pay attention," Nayfack says. "We see that today with the attack on women's bodies and reproductive freedom. We see that today with voting rights. So what upsets me the most is to see progress moving backwards, being undone."
A large part of making sure progress like what's been made in Charlotte recently doesn't get undone by laws like HB2 is not only empowering the trans community but finding a point of relation with those who have never seen themselves in the trans struggle.
"Maybe the biggest thing is that for transgender people to see themselves and their stories reflected on stage is a rare gift. So I'm glad to be able to be a part of that," Nayfack says. "But also, I think what I do with [Manifest Pussy] is help people understand that the transgender experience is in a lot of ways no different than anyone else's quest for self actualization, which I think most people can identify with. 'What do I have to go through to become my true self?' When people feel that in common with what they might now understand of the transgender experience, suddenly they have a point of relationship. People are like, 'Wow, I identified with that and I'm not trans,' and that's important."
Far more important than choosing a toilet, but she'll be having some fun with that while she's here, as well.
The Manifest Pussy Tour
6/11 - Fayetteville
The Rock Shop, $10
Proceeds benefit the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network
6/12 - Raleigh
The Pour House Music Hall, $10
Proceeds benefit the LGBT Center of Raleigh
6/13 - Asheville
The Altamont Theatre, $14-$15
Proceeds benefit Queer-Oriented Radical Days of Summer
6/14 - Wilmington
Juggling Gypsy Cafe & Hookah Bar, $10
6/15 - Charlotte
Proceeds benefit Charlotte Trans Pride
6/16 - Greensboro
The Crown at the Carolina Theatre, $10
Proceeds benefit QORDS
6/17 - Chapel Hill
Local 506, $10
6/19 - Durham
The Pinhook, $10
Proceeds benefit QORDS