When Ryan Murphy's newest show, Pose, debuted on Sunday, June 3, queer Twitter started celebrating. The show makes history by employing the biggest number of transgender actors playing transgender characters, and it's definitely something to celebrate.
A show like this has the possibility to change young transgender lives. Simply seeing that people like Dominque Jackson, one of the trans women who stars in the show, exist could be enough to help trans people realize that their lives are worthwhile. After all, Jackson herself says that she could have used a show like this when she was coming out decades ago. But because she didn't have this kind of representation, Jackson went years before she even knew that she could transition. And even after she transitioned, it took nearly another decade before she was able to have the gender-affirming surgeries she needed to fully feel like herself. "The dysphoria and depression that people experience when their body doesn't align with their true self can be paralyzing," says Rachel Bluebond-Langner, MD, Perlmutter Associate Professor of Plastic Surgery at NYU Langone Health.
Below, we talk with Jackson about feeling that incapacitating dysphoria, working through it, and what a show like Pose means to her.
Pose has the largest transgender cast of any show that's ever existed. What do you think it would have meant to you to have a show like this when you were growing up?
"It would have given me a place to be and would have meant that the world had embraced what they considered an alternative lifestyle. So this would have given me the freedom to live in my truth at a much earlier age."
Can you tell me a little bit about your journey coming out to yourself and to family and friends?
"I'm from Trinidad and Tobago, and after I told my family there was no coming home. I felt like I was a damaged kid. But what I didn't realize at that time is that I was being prepped for something greater. And it was up to me to be able to maintain my sanity throughout these traumas. People were raping me, in an attempt to tell me that I was too feminine. But out of everything, I had the most confusion with my body.
"It was an automatic thing, where you come into the understanding that you're a boy and then you see the body parts of a girl and then you realize, 'Wait, that's who I'm supposed to be.'
"Eventually, I sat the family down, and I told them about my molestation by the priest and I told them that I was gay, because I had fear and I didn't know how to face it. As I went along, I realized that it wasn't about being with men for me. I did not feel complete (my version of complete), and I did not feel like my body represented my brain.
"I eventually ended up coming to New York, and I got into the ballroom scene and I met these women, some of the most beautiful girls I've ever seen. I knew I wasn't gay and I wasn't straight, and now I realized that I could be a woman."
Oh wow, so you were in ball culture when you were younger? Just like in Pose?
"When I first came to the U.S., I was 18 years old. And on one of the first nights, I was in downtown Baltimore attempting to go on a date with a guy. I saw these people coming up the street and a woman who became my sister came up to me and said, 'No, you're not dating him. Come on.' That saved my life because this guy was infecting people [with HIV/AIDS] on purpose.
"I discovered the ballroom scene that night. They started to tell me all about it and that I could walk, and I'm thinking to myself that I never thought of myself as beautiful or good looking or anything like that and here these people were telling me that I was beautiful. Shatera, the mother of the house, said 'You're going to be family.' I looked at her and laughed because I didn't think at that point in time that it was possible. But eventually I ended up coming to New York and joined the ballrooms in New York."
When did you make the decision to transition medically?
"I met my husband in 1998, which absolutely totally changed my life, and we were together for two years when the new millennium was coming in. I said to myself that if y2k does happen and the whole world doesn't shut down, I'm going to live. We always had it in the back of our heads that eventually I would be able to become post-op. It was extremely important to me, and we both knew that physically the relationship wouldn't last if I wasn't complete. N0t because he wouldn't want to be with me, but because I wouldn't want to see myself. I would cry in the shower. Everything about me was beautiful in my mind. I didn't think I was the most gorgeous person, but everything felt amazing until my underwear had to come off to get in the shower. It was just destroying me."
So you started wanting to be post-op in 2000, but how long did it take before you were able to have the surgery?
"My Green Card came in 2015. But in 2013 my husband had became so frustrated, because I wouldn't let him touch me in any capacity at all. I went back into autopilot and people didn't realize that I was literally hanging on by a thread. It scared me even more, so I had to stay strong. I was recovering from this nervous breakdown, and I started to see a therapist to give me strength. So once I got my Green Card things started to roll forward. It was like God said 'Okay, you've suffered enough.'
"So one night I went to an awards show and [one of my colleagues] said to me 'Oh my god I know who's going to do your surgery.' So he introduced me to Dr. Rachel and it was like her energy pulled me in. I got a date on June 29, and I will tell you things started to really look up."
How did you feel after the surgery?
"I came out and I was expecting to be in horrible pain, but one of my sisters who underwent the process the March before said that Dr. Rachel will make you feel like you just got a cut on your finger. And she also saw me after I got out of surgery and she asked me how I felt and she said that my response was 'I feel free.'"
Does your personal experience in ball culture and in your transition relate to your role on the show?
"Well, I really can't answer that because I'll be giving away too much. But I will tell you this: The show is extremely authentic to experiences. The consultants on the show were really amazing and they brought their stories. And those who wrote the show, Steven Canals, Our Lady J, Janet Mock, Ryan Murphy, and others, wrote with a sense of understanding that, across the transgender community, our journeys to being in the gender that our brains tells us we are end in different places. We have a lot of trans experience on the show."