By Sage Kuhlman | February 26, 2021
Dominique Jackson spoke via Zoom at UAlbany’s keynote event for this year’s Gender and Sexuality Month, sharing her experiences as a trans woman, an HIV activist and an entertainer.
“POSE” actress and author of “The Transsexual from Tobago” shared with students her story of hardship on the road to stardom. Jackson immigrated to the U.S. and was forced to the streets by her parents after transitioning. She credits the drag ball culture better known as ballroom with saving her life.
One night, in 1993, Jackson snuck out of her mother’s house in Maryland where she encountered ballroom attendees. These people explained to Jackson for the first time what a transgender woman was.
“They let me know that it was possible to fulfill all of my dreams. They let me know that I could live in my truth.”
Ballroom is a subculture created by and heavily populated with queer people of color gathering to create their own space through a mix of dancing, lip-syncing, and modeling for prizes and trophies. These performers form “houses'' where chosen families live together and support each other. Each house battles against each other to win glory for their families. Within houses, terms like mother, father, brother, and sister are adopted to form hierarchies.
As Jackson gained attention from the New York ballroom community, she wanted to give back as much as she could. Less than 30 years ago being a queer person meant living through an epidemic of HIV/AIDS, and when some of her house children told her about their HIV positive status, she realized that her platform could be used to start to provide testing at the nightclubs she was performing at.
“The plan was not to be an advocate or activist; it was just to live. It was to survive at all cost,” said Jackson. “It was around 2000 that I took my first test and realized I was HIV negative. When I got my result, I was happy; I was ecstatic. I thought to myself, ‘Wait, what if I didn’t get that result?’ I thought about all my friends that did have that result.”
Jackson soon worked her way to non-profit work by getting involved with Destination Tomorrow, a Bronx-based center that provides LGBTQ plus services and programming. “We might be drinking and having a good time and performing but there are people in the crowd dying who need help.”
Jackson’s breakout role as Elektra Abundance on “POSE” rose the model and reality tv star to fame. “POSE,” created and directed by Ryan Murphy, has received both Primetime Emmy and Golden Globe award nominations and boasts the highest number of transgender actors to ever work together on a single series.
Set in the late 80’s, “POSE” shows a dramatized version of queer history through the lens of New York’s ballroom culture. While the main characters are fabricated, they often borrow stories from real life. Jackson’s character Elektra Abundance Evangelista is inspired by famous house mothers of New York like Crystal LaBeija and Angie Xtravaganza. Both women were founders of their houses in 1977 and 1982 respectively.
Trans women are one of the most marginalized, stigmatized and brutalized groups in America. Having a show about trans women, portrayed by trans women of color, and about their experiences provides a spotlight to their reality.
Jackson believes the trans representation within “POSE” could make it easier for those who want to come out to their families to get a sense of what their reaction would be.
“Most of you that are nervous about coming out, there are ways to make hints. For instance, see if they would watch a show called ‘POSE’. Just flick by it and see what their reaction is if you stop at it.”
Jackson stated that when she first signed onto the show, she found it to be well researched and was happy to see transgender individuals being represented as, “not just being the dead person, or the corpse, or the prostitute; actually, playing meaningful characters.”
Historically, trans women’s representation in the media has them depicted as deceptive and violent, a comedic punchline, limited only to sex workers or murder victims.
“I was ready to start telling them ‘look, this can’t be like this, I've lived this.’ It was amazing to get the script and just smile and only have to dedicate myself to the character,” said Jackson. “Being on ‘POSE’ is an appreciation, a validation, an acknowledgement not only that we exist but also that we have talent.”
In the future, Jackson hopes to expand into roles that are not just trans specific, she stated that she enjoys “playing different parts by stepping into someone's shoes and seeing their perspective.” She wants to be seen by the industry as a woman first when it comes to film, a decency that has rarely been given to trans actresses.
Though she does have plans for more writing and directing, “POSE” is her main focus for now.
In her speech, Jackson advised students on how to act as an ally to the LGBTQ plus community within their daily lives. “When you’re with your friends and you hear them make a comment,” she said, “correct them, stop them. You have to speak up. You must speak up.”
Jackson also discussed the topic of coming out, acknowledging that not all students have a safe support system within their homes to turn to.
“In coming out you must understand the situation you are in and plan accordingly. So that you are safe, and you can live in your truth comfortably,” said Jackson. “The last thing you want is for your parents to cut you off and then you end up homeless. When I left my house, when my mother told me I could no longer be there, I had to deal with that rejection.”
For students without a safe environment to come out within, Jackson advised to look for LGBTQ plus nonprofits and organizations.
“Start looking for organizations that can provide assistance with moving out if you know your parents are not going to be understanding,” said Jackson.
In closing, Jackson stated, “your truth is your truth. Be open. Be honest. Be yourself. Let them see your you.”