On a crisp March morning in the Bronx, a crew of queer producers and stylists look on as actress and model Dominique Jackson—by the sheer elegance of her stride—transforms a crosswalk on Arthur Avenue into a high-fashion runway.
This isn’t a location shoot for FX’s Pose, the Emmy-nominated series that has turned Jackson and her eccentric character, Elektra Abundance, into a cultural icon. This project was tailor-made for Jackson, inspired by a 30-second video taken by her now-fiancé that blew up on Instagram last summer.
“As he’s taking the video of me walking, I go, ‘Get the shoes, baby, get the shoes,’” the 45-year-old recounts to Marie Claire during a recent call. Dutifully, he pointed the camera at Jackson’s Louboutins and #GTSBGTS, her signature catchphrase, was born.
As thrilled as Jackson was with the shoot, the onset of a panic attack prompted her to hurry straight home afterwards. “In the midst of everything happening, there are times where I’m sitting there feeling like I don’t deserve this. Or [thinking] Why am I here? Or, Am I going to wake up and still be sleeping on a bench in Central Park?” she says. “I am still getting accustomed to this kind of celebrity.”
While her peers in the entertainment industry handpick of-the-moment causes to support, Jackson’s visibility as a Black trans person is political by its very nature. Success for her has come with the burden of representing a community that is under constant attack by religious institutions and politicians in the highest seats of power. Jackson has met that challenge head on, handling interviews with remarkable honesty about everything from the abuse she endured during her childhood in Trinidad & Tobago, to the periods of homelessness and substance abuse she survived. “I went through those traumas, so if I lie about it, there may be some person that needed that truth and didn't get it. And that could’ve been a life I could have saved,” she says.
But still, the attention Jackson gets can be triggering at times. “When people come up to me, I don't know if they’re going to stab me, shoot me. Those three seconds of an approach are very scary.” After season one of Pose aired, Jackson endured a nerve-wracking encounter on the train. She remembers a man hovering over her, effectively blocking her in, asking if she was “that girl from that show.” Ultimately, he didn’t mean to threaten her, but Jackson stopped taking the train soon after the incident and now travels with a bodyguard. “It’s very expensive for me now, because I don’t feel safe just running around the streets like nothing.” The caution is understandable. According to the Human Rights Campaign, already in 2020 at least 14 transgender or gender non-conforming people have been fatally shot or killed by other violent means in the U.S. (Due to under-reporting, the actual number is likely higher.)
As global protests continue in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Jackson reflects on the years she has spent rallying against violence towards Black trans lives. “This week, I could not complete anything. There was anger, there was frustration, there was disbelief. There's just been this feeling of, Why try to move forward when you have so many people against you?” she says when asked about the recent killing of 38-year-old Black transgender man Tony McDade at the hands of a Florida police officer. (Just two days after our interview, news broke that 21-year-old transgender woman Iyanna Dior had been attacked by 20 to 30 men; less than a week later Riah Milton and Dominique Fells were killed.) Jackson also expresses disappointment that some of the people calling for racial equality are not supportive of her fellow trans people of color. Still, she looks for reasons to be hopeful going into a new election season. “I’ve always felt like the current administration was a slingshot that probably we all needed. Because in a slingshot you have to be pulled way back before you can be catapulted forward.”
Jackson says the international platform she now has, including the honor of being a grand marshal of the 2019 NYC Pride March, seemed unimaginable to her 10 years ago when she was performing in clubs, struggling to get her green card. She clearly remembers the day in March of 2016 when it finally came through. “I could walk around the city and not, every time I see a cop, get anxious or nervous. I felt like a human being.” Soon after, she signed on with an all-transgender modeling agency that ended up at the center of Strut, a reality TV show produced by Whoopi Goldberg for the Oxygen network. The short-lived series was a groundbreaking moment for transgender representation in the media. “People were able to see me for me. My transgender brothers and sisters that were in ballroom were able to see themselves,” she points out.
The lull after Strut’s cancellation had Jackson thinking that perhaps her 15 minutes of fame had passed. Then came Pose, the award-winning drama helmed by Ryan Murphy, Janet Mock, and Steven Canals. As a sharp-tongued ballroom diva, Jackson embodies the same head-turning confidence that was on display in her recent photoshoot.
But finding that poise was a lifelong process. When she moved to the U.S. from the island of Tobago as a teenager, she was not yet able to embrace her gender identity; a purchase she made with one of her first paychecks brought her one step closer to it. “I had to buy male shoes, [and I found] these shoes that looked almost like a peacock. And they had glitter. The back of them were black, but the front—they just sparkled,” she recalls. “I didn't even really know exactly where I stood in the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. But I would go to church and those shoes would keep me occupied any time I felt fear or anything like that.”
Through her journey, shoes have continued to be a touchstone of her femininity. “Our feet take us everywhere. When you put on a pair of shoes and you feel comfortable, your walk changes, your stance changes. You feel a certain power,” she says. It’s a power she exudes memorably in a scene from season two of Pose—which just landed on Netflix last week—in which Elektra dresses down a preppy white woman who tries to shush her table in a Hamptons restaurant. At the end of the withering monologue Elektra declares, “My girlfriends and I aren’t going anywhere.” It’s a rallying cry for all trans women of color. Though production on season three of the show is currently paused due to COVID-19 restrictions, Jackson finds the show’s renewal to be significant. “It spoke volumes to how the world perceived us, to how FX felt about us, and to how important this show was, how our lives really did matter.”
In the interim, Jackson is expanding on her Get The Shoes Baby brand by launching a digital content platform that celebrates fabulous footwear, and continuing to seek out ways to lift up her community—the team for the #GTSBGTS shoot was almost entirely made up of people identifying as LGBTQ+ and people of color. That unique synergy is sometimes enough to snap her out of moments of anxiety.
“When I see people that are gender fluid and non-binary just living their lives, and coming to work...that brings me back,” she says. “Sometimes I just look around and I go, Look at God. The same God that they told us didn’t love us is the same God that has us all here in this space working together.”
Photography by Marcus Branch / Styling by CL White / Hair by Dee Tranny Bear / Makeup by Deja “The Lady Deja” Smith / Nails by Naomi Yasuda / Video by Arie Ohayon, Zakiya Lucas-Murray and Raven Smith / Production & Creative Direction by DDPRO, Jonovia Chase and CL White / Styling assistants: Tia Jones and Jamil Scurry / Makeup assistant: James Toribio / Hair assistant: Kimalisa Medici / Production assistants: Darnell Lee and Terra Aislin
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