Giving less shits, social movement burnout, and gender selfie determination.
Che and Reina Gossett
The phrase “power-siblings” takes on a whole new meaning with Che and Reina Gossett. Between them, there are close to four decades of joy-filled activism for trans liberation, sex workers’ rights, HIV decriminalization, and prison abolition. As artists, archivists, community organizers, educators, and all-around-brilliant spirits, Che and Reina have shared their gifts in many ways and liminal spaces.
Though they are completely uninterested in being seen as exceptional, being around Che and Reina is truly a magical, transcendent experience. Carrying the legacies of both the black radical tradition of their family – their mom is a union organizer and their dad a self-defense-instructor and anti-prison advocate – and of their movement ancestors, they emit the grounding energy of people who know they’ve got history behind them. Having both spent hours upon hours in the archives of those whose legacies they live in, it is a time-warping treat to listen to them recall these stories with an abundance of knowledge, admiration, and love. They speak humbly and carefully, always sure to center the work and lives of people who have been historically unrecognized, and with no shortage of laughter and humor. Refusing to let the collective work of liberation be a joyless process, both Che and Reina are always showing off bright-colored clothing, tattoos, and accessories while emphasizing the importance of acupuncture and chilling with friends. If you’re lucky enough to already follow them on Instagram, then you know that Che posts weekly pics of femme legends like Whitney Houston and Nicki Minaj, while Reina’s is full of selfies of her and her best friend/cat, the gorgeous Jean.
Born and raised in Massachusetts, Reina and Che went to a bilingual elementary school in the Roxbury where “the teachers were abusive,” and later attended suburban schools where they “went from living in poverty to going to school with wealthy people like Mitt Romney’s kids.”
Reina moved to NYC thirteen years ago for college and has stayed ever since, in that time working with organizations like Queers for Economic Justice, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and Critical Resistance. She’s organized to stop a new jail from being built in the Bronx, advocated for safe and affordable healthcare for trans and gender nonconforming New Yorkers, and archived and published decades of research on the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries and its members. Reina is an activist-in-residence at the Barnard Research Center for Women (BCRW). She is currently making a film called Happy Birthday Marsha!
Che recently moved to Bed Stuy from Philly, where they were involved in AIDS activism and anti HIV criminalization work. Che is a self-identified “proud theory queen and academic gossip girl,” and a scholar-in-residence at the BCRW. They are currently involved in an archival project on legacies of black queer and prison abolitionist solidarity with Palestinian struggles that focuses on the archives of James Baldwin, June Jordan, and George L. Jackson. They are also writing a book on AIDS activist Kiyoshi Kiromiya.
We met up on a blizzarding night in Fort Greene, Brooklyn to grab some drinks and talk about their paths to New York, the traps of trans visibility, whose legacies they cherish, and what they’ve been dreaming about lately. They were wearing the same hat. Who had it first? That’s one secret they’ll never tell.
I first encountered both of your names in the context of your prison abolition work, in Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, which was a huge influence on me when I was starting to learn about intersections of prisons and the criminalization of queer and/or trans people. How did you both get involved with anti-prison activism?
CG: I always felt connected to ideas of abolition. My father was incarcerated for a lot of my life – in both psychiatric institutions and prisons. I got a lot of black radical politics from him. I first heard about George Jackson from a letter that my Dad wrote to me from prison, when I was really young. My mom is also involved in labor movements, so there is definitely an inherited activism – or inherited outrage – in my family. So many people have loved ones who are incarcerated, and that is often an entry point. When I was at graduate school at Brown, I took a class with Joy James, a black feminist and anti-carceral studies professor. I taught in a prison through a program called “Space in Prisons for Arts and Creative Expression.” That was the start of getting involved with prison abolition work.
After that class, I was involved with Critical Resistance in the Bay Area, which gave me the language to express broader power dynamics in the prison industrial complex that I hadn’t been able to articulate before. They have a really strong emphasis on critical pedagogy – prison abolitionist pedagogy – which stayed with me. I was especially struck by learning about how the carceral system reproduces and produces binaries, as a way to legitimize its expansion as an anti-black, anti-trans, capitalist enterprise. Binaries like innocent/criminal. That analysis helped me develop a prison industry complex abolitionist lens, that has been shaped by the critical pedagogy of Black Feminism (which is always already trans) and/or queer and trans liberation movements to ask visioning questions like: What would it look like to have alternate ways of relating to each other instead of carceral ways? What’s causing prisons to exist and what would it look like to have real forms of accountability and transformation that don’t rely on anti-black, anti-trans, anti-queer and settler-colonial ideas of innocence and safety?
What would it look like to have alternate ways of relating to each other instead of carceral ways?
RG: It was definitely a lot of things. Partly, my own experiences with the carceral system and my family’s experiences. In the early 2000s, I was teaching creative writing and arts classes at Rikers Island through my school in a program called Island Academy. There were some poets and artists who were affiliated with the class who were moving in an amazing black arts tradition. They put on slam poetry events in the prisons. I think it was “beats not bars.” There was an affiliation with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the Prison Moratorium Project. The people I met there were great to be around; they had a practice of not being shameful about things that a lot of us had been taught to be shameful about – like having been incarcerated, or having loved ones who were incarcerated.
I can’t imagine a social movement that’s not deeply connected to creativity and the arts. Creative processes are so generative, and it’s incredibly important to be thinking about the aesthetics of social movements. By aesthetics, I mean how we come together. Like: How are we dancing together? What do our spaces look like? What are we listening to? Who are the people building the spaces? What we’re defending. How we laugh together, how we exist together.
That reminds me of that amazing line that CeCe McDonald said: “You can still be cute, and wear talons, and be a prison abolitionist.” It’s so important to lift up aesthetics, style, and creativity in social movements, especially femmeness and transfemininity which are so often scapegoated as superficial or artificial.
RG: Exactly. I think for a long time, I was not feeling that, because I associated style with a luxury class. There is a level of austerity that gets celebrated as “authenticity” in social movements, and being intentional about style can be seen as a luxury instead of something that’s essential to the growth of movements. Dressing the most drab – as if there is no time for trying to look good – is validated.
Che, you use the phrase, “gender selfie determination” on your Instagram and Twitter profiles, and you take a lot of amazing selfies! Can you tell me about that? What aesthetic are you drawn towards lately?
There is a level of austerity that gets celebrated as authenticity in social movements, and being intentional about style can be seen as a luxury instead of something that’s essential to the growth of movements.
CG: I take a lot of selfies! The first time I tweeted that, I said, “it’s the age of gender selfie determination!” I thought it was a funny spin on selfies and gender self-determination. But in all seriousness, there’s a really important presence of femme and trans of color on the internet right now. I take gender-selfie-determining pictures of myself, and with other people.
It’s complicated: platforms like Twitter are on the one hand a space for people to have a presence and a voice, and on the other hand they are run by racist, capitalist corporations. Twitter is hyper-gentrifying San Francisco, but so many of us use it and build connections through it. It’s important to me to think about ways that we can address that tension while also using the technology to our benefit.
its the age of gender selfie determination :)— Che G. (@chegossett) February 21, 2014
Generally, I’m really into a queer femme, trans aesthetic. I’m into wearing lots of color right now, things that remind me of spring, and blooming. Bright colors, bright lipstick, bright nails, bright scarves. Bright purple amethyst stones. Tattoos that are about color and bloom, all of my tattoos are about possibility and potential – that’s what spring means to me.
Who are some of the people who have influenced you?
CG: There’s a lot of people! There are people who are around and people who are here in spirit. James Baldwin was a huge influence on me. He was a prison abolitionist and I grew up reading him. I read Giovanni’s Room in college, during my second year, in my first queer relationship. It helped me learn how to love and how to deal with internalized anti-queer shame that kept me from loving myself and other queer people. His writing was huge for me. A lot of black, radical, feminist thinkers and writers have been so influential. There are also friends like Eric Stanley who co-edited Captive Genders, and Jin Haritaworn who is a trans of color academic who does amazing work on anti-queer violence and necropolitics, who are really influential for me. June Jordan and George Jackson too.
Both of you have done incredible work documenting and sharing stories about the lives of historical queer and trans activists of color. Reina, you’re currently working on your first film, Happy Birthday Marsha!, about Marsha P. Johnson, the “Stonewall legend,” and one of the founders of STAR: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. How did you decide to make this film? What has that been like so far?
RG: I had no idea what I was getting into at first! I was like, “I want to make a movie!” But of course, it’s really hard, it costs a lot of money, and it involves a lot of labor from many people. I’m really excited about it now, especially because the content is so important to me, so I want to make it with intention and care.
In the past few years, I’ve been interacting with people who had personal relationships to the Stonewall Riots, to Sylvia Rivera, to Marsha, and to other members of STAR. I started researching and blogging about them, and a bunch of people who read my writing responded – people who had been at Stonewall during the rebellion, for example. After I had done all this archival work and gotten such a positive response, I started writing the screenplay for Happy Birthday Marsha! My collaborator Sasha and I were originally thinking about it as a documentary, but we are really excited about how its turned out. We’re getting support in very strange and surprising ways.
One of the main ways I’ve been social in my life is through watching movies. I grew up going to the movies with my Dad and siblings, and one of the first movies that had an effect on me was Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. The person who is shooting our film, Arthur Jaffa, was a cameraperson for Malcolm X. He was also the cinematographer for Crooklyn and did camera for Selma. We met in Scotland when I was doing a black arts festival with Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman, and getting connected to him was such a wonderful moment. I’ve also been dreaming about working with the fabulous costume designer Ruth Carter and those creating in her tradition. She did the costumes for Malcolm X and Selma. It’s been very cool. It’s amazing to be connected to all these brilliant people.
This summer we’re making a short film which will focus mainly on Marsha, about the hours leading up to Stonewall. The feature film will cover more time. Right now, it’s a small project compared to other films in terms of budget, but that feels right. The fact that it’s a smaller budget film reflects that it’s being made with people who had personal relationships with Marsha – it’s a reflection of her life. Right now we’re pre-production, we’ll start shooting in June. It’ll be great!
STAR co-founder Marsha P Johnson
Che, you’re also in the process of writing a book about one of your inspirations, the Japanese-American AIDS activist, Kiyoshi Kiromiya. How did you start this project?
CG: When I moved to Philadelphia, I started to get involved with ACT UP Philadelphia. There’s a rich history of AIDS activism and queer of color activism there, and lot of people talked about Kiyoshi. I was really struck by his life. Learning about him opened up a whole world of learning about queer of color activists who had been involved in different movements – civil rights, Black Power, gay and queer liberation, and AIDS activism. He was involved in so many different struggles that I really connected with.
I was at Penn doing a graduate program in history, which is also where he went to university, and I started researching for a paper on him. I learned that he was born in an internment camp in 1943 in Wyoming. He did a lot of work against HIV criminalization, and it was powerful to learn that his activism was connected to growing up as an incarcerated person. He was also radicalized when he went to Birmingham, Alabama in 1965 and had his head split open by a cop at a protest.
Kiyoshi Kuromiya at an anti-Vietnam war demonstration as an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania. Photo by Robert Brand.
Were there memorable moments from going through his archives?
CG: At one point, I was going through the papers, and there was all this dirt. I was like, what is this? It turned out to be weed! It was just there in his papers. He was a proponent of medical marijuana, and was a plaintiff in a large medical marijuana case. He was also a national scrabble champion. It’s interesting because I never met him and most of the people that I write about I’ve never met, in a corporeal sense, but they really shape my politics or my political present. That’s kind of what I mean by “archive fever,” which is the title of a text by the philosopher Jacques Derrida. Derrida talks about archival violence, which is all about what is excluded and included from history. As a queer person, having a tangible relationship to the past through documents or pictures can be really powerful. Another archive moment is June Jordan’s. She kept a file on every person that she dated.
Through Kiyoshi’s archives, I saw how he carried revolutionary politics through various movements that he worked in, and part of writing this book is to try and tell a queer history of the present by showing queer of color involvement in a lot of different struggles. In the more homonormative tellings of our history, the lives of queers of color have been packaged and commodified. Writing this book on Kiyoshi’s life is a counter-narrative and a counterhistory to that.
There’s been a lot of public discourse lately on commodification and cultural appropriation. Too often, the labor and creativity of those of us on the margins are co-opted and absorbed into the mainstream without compensation or credit.
RG: This reminds me of a surreal moment during a conversation with a friend a few years ago, when she realized that the aesthetics of a particular black experience were being ripped off and marketed. She said: “I’ll never forget the Newport ad where the models were wearing dashikis.” We always thought, you can’t commodify anti-capitalism. Dashikis as an aesthetic are anticapitalist. But we realized that, at the end of the day, you can commodify anything. It’s completely true. That’s why its important to be so thoughtful about how we share things, and to hold questions about visibility in the center. There are real dangers of vulnerability associated with visibility.
There’s this idea that seeing images of ourselves on TV, or in the media, will validate our experiences and existence. It’s seductive in a lot of ways. What are your thoughts on calls for representation?
RG: I remember being really frustrated with a lot of people who were around in 2008 who were saying, “We need a black president!” I was always like, no, I actually don’t think thats what our demand should be right now. Just when people were ready to opt out in so many beautiful ways, along came a person who got them to opt back in. People opted back into electoral politics, to capitalism, to the idea that Obama wouldn’t do what he’s done – what all the other presidents have done. For me, that was a big moment. I learned that gaining empire is what people hope for when they get reinvested in the state.
It’s not wrong for us to want to enjoy TV or movies where we are represented, but representation and visibility should not be priorities for our social movements. Enjoying watching Orange is the New Black, or enjoying seeing black and trans people on TV, isn’t the same as saying our social movements should start and end with visibility.
I remember an interview with Marsha, in which she talked about an experience of visibility being really deeply connected to vulnerability. She said: we just got evicted from our apartment on Second Street. She was interviewed for a paper, and right after it’s published, she’s like: he (the journalist) gave our real names and was telling our spots, he told them where we were at, and we all got picked up. She’s talking about the places where she and others were doing sex work. She’s pointing out how the visibility of the media was directly connected to the criminalization of black people, trans people, people of color, and people doing sex work.
Yes, we might have a lot of visibility of trans women of color, but we’re also seeing the highest rate of trans women of color being murdered right now. I’m not interested in trans visibility unless its supporting movements for self determination. Visibility is often connected to respectability politics. Too often, the mantras people use are, “Show us not doing sex work!” “Show us not using drugs!” It then becomes even more difficult to have conversations about how the violence and murders of trans women of color are directly linked to perceptions that come from these stigmas. When movements center people that society says are respectable, the most vulnerable people continue to be exposed to violence.
We get messages that being of consequence is the best way of being in the world, but I think the everyday ways of being in the world are more important than the times when we’re supposedly acting extraordinary. Small things are what are lifechanging. Like eating a green thing a day, or someone wearing a fabulous top! We are the intervention. Living our lives are interventions.
CG: I remember this really influential time during The Alliance for Safe and Diverse D.C. when there was an amazing convergence of sex workers, queer and/or trans folks working against criminalization. Specifically, people were organizing against “prostitution free zones” that the police set up in 2006, which only got repealed last year in 2014. It was really inspiring to see current and former sex workers, survival sex workers and otherwise, as well as queer academics who taught participatory action methodology coming together. They produced a report about how the police were using the same carceral logics of “gang free zones” and “drug free zones” to criminalize sex workers.
I met filmmaker and activist Penelope Saunders there, who is currently making a film about Marcia Powell, a sex worker who was left to die in a prison in the unbearable heat in Arizona in 2009. Powell was murdered by the carceral state. I really appreciate how filmmakers in AIDS activism and trans liberation are using abolitionist imaginaries to make visible and challenge not only the violence and status quo of representation, but also shift from recognition to redistribution. Some projects that stand out to me are United in Anger, Homotopia, and Criminal Queers.
It’s really nice to be in New York now, because it feels like there’s a lot of longitudinal queer and trans organizing happening here, with histories that people are constantly drawing upon. New York has such an amazing history of sex worker activism and work against the criminalization of people living with HIV. Being in a new city and reconnected to people in struggles that are really important to me is transformative to be in.
You’ve both been involved with intense struggles for justice, in organizing around sex work, prison abolition, anti-racism, and queer and trans liberation. Burn-out is so common among people working in social movement. What are some ways that you take care of yourselves?
CG: When living in Philadelphia, I started going to acupuncture, that’s been a huge part of my self care process. I feel like New York meets so many needs at once, and it can be really overwhelming at times, and intensely lonely, but it’s also magical and enchanted. Spending time with friends is a big part of self care. Being physically active, doing martial arts. I had nipple rings for a while with purple barbells. To me, femme adornment is a really important part of gender self(ie) determination.
RG: I started getting acupuncture, almost 7 years ago. I go to the sliding scale community acupuncture center. I’m trying to eat a green thing a day! And have a lot of tea. There are also stones with energetic qualities, that help me with anxiety. Talking to friends is self care, being in places where I don’t have to worry about things like gendered bathrooms, or gendered scrutiny. I also spend a lot of time with Jean.
Who is Jean?
RG: Jean is one of my best friends in the world. They’re a really brilliant person with a lot of style and they’re deeply intuitive.
To me, femme adornment is a really important part of gender self(ie) determination.
Reina, I remember seeing on your instagram the “Give Less Shits” elixir and I really liked the sound of that. What’s that about?
RG: It’s tinctures that my friend makes! The one I’m taking right now is called “build back up.” I like the “give less shits” elixir because it tastes really yummy, and it’s a reminder and supporter of not being invested in success or productivity. It’s really about not being in control of things.
Since 2008 I’ve been involved with a disability justice collective, and the people I’ve met there are really brilliant. They have amazing practices of generosity in terms of giving, supporting, and rethinking the intense ableism around productivity and work. That’s also found in anti-poverty social movements to a certain extent – the right not to work, or the freedom not to work. It’s important to refuse to buy into ableist ideas of health and respectability. Not all of us can work, not all of us have access to a wage, and most of us work in ways that are never going to be compensated.
A lot of ableism happens in our social movements and political communities, where people have this idea that you can fail as long as you’re successful. Or, not working is a wealthy person thing to do, or being femme or fabulous is a frivolous, silly thing to do – rather than things that are deeply meaningful. There is so much language about how we’re supposed to be independent people. I think it’s wonderful – to be dependent. Oppression and exploitation allow certain people to not understand that they are super dependent on a lot of other people’s labor. What if we valued being gentle with ourselves instead of being productive?
I feel like in New York especially, there can be such an intense culture around compulsory independence, and a lot of pressure to prove your worth through work. How do people around you respond when you share your thoughts on this?
RG: Responses range. Sometimes when I’m talking about the freedom to not work people have a strong association with that being a luxury. The only people they know who they can imagine not working are wealthy people. I think, instead, we could center our understandings of how ableism and capitalism operate around people who can’t work in formal economies.
What if we valued being gentle with ourselves instead of being productive?
I’m in a place where I can’t imagine getting a job right now. I’m just totally wiped the fuck out. I want to be in spaces where that is how people are coming together and caring for each other.
What does that kind of community look like for you?
RG: For me it looks like supporting one another’s GoFundMe’s, or having my own. It looks like having conversations about what we all need and how to get what we need. I think it’s about moving more slowly. I worked so fast for so long, that slow moving is really important to me right now. Capitalism doesn’t just affect our material conditions, it affects our relationships, both with ourselves and with other people. I think it’s important to make space for each other, have people over, make food together, chill out.
What have you been dreaming about lately?
CG: I feel like I’ve been awake too much lately! Actually, I’ve been trying to absorb a lot, which is very different than visioning and dreaming. I feel like I’m in a space where I’m overwhelmed by how much there is to learn, especially because everyone I meet in New York has such interesting things to share. There’s a whole undercommons of knowledge coming from all directions – especially outside the academic industrial complex – that’s powerful to and valuable for me. There have definitely been moments in my life where I felt very outward, or visionary, but I think lately I’ve been trying to pull everything in and hopefully grow and bloom with spring.
RG: Right now I’m dreaming about having shared dependency and shared relationships that support not having to have a paid job and not feeling shame about that! I’m dreaming about not paying rent. Approaching spring with a lot of gentleness and care. Support for me to not be in my big coat all spring! I wear this as my shield, like last summer until June, I always do that! I’m dreaming about gentleness with myself. And finding a new TV show.