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By Charles Lam
Back in 1999, Jared Nayfack, then a Dana Hills High School senior, tried unsuccessfully to form one of Orange County's first Gay-Straight Alliance clubs on campus. Now known as Shakina and residing in New York City, Nayfack is pioneering again, becoming the first person to use crowd-funding to raise money for a sex-change operation.
"I have been out as trans since 2001 but only decided to undergo a full gender transition toward the end of 2012," Nayfack writes in the crowd-funding pitch. "There is really no way I can complete this process without the help of friends and online supporters. . . . I decided to launch this campaign to raise the money I need to finish my transition."
Befitting Nayfack's flamboyant sense of humor, the campaign on YouCaring.com has a catchy and hilarious name: "KickStartHer."
Nayfack is no stranger to headlines, especially in Orange County. As Jared, he was taunted, shoved and spat on for wearing nail polish, makeup and spiked heels to school, where he was the only "out" student in 1999. When Nayfack's mother complained about the abuse, school officials blamed her 18-year-old son for bringing it on and suggested he enroll elsewhere.
That led Nayfack to enlist a circle of friends—some straight, some secretly gay—to form a Gay-Straight Alliance to push for tolerance on campus. They staged a rally that drew more than 100 students, but school officials banned the club, which drew more attention to and bullying of Nayfack. Midway through his senior year, he enrolled in an independent-study program and would eventually graduate alone. But the experience turned mother and son into fierce activists for gay rights.
This attitude was displayed in Nayfack's December 1999 letter to the Los Angeles Times regarding the struggles students at Orange's El Modena High School were going through as they tried to form a Gay-Straight Alliance on campus.
"I watch these students from El Modena High School holding back tears in anger and frustration and pain while the Orange Unified School District school board tries to protect its image," wrote the self-described 19-year-old "veteran of the Orange County school system."
Back then, Nayfack dreamed of better days ahead. "Imagine you're a student, you're not confused about your sexuality, and you have little to no support. Your school is the one place where you spend the majority of your time growing up, learning, interacting, thinking and feeling.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could go to [school officials] for help and they'd actually do something? Wouldn't it be fantastic if the schools cared about the safety of their students and the right of every child to an equal education?"
Nayfack's mother, Felisa Ihly, who had been uninterested in politics or activism before things went sour for her son, would begin to haunt the halls of the California Capitol, urging passage of the Dignity for All Students Act; eventually, Governor Gray Davis signed it.
Her son would go on to become a gay activist and choreographer at UC Santa Cruz; on graduation day, he took the name Shakina, Hebrew for "presence of God." Now a she, Nayfack then attended UC Riverside, where she earned an MFA in Experimental Choreography and a Ph.D. in Critical Dance Studies. The LGBT Resource Center at UCR boasts Nayfack among its "alumni changing the world."
Three years ago, Nayfack moved to Washington Heights in northern Manhattan, where she is a performance artist, theater director and bona fide standout in a crowd thanks to tattoos, a shaved head and a 6-foot-2 frame. Used to relying on crowd-funding sites to help produce artistic works, she one day joked to friends, "I should go online and 'kickstart' my vagina!"
Cue the light bulb above the shaved head.
The 32-year-old has already spent $10,000 on laser hair removal, electrolysis, hormone replacement and a new wardrobe befitting her gender, and she hopes to raise $52,500 to pay for sexual-realignment surgery in a Thai clinic. As of Nov. 24, she had received pledges for nearly $3,000 from 59 donors.
Her pitch itemizes the expected costs, and she vows to use any funds over the goal amount for remaining electrolysis and ongoing medical expenses, such as hormone therapy, counseling and physical therapy during recovery in the U.S.
Reached at home on the East Coast, Nayfack was asked if the haters at Dana Hills High helped shape who she is today.
"I'd like to think I emerged from Orange County victorious, but it took a lot of years to unlearn the shame and self-hate I internalized growing up in a homophobic time and place," she replied. "I certainly developed my courage back then, and that's something I still draw upon on a daily basis."
She'll also draw on it in her one-woman show titled A Work In Progress, a benefit for her transition being staged for one night only, Dec. 7, at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater in Manhattan.
"I talk all about growing up in the OC in my show," she says, before adding with a laugh, "The stories aren't pretty, but I am, so I guess I win."
Times have certainly changed, as a recent headline-making event in Orange County would suggest. Nayfack was asked if she'd heard about Marina High School student Cassidy Lynn Campbell, who in September became the first transgender crowned homecoming queen.
"Of course I followed Cassidy's story," Nayfack says. "I was proud of her, worried for her and maybe even a little envious. When people would ask me if I had heard of her, I would joke, 'Yeah, I'm still waiting for my thank-you card.' I know that sounds bitter—I'm not bitter—but I do wish queer youth were being taught their history. There's a different kind of empowerment that comes from knowing whose shoulders you stand on.
"It was beautiful to see how her classmates rallied around her, but I watched Cassidy's YouTube video from after prom night, and she was in tears, breaking down. That's the pressure of being thrust into the spotlight just for being true to your radiant self. Cassidy, if you read this: Forget the haters, love yourself, and no one can take that away from you!"
You can donate to Shakina Nayfack's transition at YouCaring.com/KickStartHer.