02/10/2019 00:00 EST | Updated 06/06/2019 08:59 EDT

'Pose' Star Dominique Jackson Stands Tall In Her Belief That Trans Lives Matter

"It's a horrible time for a lot of us. But this is a push for us to be even more resilient."

"Focus, children. It is time we remind the world of who we are," house mother Elektra Abundance, played by Dominique Jackson, tells her "family" in the first episode of "Pose."

And that's what Jackson is dedicated to doing in real life: reminding the world of who transgender people are, and why they deserve the respect and safety they've been lacking for decades.

The star of the groundbreaking, critically acclaimed FX show that depicts New York's ballroom community in the 1980s was in Toronto last weekend for the Journey to Black Liberation Symposium and the Black Liberation Ball, where she judged the ballroom competition that gave Torontonians a night to celebrate and experience the house ball world.

Courtesy of Harbourfront Centre
Two competitors vogue on the runaway at Toronto's Black Liberation Ball on Feb. 2, 2019.

Performing to a packed house, participants dressed in their baddest gear vogued onto the stage. Their bodies bounced, glided, slid, writhed, snapped and popped as they battled their opponents.

It was electrifying. Fierce. Fyah. Transformative.

"Ballroom saved my life," Jackson said.

House ball was created by trans women of colour several decades ago in the U.S., where competitors who represent different "houses" — groups that often function as alternative families — face off through elaborate dances, vogueing and shantaying on the runway.

"Pose" explores what life was like for trans people before the culture crossed over into the mainstream, appropriated by, among others, Madonna's "Vogue."

And the ball in Toronto, organized by JTBL symposiums co-curators and house ball veterans, Twysted and Michael Roberson, alongside Black Daddies Club founder Brandon Hay, was done in the true spirit of the community.

"I was proud. Our pioneers, who are no longer with us, would be very honoured," Jackson told HuffPost Canada from her waterfront hotel room. "When I was introduced to balls, it was only in New York, now it's spreading everywhere. I couldn't be happier."

Like most house ball participants, the community helped Jackson find herself, and saved her from the inner turmoil that plagued her growing up. Born on the Caribbean island of Tobago, she was lost and felt different, but growing up, was unaware of a term to describe the incongruence between the gender she was born with and how she truly felt.

"Not only was I being molested by a priest in Tobago, but I was not accepted," said Jackson. "Growing up I was told, 'Stop acting like a girl. Don't stand like that, don't act like that, deepen your voice.' But for me, it came naturally. I couldn't change anything. I tried to walk with the bop, I tried to deepen my voice, but I just couldn't."

Jackson said friends and family were saying things like, "I'd kill myself if I was like that." Jackson did attempt suicide, 15 times, when she thought life wasn't worth living if she couldn't be accepted.

"The way society is in the Caribbean, I thought I'd be better off dead," she said. "Anyone from the LGBTQ community who is from an island is trying to escape most of the time, but some of us don't have the chance to because we're murdered. There are no laws that protect us."

The only thing that kept her going was her faith in herself, especially after her family immigrated to Baltimore, Md. It was here that she told her family she wanted to transition into a woman and then, was forced to leave her family's home after doing so.

"I kept saying to myself, 'Be strong,' even through my tears, even when I was lying on the floor looking at the pill bottle, I knew I had a purpose and that I needed to be strong, even though being strong wasn't easy," said Jackson.

She repeated that mantra, "You have a purpose," throughout her life. When she found herself homeless after coming out to her family. When she had to turn to sex work to make ends meet in New York City. When she was raped on the sometimes unforgiving streets of Manhattan.

"My faith is my faith, and I cannot allow anyone to take that from me," said Jackson.

Trae Patton/NBC via Getty Images
Dominique Jackson arrives for the Golden Globe Awards, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Jan. 6, 2019.

Trans lives matter

"Trans people have been repeatedly told that we don't have the right to live. And Black people have been told that by our slave masters and continue to be told that by society. We have, generationally, bled this kind of hatred," said Jackson.

More than two dozen transgender people were killed last year in America, according to information gathered by CNN, the New York City Anti-Violence Project and the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ civil rights advocacy group.

Last month, "Empire" star Jussie Smollett was attacked by two men who hurled homophobic and racial slurs at the gay rights advocate. And, the United States Supreme Court recently allowed President Donald Trump to enforce his policy of banning certain transgender people from the military.

"It's a horrible time for a lot of us. But this is a push for us to be even more resilient," said Jackson. "We have to look at it and say, 'We have to fight for our rights.'"

Trans people have been repeatedly told that we don't have the right to live. And Black people have been told that by our slave masters and continue to be told that by society. We have generationally bled this kind of hatred.Dominique Jackson

She said #metoo and Black Lives Matter gives her hope that progress is being made, but she wants to see one more movement.

"What about Trans Lives Matter? For my book, my research indicated that from 1991-2014, there were close to 2,500 brutal murders of transsexual people," said Jackson referring to her memoir, "The Transsexual from Tobago. "In the U.S., one of my sisters was shot in the face, another one was shot by her father. Things have got to change."

"Pose" has become a vehicle to help trans people further their fight by giving them visibility in the media and by shedding light on a community often not well-understood.

The series features the largest cast ever of transgender actors and the largest recurring cast of LGBTQ actors ever in a scripted series. Among various award nominations, the show was recently up for Golden Globes for best drama TV series, and star Billy Porter received an acting nomination.

Rich Fury via Getty Images
Back left to right: Indya Moore, Janet Mock, Mj Rodriguez and Steven Canals. Front left to right: Dominique Jackson, Billy Porter and Our Lady J of FX's "Pose" pose for a portrait during the 2018 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour on August 3, 2018 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Jackson said that after watching "Pose," people have told her that they've reconnected with family members they ostracized because they were LGBTQ.

"'Pose' has shown that we're human beings and that's what people weren't getting, that every person is a human being. People have been killing us because they don't see us as people," said Jackson.

"All we want is equality, and for people to see us as humans who want all the same things you do: to live, love and be, freely."

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