exclusive clip: grace dunham reveals what’s underneath for stylelikeu’s new series
The poet and activist peels away the layers, discussing gender identity, the pitfalls of fame, their crowdsourcing app for queer, trans and gender nonconforming prisoners, and why we must imagine a world without incarceration.
Grace Dunham is a poet and LGBTQ activist who you may have seen working the catwalk at Eckhaus Latta or serving some woke wisecracks about biological essentialism alongside cups of coffee as a barista on Girls, sister Lena's HBO show.
Grace — who uses gender-neutral pronouns they/them/their — published a collection of poetry titled The Fool earlier this year, which is free to read online and includes a speech they made at Frieze New York in 2015, titled Why am I valuable?. The speech asks questions about how society commodifies people based on their proximity to fame, wealth, power, and cultural capital. Grace is also an advocate for LGBTQ issues; the crowdfunding platform they co-founded, Support.FM, seeks highlight the unique challenges faced by queer, trans and gender-nonconforming people in prisons, and gathers financial support them.
Grace appears in a new episode of What's Underneath, StyleLikeU's interview format that asks subjects to remove their clothes as they talk about their lives and experiences, with the intention of stripping down being to "metaphorically remove the layers of cultural conditioning that we are all subject to." Speaking about their gender identity and journey toward accepting themself, Grace also discusses the experience of and insights from growing up in a family well-known in the art world and having a famous sister.
The episode is part of a series available to view online via Fullscreen. As we premiere an exclusive clip of Grace discussing gender identity, i-D delves a little deeper into Grace's life, work and activism.
What was the experience of filming What's Underneath like?
Watching the video is more difficult for me than making it was. To be honest, it's not easy for me to see myself on camera. It brings up a lot of body dysphoria stuff — the continual pain of seeing yourself, having to reckon with the ways you might look different than you do inside your mind. I hone in on small physical details and mannerisms that I'm sure most people don't even notice. We rarely see ourselves moving, speaking, laughing! Being naked isn't very difficult for me; it's having to think about how I look naked, how other people see me, what other people see me as. The camera brings in all these other potential perspectives that are difficult to deal with.
It was often commented on how your sister Lena appeared naked in Girls. Do you think there is radical potential in seeing a more diverse range of people undressed than we usually see in culture and the media?
I don't have a universal opinion of nudity — I think, for some people, sharing their nude bodies can be super empowering; for others, being nude isn't so empowering, because they've had experiences being naked when they weren't safe or comfortable. As with most things, it's about supporting what makes someone feel both safe and strong. I will say that seeing lots of different kinds of bodies in porn, and being close to friends and lovers' bodies, has helped me move through (or at least begin to question, because it's a never-ending process) some of the really unfair and unrealistic expectations our culture has for bodies and beauty. I wish there was more imagery and language in the media showing people that your genitals, [or] any part of your body, doesn't equal your gender.
What difference could seeing more non-binary bodies and hearing from more non-binary people in culture and the media make?
It's really important that people have visible role models who help open up the space to ask questions, to determine for themselves what gender means. Those role models can be in the media, but they can also just be in peoples' communities. People were trans, GNC, and non-binary long before there was visible transness in the media; people still had role models, still taught one another, still protected one another. We don't need famous people to be our heroes, or our teachers. That being said, lots of young questioning people are socially isolated, and seeing people they can relate to in the media can be powerful. As I've said before, and will continue to say, visibility isn't a replacement for political and economic transformation, and we have to stay awake and not be convinced otherwise.
In the film, you say that working to love yourself and to have honest relationships is as much 'authentic labor' as making work that wins prizes, makes money or makes you famous — something you also spoke about in your Frieze NY talk, Why am I valuable?. How would you like to see the culture change to reflect that?
So many ways… lots of ways… big dreams that may not happen in this lifetime. There are so many economic and social imperatives towards success; at the same time, there are so many barriers that make success virtually impossible for most people. How can we act like success is a real possibility, a realistic aspiration, when this system is basically rigged against it? Like, it's not evidence of personal failure to not be rich, to not be famous, to not be free. We know that. And so many people, with so many different kinds of lives, hate themselves for their 'failure' anyway. I guess, you know, that's one thing that might unite a lot of people — that fear of failure, not believing in your self worth, not believing you're lovable. People feel they are failures no matter their precarity or safety or wealth or whatever, which makes me think it's systemic not individual. I just want people to feel worthy and whole no matter what, rather than unworthy and broken no matter what… But some of my friends tell me I'm naive. Idealistic? Probably, but so be it.
Tell us more about your poetry collection, The Fool. What did you want to present in the collection, and what reactions have you had to it?
The most fulfilling reactions have come from people I didn't know, who maybe reached out to me via Facebook or Instagram and told me it had meant something to them. I was especially excited when people said the collection helped them feel more entitled to share their work, without depending on a publication. For me, those poems were grounding to write; the limitations of a rhyme scheme gave me the structure to try and distill some of the most unwieldy ideas, beliefs, and fears I was working through at the time. I don't know whether language can actually be a tool for telling the truth — there's so much about the relationship between language and power to distrust. But the simplified, even naive structure of those poems made it easier for me to suspend that mistrust for a little while. It was fun.
One poem wishes for A World Without Prison. Tell us about that vision?
I'm committed to and believe deeply in the abolition of the prison system — the elimination of jails, prisons, detention centers, psych wards, and all other institutions that force people into captivity and confinement. I'm deeply grateful for the legacy of thinkers, writers, and organizers who opened up the space for someone like me to even have access to the idea of abolition. To me, abolition isn't about whether or not someone has committed a violent crime, whether they're guilty or innocent… it's about the fact that, in this culture, captivity and control are totally normalized as forms of punishment, usually in response to things people do in order to survive. Prisons are racialized, in that they disproportionately incarcerate Black people; they're gendered, in that they segregate people according to their bodies. They're about ability, in that people living with disabilities and mental illnesses are especially likely to end up incarcerated. Some people deeply know and experience how prisons harm communities; others don't, simply because they've never had to.
People often challenge abolition by asking what the alternative is, what the solution to the problem is. We're very alienated from potential alternatives because punishment, the control of bodies, and profit routed in people's captivity, are bedrocks of this culture. It takes imaginative, creative labor to believe that another way is possible. In the meantime, we can all take concrete steps: whether that's choosing not to call the police, not abandoning one another when we make mistakes, or seeking alternatives to punishing those who harm us. Systematically, I hope for the decriminalization of drugs and the sex trades as soon as possible; and I want to see people navigating violence given the space to heal, not be thrust into even more violence inside of prisons.
Tell us about Support.FM, the "crowdfunding platform for queer, trans, GNC people in jail, prison, and detention" that you set up with Rye Skelton and Blaine O'Neill?
Support.FM will ideally be a form of short-term harm reduction. So many people and communities are working to change the prison system, to change standards of policing, to reform the bail system. These things aren't going to happen overnight. In the meantime, it's imperative that people spend the least time in jails and prisons possible. While the violence of prisons impacts everyone, they're especially dangerous for trans and gender non-conforming (GNC) people. So, Support.FM is a secure platform to help grassroots organizations raise money to bail trans and GNC people out of jail and detention. It's our small attempt at building a new channel for the redistribution of money, so more trans and GNC people can get out of jail quicker. A movement for trans justice won't succeed without trans freedom.
Also, we've nearly reached our initial fundraising goal. The first 50K we raised was to build the website's infrastructure; we're about to begin development, and we'll be able to really do the work of connecting our partner organizations to new donors and supporters.
What do you have coming up?
I'm really focused on Support.FM right now. I have other writing and speaking projects, but I'm trying to keep everything clear so I can be totally present through the development stage. We want this website to function well, look great, and be super accessible to both trans and GNC organizers and the people who want to support their bail funds. So, I'm in LA, working with Blaine and Rye and feeling super excited about the puppy my roommate might be bringing home next week.
I'm definitely very inspired and excited by other political projects that are happening right now. So many friends are seeking alternatives to existing organizing strategies, looking for ways to use the resources they do have to build new networks for care and support. Like, in NYC, I'm so into and excited by the work F2L is doing — they're a volunteer-led group of queer and trans people of color, many of whom have navigated homelessness and criminalization, who do legal and financial support work for other queer and trans people of color facing felony charges and prison time in New York State. They're not a non-profit — though some of the organizers have held non-profit employment — they're a group of young people demonstrating that, with a lot of focus and drive (and time), communities actually can fight back against the legal system.
Another project I'm super inspired by right now is the Harriet Tubman Collective, a group of Black deaf/disabled activists who, despite being really geographically diffuse, are doing all this work to center discussions of disability in the policing and incarceration of Black people. Even though they're not all in the same place, the collective connected and came together to write this super powerful text that totally changes the focus of discussions around state violence happening right now.
Text Charlotte Gush
Photography courtesy StyleLikeU