Trace Lysette: ‘If a TERF went to lunch with a woman like me, they would be enlightened and maybe even ashamed’

The leading actress of ‘Monica’ is the first trans actress to headline a competing film at the Venice Film Festival, where she has received overwhelming support

Actress Trace Lysette.Photo: Sean Black

She spent part of her teenage years in Dayton, Ohio and now considers Los Angeles home, but the city Trace Lysette misses is New York. “I lived in Brooklyn for 10 years,” she explains in a video call. Living as a trans woman in the early 2000s wasn’t easy, and every walk to the laundromat or the bodega felt like a minefield of hate crimes. Once, she got into a fistfight at 12 a.m. in Fulton Street with an aggressor who called her a man.

In 2013, she got one of her first professional TV roles as Lila, a sex worker, in a Law & Order episode. The next year, she debuted as Shea, her breakthrough role, in Transparent (2014-2019.) It was her first trans character and, although she was scared that “coming out” would limit her career, she became the first non-cis leading actress to appear in a competing Venice Film Festival film three years after the end of the show: Monica, by the Italian filmmaker Andrea Pallaoro. “Lysette has real presence, her regal beauty softened by an affecting sadness and stillness,” wrote John Frosh in The Hollywood Reporter. The film has also been included in the official selection of the 60th Gijón Film Festival in Spain.

After three rounds of auditions and a conversation with the director, Trace was chosen to play the lead character in Monica, a trans woman who goes back to her childhood home in Ohio to take care of her dying mother, played by Patricia Clarkson, who, more than a decade earlier, had kicked her out of the house after discovering her gender identity.

Trace Lysette at the Venice International Film Festival.
Trace Lysette at the Venice International Film Festival.Pascal Le Segretain (Getty Images)

Question. You’ve also been estranged from your mother for several years. How did these similarities with your own life make you feel?

Answer. It was rough because my mother and I are so strong now, and taking this role was obviously personal for me. I’ve been trying to navigate how to protect my mother from reopening that wound: the couple of years that we were estranged or going through a lot with acceptance were hard for me, but also for her. I think about our parents as victims too because of what society has programmed them to think about queer children.

Q. How did growing up in the Midwest during the era of Bill Clinton and George Bush impact you as an LGBTQ person?

A. I was getting into fistfights as a child. I remember getting beat up in my front yard and having several bullies. It wasn’t one isolated incident; verbal and physical violence was a constant thing for me. I was going to school with finger waves like Missy Elliott, long nails and girls’ clothing. Getting called a faggot on the regular was the norm. It was hard to find role models and put words to these feelings that were inside of you. All we had were glimpses of trans women in talk shows, and they didn’t really paint us in the best light, they were objectifying us. At some point, I learned to stand up for myself and fight back. And, thankfully, I’m still here.

Q. What has changed in the US since then?

A. Well, I remember buying my hormones on the street. We had to rely on survival sex work in order to afford certain gender-affirming care, and resorted to situations and procedures that weren’t even safe. But it was just what we did. There’s been some progress in terms of trans healthcare, even though we’re still fighting to keep it. Seeing positive representation in film and TV is also an important change. One of the biggest shifts for me was seeing Candis Cayne in 2007 with a recurring role in Dirty Sexy Money. It allowed us to dream. That was the start of something big.

Q. It must be scary that states like Texas have defined gender-affirming care as child abuse, while others such as Florida openly reject your rights.

A. That’s so disgusting. Why is that the instinct is to pick on the ones that are weak and need the most? It’s really disturbing.

Q. We have elections in two years: Are you hopeful?

A. I’m hopeful because I think the next generation is so awake. Gen Z and Gen Alpha are coming into voting age and that’s encouraging. Even these midterms were encouraging. I try not to be overly political but, again, sometimes I have to be just because of the fact that I’m trans. And I’m not really a fan of the two-party system at all. But I was glad to see the conservatives didn’t really come up on top as they thought they would, and I think that’s due to Gen Z.

Alexandra Billings and Trace Lysette in an episode from the third season of 'Transparent.'
Alexandra Billings and Trace Lysette in an episode from the third season of 'Transparent.'©Amazon/Courtesy Everett Collection (©Amazon/Courtesy Everett Collection / Cordon Press)

Q. You have often mentioned how important your chosen family was when you came to New York. What impact have these people had in your life?

A. They filled in the gaps where my biological family just didn’t have the tools to help or accept. My trans mother, Rhonda, is somebody who I have laughed and cried with, and I confided in about the transsexual feminine experience. And she’s an old school girl in her mid 50s who has seen and experienced things that my generation even didn’t have to go through, so she’s able to provide me with wisdom in a lot of ways.

And, also, in New York I found the ballroom scene and my gay father Stanley Milan, somebody who took me under his wing. He did all the things that a father would do, like if I needed help when I was moving or if I needed to cry on the phone about a guy who wasn’t treating me right. I just hope that the story of chosen family can get the spotlight it deserves. These are things so integral to the queer experience, and I feel grateful. I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t found the ballroom scene and my chosen family.

Q. Talking about your trans predecessors, you mentioned before how you had a lot of passing pressure coming from them, who told you many times that your beauty would be your only resource in life. How did that oppressive beauty standard influence who you are today?

A. Passability, or realness, as we called it in the ballroom scene, was about survival. I don’t want to say this as a blanket statement for everywhere, but I do think there’s more freedom in terms of not having to adhere to one form of transness. I remember being a young androgynous queen in New York when I was able to finally get hormones from a doctor. He was very well-intentioned, but told me: “You can stay how you are and be your own thing if you want, but it’s probably going to be easier if you pick one [gender] or the other.” And that was the thinking back then.

I was at a crossroads, and I made the choice to just have more of a binary transfem experience. And, with that came the surgeries that allowed me to get from point A to B with less drama. The thing that doesn’t get talked about is that with passability and traditional views of beauty come more attention from the male gaze and catcalling, which can sometimes be affirming for a young trans girl and then turn into something very scary. It can go from “Hey, ma, you look good” to “that’s a motherfucking man, a faggot.” One big misconception for trans women is that folks outside of the trans umbrella, or even transfem experience, they think that transfemmes get caught up in vanity or beauty. What it really is insecurity and safety. The surgeries that I have come from a deep-rooted insecurity.

Q. Especially being an actress, you have an extra pressure.

A. Yeah, our industry is like a microscope. And in order to do good work and have a good performance, I have to block all that out. I can’t be thinking about insecurities; I have to be present in the work.

Trace Lysette promoting the TV show 'Transparent' in 2017.
Trace Lysette promoting the TV show 'Transparent' in 2017.Chance Yeh (FilmMagic)

Q. You talked about doctors forcing you to choose, and I wanted to ask you about countries such as Argentina and, maybe Spain, that have approved laws to depathologize the trans community and protect gender self-determination. As a visible trans woman, how do you deal with TERF attitudes present in some feminist groups?

A. To me, it’s obvious that TERFs really don’t know us, they’ve probably never gone to lunch with a woman like me who could explain from a real and lived experience what it’s like for us. I’m always trying to find the balance between speaking up against misconceptions and also protecting my own joy. I’ve spoken up about things in the past, but sometimes I have to be protective of myself in order to keep going.

Q. Do you think this fear of trans women comes from a place of ignorance?

A. I do, and a lack of empathy and compassion. That’s why I’m so passionate about telling trans stories, because if they could go see a film like Monica or a piece that illustrates what our lives are really like and where we’re coming from, physically and emotionally, I think they would be enlightened and maybe even ashamed. If they were to really understand what this life journey is about and what it’s been for girls like me, part of them would be embarrassed.

Q. Before “coming out” in Transparent, you said you used to only play cis women because you feared losing potential jobs.

A. I was working in cishetero strip clubs over Manhattan and Queens, risking my life every night when I would go into work. And the stealth experience is something else that hardly ever gets talked about. I don’t think I’ve even seen a show that addresses what that life is like, existing in women’s spaces like the locker room of a strip club alongside cis women. How are we so different if we’re experiencing all of these similar things together?

Trace Lysette.
Trace Lysette.Sean Black

Q. Do you think the industry treats trans women better than when you started almost a decade ago?

A. I do, I’ve seen progression and way more visibility, but it’s still hard to find jobs that really help us be financially stable. I’ve been bouncing around as a guest star for years. The struggle of the guest star actor is hard because you’re constantly waiting for that series, regular job, that allows you to be put in a different kind of plateau in your career where jobs just keep coming.

I would love if producers and directors could start thinking of trans folks for roles that aren’t even specifically written as trans because it doesn’t always have to come into play. You can write a role for a romantic lead woman and maybe it doesn’t matter if she’s trans or not, or maybe there are subtle ways to include it in the script. Or maybe she’s just somebody’s auntie or a schoolteacher. I would love if they just started casting from people’s essence versus these boxes they’re trying to fill. If there’s a role that isn’t written as trans, don’t be afraid to cast a trans actor. And then maybe it’s revealed in episode three or four or never at all. But I just feel like limiting us to wait around for trans roles is a really hard way to go. And we deserve better.

Q. You’ve been really vocal about pay equity and the disparity between actors and actresses, especially trans actresses.

A. Hollywood is still run mostly by men and that’s something that isn’t going to get fixed overnight. I think the best way to combat it is to have people who already have the clout, fame or power to be very intentional about paying women and trans women equally. That’s something that is going to require some leading men be like: “We’re in the same moving doing the same job, let’s get the same check.”

Q. You’ve also been vocal about sexual abuse and harassment, describing how your Transparent colleague Jeffrey Tambor treated you on set in 2017. How did Hollywood and the industry handle your allegations when you came forward with your story in the midst of the #MeToo movement?

A. I wish that people had reached out to me sooner because I had been told that people might be aware of some things that occurred. And no one was reaching out to me officially. There was an investigation that followed, I was questioned for hours, and a decision was made. The part that still hurts is that there’s no way to block out some of the naysayers and some of the things that people are inevitably going to say about you. But I don’t want to reopen this box.

I think I’ll be proud of myself when I look back on that moment of my life because I had a lot to lose, and I still feel like it may have hurt my career. I just hope that, in the future, trans women are treated with a little more respect. I felt there was a difference in the way our allegations were treated versus how some of the more high-profile cis actresses and their allegations were treated. But I’m still here. I’ve healed from all of that, I don’t have animosity towards anybody. I’ve just learned to protect my joy in the aftermath of all that.

Q. And, what would you say to a trans child who is in a non-affirming family and state in America right now?

A. I would say that, as hard as it can be sometimes, their future is brighter than what me and my generation could have dreamed. And, that as soon as they’re able, seek out other folks who have a queer or trans experience and try to find strength in their similarities and find joy. In the trans experience, I can’t stress enough that joy is the antidote to the struggle, the ignorance and the pain. It’s what keep us going.

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