'Transparent' Star Trace Lysette on How to Build a Trans-Inclusive Hollywood

"Transparent" star Trace Lysette opens up about her experiences being typecast and her vision for a gender-inclusive entertainment industry in the era of #MeToo.

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Mar 12 2018, 7:42pm

Photo by Greg Doherty via Getty Images

In the midst of the initial wave of #MeToo stories late last year, actress Trace Lysette, who plays Shea on Transparent, came forward with sexual harassment accusations against her co-star Jeffrey Tambor. She was the second person from Transparent to do so; Tambor’s personal assistant Van Barnes previously claimed the actor subjected her to “unwanted physical contact and lewd remarks.”

Lysette and Barnes’s allegations prompted an internal investigation from Amazon Studios, after which the show decided to part ways with Tambor, announcing that the fifth and final season of Transparent would continue without him. Though the show came under criticism for hiring a cis man, Tambor, to play the trans lead, Transparent has become a consistent employer of trans actors, crew, and creators, and many within the trans community are hoping that Tambor’s departure will allow the show’s trans actresses to be centered.

The era of #MeToo—which some have called a “watershed moment” and “cultural reckoning”—brings a potential redistribution of power in an industry that has been rife with abuses of it. Amidst record-breaking firsts for representation on the big and small screens, Broadly caught up with Lysette to ask about her vision of a trans and gender-inclusive future for Hollywood.

BROADLY: Much has been made over the last several years about whether trans people should play trans characters, and obviously you have a very personal investment in that decision-making process, but beyond that basic question of trans actors and actresses for trans roles, what would true equality in Hollywood look like for trans actors?
TRACE LYSETTE: What does true equality in Hollywood look like? Well, I’ll take it a step further and say that equality in Hollywood needs to mirror the world that we actually live in. That goes for in front of the camera and behind. I mean, last [week] was incredible for me to see on the Oscars that I got to see trans people included in the broadcast for what I think is probably the first time. We saw Daniela Vega on stage, Janet Mock on stage, we got to see Yance Ford nominated.

It was the first time I felt like we were part of the conversation, in terms of Oscar world. So, I heard the words “intersectional” and “being intentional” thrown around throughout the evening by various people and it’s nice to hear that that is reaching Hollywood. I feel like if Hollywood can stretch for inclusion and intersectionality, and being intentional with its intersectionality, that that can ripple out past Hollywood into whatever industry and kind of affect society as a whole.

How do we, as movie-going fans or people on social media who talk about movies and performances, effect that change in Hollywood?
Social media’s a powerful tool, so I think that everything we saw last [week] was in part a result of the #MeToo movement, #OscarsSoWhite movement, different movements that have sparked publicly through the vehicle of social media to create this mass conversation and awakening. I think speaking up and out as moviegoers, no matter how big or small your platform might be, means something. Everyone has a voice. I mean, that’s the good side to the Internet Age and social media. Obviously, there’s negatives to it, but I think that the fact that everyone has a voice now is a tool that we can use for good.

You and many other trans women, myself included, have their own #MeToo stories. In fact, a 2011 report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 64% of trans people will experience sexual assault in their lifetimes.) How would you like to see trans survivors of sexual harassment and violence be better supported and centered in the current discourse?

I am encouraged by several of the #TimesUp meetings that I’ve been to [because of] the fact that we are being included. I think it’s important for those of us who do have a platform or access to keep trans [people] in the conversation, because we can get lost in the shuffle. As we know historically, we’re not always at the top of the list when it comes to priorities and that’s really, really unfortunate. I think we have to always have the conversation about who’s being included and who we might need to spend a little more time making to feel included, whatever group it might be, and that’s going to be an ongoing thing.

There’s so much talk about trans women playing trans roles, but there doesn’t seem to be as much talk about trans women playing either specifically cisgender roles or roles where the character’s gender identity is not relevant. I was wondering what your thoughts might be on that?
Sometimes I wish I could just hit fast forward and see where we would be five years from now. I think it’s just going to take a little time for the mainstream audience to catch up because trans is still kind of this hot topic and we’re still struggling to get that right in Hollywood. So, I think that down the road, I hope and I believe that we will get to see more trans people in cis-specific or not-specified-as-trans roles. That’s how I started in my career and I believe I can get back to that. It’s not fun for an actor to be pigeonholed in any way.

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Can we talk about that a little bit? How do you deal with being pigeonholed?
The best way for me to cope with it is that I think of the universe and my life and vibrations as kind of like the ocean. You want to try and swim with the movement whichever way it’s flowing. It’s kind of like leaning into whatever the universe is serving you. So, if right now it’s meant for me to be in trans everything, then okay, I’m going to lean into that.

Maybe five years from now, that won’t be the case and I can broaden my scope, again, and play cis roles, again. I think it’s important to say “again” because it’s been done. You know, Oprah gave a good speech at the Essence Fest, I believe it was last year or the year before, but she talks about that. She talks about doing everything you can do to move in the direction you want and when you’ve done everything you can, you let it go and give it up to the universe or give it up to God or the higher power, and you let it be what it’s going to be. So, if this is what it’s going to be for now, then that’s what it is.

As we’re reaching these unprecedented heights for trans visibility and rights, we’re also being pushed back by the President and his administration. What would you say to the closeted trans teens whose parents are not accepting to get them through the next day, week, month, year?
Oh my goodness. That’s a heavy one. Well, it is daunting, because we’ve had 21 or more anti-trans bills introduced this year already. I think that I would tell them to find community. Find togetherness amongst yourselves by whatever resources available to you. If it’s the internet, use that, and find people who are like you. Lift yourselves up and find time to rejoice in the face of all of this hate, because love trumps hate. The world will eventually catch up. It’s going to be a fight and there might be some ups and downs, but I can attest to the fact that the world is a better place for trans people now than it was when I was a teenager.