Situated at the intersection of beauty, brains and talent, self-described actor/advocate/transwoman Trace Lysette is best known for her roles as Shea on Amazon Prime’s Golden Globe-winning series Transparent and as Giselle on the Starz series Blunt Talk.
But unlike many of her thespian contemporaries, Lysette is surprisingly unguarded when it comes to discussing her personal life. Though I’d ask her repeatedly if certain subjects, such as dating, were too personal, Lysette was self-assured in speaking her truth, an at times tragic story all-too-universal for so many of her trans sisters.
“Trace came into my life a few years ago after being introduced to me through my bestie Laverne Cox and immediately she and I connected,” says pop recording artist Mila Jam. “Our dynamic has always been very yin and yang. We just compliment each other. We don’t sugar coat our experiences. We share authentically and keep it real. And that’s what I love about Trace: She always keeps it real and genuine.”
Artist/producer Zackary Drucker echoes the sentiment, saying “Whenever Trace Lysette walks into a room, I have this uncontrollable impulse to introduce her like she’s a Golden-Age Hollywood starlet, like the way that Joan Crawford would have her butler announce her when she entered a room: ’Ladies and Gentleman, the ingenue Ms. Trace Lysette.’ Trace is a giant star, a classic beauty in the canon of screen sirens, and she has the acting chops to back it up – she’s the whole package.”
From her relentless activism on behalf of marginalized people everywhere to breaking antiquated Hollywood barriers, the LGBT community is lucky to count Trace among us.
Below we chat with Trace Lysette/@tracelysette.
Let’s start, right from the jump, with your vogueing. Where did you learn to carry like that?
Well, voguing is in my blood. I think the first visual image I saw was as a kid in Ohio was seeing Madonna’s “Vogue” video. It just resonated with me at the core. So then came the experimental voguing around the house as a kid – this was all pre-YouTube, mind you.
When I was a teenager there was a club in Dayton, Ohio called 1470 West. It was a gay club and they had drag shows there, and I used to perform there as well. I had a fake I.D. and probably wasn’t even allowed in there at all, but I was already a part of that scene. The last hour of the night on Saturdays they would switch from R&B and hip-hop to ballroom house. The girls would make a circle and we would just go in, two by two, and battle and carry and vogue. That was one of my first experiences with performing for a crowd, and knowing there was something there, because it was exhilarating and people were responsive to me.
Vogue became an outlet to create and express myself, because voguing is really about telling a story with emotion through the five elements.
Can you tell me what those five elements are?
Hands, catwalk, duckwalk, spins & dips and floor performance.
What gave you the confidence to enter into the circle?
When you’re young, you’re bold and fearless. As a teenager, I was always eccentric and my own person and flew by myself. I had great friends, but I was always a little different, and never knew my place. With that comes bravery. I always had bullies and had to stand up for myself, I never had an older brother to stick up for me. That sense of bravery is what let me get into that circle.
When you first started to feel different, how did you process those feelings and make sense of them?
I suppressed it all through adolescence, but when I was a junior in high school, I began to express myself through my look and hairstyles that weren’t conventional. I used to create my own jeans and dye them with bleach and create all of these interesting patterns. I’d rock finger waves like Missy Elliot, because she was one of my idols, which is hardly typical for a little white boy from Ohio.
Slowly but surely I became me and said, “F*ck it.” Once I learned that no one was going to stick up for me, and that I needed to own myself and rock it to the core there was no turning back.
Where did you seek solace or information when faced with these questions in a pre-Internet world?
I met my first trans woman when I was 17, and she’s still a friend of mine today. I knew when I met her that there was a seed that had been planted; Something was not finished with my journey of my queerness. When I was 20, I worked as a hairstylist and a make-up artist to save up some money and I moved to New York. I slept on an air mattress and was unemployed, sharing a room with my best friend.
It was little by little through the underground railroad of trans women who helped me, that I learned the ropes of transitioning. This was pre-trans healthcare; I didn’t have health insurance.
I was living on my own and struggling, tooth and nail. I befriended girls in the community who showed me the way. We used to buy our hormones in the street. It wasn’t like it is now, at all. It blows my mind, in a good way, with all of the changes we’ve seen in the past year. I think it’s important to speak about what it was like, and to honor what it was like before.
Candis Cayne was instrumental in my transition. I used to go to her show every Monday at the Barracuda, as much as I could to get a glimpse of what a powerful, strong, talented and smart trans woman felt like. It fed my journey and made me feel like I could be successful. I saw her one night downstairs at Splash Bar. She was sitting by herself, and I went to go say hi to her. I told her I was having thoughts of transitioning, and she said, “Keep your head up. You’re a pretty boy, so it might be easier for you.”
Did you always want to be an actress? Is there any connection between that and nightlife?
Oh, absolutely. I think a lot of queer people find unity in nightlife. I don’t think I ever explored acting pre-transition because I didn’t feel comfortable enough in my male body to pursue acting and play male characters. Whenever I was on, I was in drag, I was a woman. That’s when I felt alive.
Once I became cis-passing, I was dancing in gentleman’s clubs all over the city, and I wasn’t fulfilled. One night I left the club and slit my wrists in an alley behind a bodega. Someone found me, and I ended up at Bellevue. It was a huge wake up call for me. Thankfully it wasn’t my time, but when I got out I decided to put my life back together. I enrolled in acting classes and invested in myself.
Until 2013 I was beating the pavement going to audition after audition. I was getting a lot of commercial auditions and then Law & Order came along. That was my first, scripted, big TV show that I ever had a shot at and I booked it my first time.
How did you first get involved with Transparent? And when did you realize that it wasn’t anything like the other TV shows out there?
The audition came in for the Davina role actually. I sent in a tape, and they liked it. I flew out to L.A. and did an acting workshop with Jill and several other girls. Then we did a final callback the next day with Jeffrey [Tambor]. I didn’t get it, but they shot me an email saying, “Hey would you be interested in playing the yoga teacher and friend for an episode or so?” It started out as one episode, and then turned into two episodes, and then I came back for season 2.
I think the first time I knew it wasn’t your average piece of art was my first day on set. I didn’t know much about the family storyline, but being there amongst all of the trans crew and people behind-the scenes-was history being made. I said to myself, “Okay, this is different. There are trans people on the set of Paramount right now. I don’t think that’s ever happened before.”
It’s an interesting dynamic between your character Shea and Jeffery Tambor’s Maura in that Shea is much younger than Maura, yet much older in her experience as a trans woman.
I think we’re taught as a society to think one way or the other. You can’t be wise in one sense and naive in the other; You have to be one or the other across the board, and that’s not the case. While Shea has been through a lot at her age and in her transition, Maura is still older and she has more life experience in general. It’s an interesting friendship, because they have a lot to give each other. It’s really beautiful.
What’s one conversation within the trans movement that’s frustrating you?
I know our visibility is at an all time high with people like Caitlyn, Laverne and Candis knocking open the door, but I want people to understand that every trans person’s journey is different. You haven’t even seen past the tip of the iceberg yet, as far as what some of us have gone through.
I want to take the sugarcoating off of it, and really strip it down to let America get to know all of the colors within the trans spectrum, because I don’t think we’ve gotten to the core of it yet.
There’s been a lot of talk about “passibility.” Where do you stand on that subject? And when does the conversation verge towards the offensive?
In terms of passibility, that’s something we don’t need to subscribe to anymore. I think that this an archaic, antique quality we used to revere. It was really about survival. So in the ’80s and ’90s, if you weren’t passable, you had a hard way to go. Even into the ’00s and today, it’s a little bit harder in terms of walking down the street. I think we need to get away from trying to appease this cis-normative standard of appearance.
That’s what one of my last Instagram posts was about. In a lot of people’s eyes, I achieved that cis-passing look. In the end, it didn’t really help the overall picture of my happiness, because I’m still trans and I go through a lot of shit. Passing is a double-edged sword, because it’s just another conversation that you have to have with everyone. Why not own it and be authentic and transparent all the time?
What are your honest thoughts about media-folk, like myself, talking about trans issues?
I think it’s important for media to tell our stories. Not in an exploitive way, but in an honest and nuanced way that sheds light on the many varied experiences across the trans spectrum. All of us have had a different journey and I think as long as the media is not sensationalizing or dehumanizing our lives then it is a necessary and good step for us to share our experiences. The good and the bad. Finding allyship in media from people who are not trans or even LGBT is crucial.
#Repost @shannonpezzetta ・・・ Got to work with this Beauty @tracelysette killing the red carpet at the Emmys… hair by @dereksyuen stylist @christinajpacelli #makeupbymoi for @swartists lips @narsissist eyes @napoleonperdis skin @narsissist glow @tomford brows @velourlashesofficial @anastasiabeverlyhills #emmys2015 #amzonprime #transparenttv #blunttalk
How important, if at all, do you think it is to constantly be referred to as trans? Do you think that’s a conversation that should be diminished over time?
Every article that has been written about me has the word trans in it. I just don’t think that’s something that has to always be there, or a label that always needs to be slapped on us. Before I was a trans actress, I was an actress. I was on Law & Order before I ever came out, and ultimately that’s what I am. Yes I’m trans, I’m proud of that, but it’s not all that I am.
What is dating like for you?
Dating is hard as a trans woman. I’ve been single a very long time. Recently I’ve started to try and date again just because my career is falling in line. I feel like I put dating on the back burner for so many years. I really consciously say now, “Okay Trace, go on a date. Try and meet someone.” But it’s really hard because a lot of the men that are attracted to trans women fall more on the straight side of the spectrum. They have to deal with the stigma of dating a trans woman, and what that means socially and sexually.
It’s very frustrating for me, because I can’t take that on, and I can’t make excuses for them. I can be patient to a point, but I can’t baby them. They have to step up and take their place in our community and understand that there is nothing wrong with being attracted to trans women. It’s just another kind of woman and there is nothing wrong with that. That’s a battle, and a lot of the guys walk away when I tell them I’m trans.
I laugh because it hurts. It hurts that my trans sisters are single. It can be lonely, and if I think about it too much it can bring me down. That’s when I focus on my friendships with the trans women in my life who understand. We get through, but it’s tough, not gonna lie.
I’m curious for your thoughts on the divide within the LGBT community. Do you feel we are a community that is as accepting of others’ differences as we claim to be?
I think the further we get away from being oppressed, the easier it is to separate. With separation can come cattiness and forgetting the bigger picture. If you look at the whole LGBT spectrum, we’re all still a minority. There’s strength in numbers, and I wish we could find common ground. It’s good to critique, but there’s a way to critique something in a positive light.
I have noticed with the Internet age, people find relevance in making outlandish comments on people’s work and stories, maybe for their own attention. I think we need to be mindful in how we deliver critique. It’s good to have conversations about what we can do better. It’s always good to want to be better. But there’s a constructive way to say everything.
Lastly, and most importantly, who are you?
I’m a survivor. I think what gets me out of bed in the morning is my need to contribute to a more inclusive, kind world.
Watch Trace and Lady J mentor a gender non-conforming author on Logo’s Beautiful As I Want To Be below.