A Roundtable Discussion With the Transgender Talent Behind Transparent

Photo: Emily Berl/Vulture
‘TV Is Breaking Into Us’
Transparent’s on- and offscreen transgender talent on challenging the notion of “men in dresses,” auditioning in Hollywood, and the future of gender.
Photograph by Emily Berl/Vulture

When Transparent creator and now two-time Emmy-winning director Jill Soloway released a rallying cry at the Emmys on September 18 to “topple the patriarchy,” there was a palpable shifting of audience members in their seats. After years of more traditional comedy series contenders seeing their directors take to the Emmys stage (think Modern Family), the fight for trans and female inclusion in Hollywood was suddenly being televised and Soloway was its fearless leader.

But Soloway and Transparent star Jeffrey Tambor, who nabbed a second consecutive trophy for his work as the series’ trans protagonist Maura Pffeferman, are the first to acknowledge that their work on the critically acclaimed Amazon series — which premiered its third season on September 23 — is impossible without the groundbreaking, and at times painfully personal, contributions of its transgender writers, producers, directors, and actors.

Actress Alexandra Billings (“Davina”); producer Zackary Drucker; producer Rhys Ernst; actress Alexandra Grey (“Elizah Edwards”); director Silas Howard; writer Ali Liebegott; actress Trace Lysette (“Shea”); and writer Our Lady J, sat down with Vulture at Edendale restaurant in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood to reflect on how the series has changed the way we tell trans stories, the hopefulness they now feel for trans children, and why they disagree on how important it is to cast trans people in transgender roles.

How did it feel to see Jill and Jeffrey use their Emmy moments to advocate so publicly for the trans community? And how have your lives — personally and professionally — been impacted by their support and working on the show?

Trace Lysette: Their speeches were the highlight of the night and really drove home again how important our representation is in Hollywood. The show didn’t win, but I feel like we won anyway.

Our Lady J: When I transitioned, I’d go to the LGBT center for my support group. Now I just show up at work. These are the people I share my life, my experiences, and hardships with now. Hopefully our work is helping to alleviate the hardships for the trans community.

Rhys Ernst: I worked a lot in film before this and always felt like being trans was a liability, something I had to hide. Best-case scenario, maybe people would find out, but it was definitely not acceptable to talk about. I thought it would cost me jobs and that was always going be the case.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the responsibility and influence you have now?

Lysette: Definitely, but I also feel like it’s my purpose. Prior toTransparent, I wasn’t out in the industry. I learned to compartmentalize my life. I booked jobs as what we call “stealth” — I didn’t disclose being trans, and I didn’t feel fulfilled. And then a trans girl was murdered in Harlem where I lived. She died a block from my house. Her name was Islan Nettles. She was catcalled and beaten to death. It shook me to the core. And it was right around the time that Orange Is the New Black hit. [Orange actress] Laverne [Cox] was a friend of mine and she took me to an LGBT acting class. It was my time first talking about my fears openly in a room full of people and figuring out how to get out of that stealth world.

Ali Liebegott: I’ll never forget when we started on Transparent, the first writers room was in this little house in Silver Lake that Jill had rented. Amazon had ordered eight weeks of work at that point; the pilot had been made, but the show wasn’t picked up yet, though the writers room was assembled. I had moved here from a queer community in San Francisco and it was so crazy to come to Hollywood where people didn’t know the term “cisgender” [a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex], a word that now is really in the ether. This is before Caitlyn Jenner came out, which to me was a huge marker of time in the bigger media stream. From that point on, it’s all felt like a boulder gathering speed.

L-R: Ali Liebegott, Trace Lysette Photo: Emily Berl/Vulture

Ernst: It was like a dam that broke. And it was long overdue. It’s not that this movement didn’t already exist, but it was very much quieted beneath the surface.

Liebegott: No one had written a big check for it. That’s what I always like to say. The people with the big checks hadn’t said “yes” yet. Trans stories weren’t in the mainstream.

Alexandra Billings: I think there was also a reticence that all of us were going to take over in some kind of way. I love what you just said, Ali. We have to remember, historically, after Stonewall, when the AIDS plague came, [the 1980s advocacy group] Act Up was born out of all that rage and revolution. I told [A Normal Heart playwright and activist] Larry Kramer, “I want to march.” And he said very clearly, “You can’t do that.” And I said “Why?” “Because no one will pay attention to us. They’ll think we’re all men in dresses.” What he was trying to do by telling me that was keep the revolution moving in a way that was about forward motion. You have to be not only revolutionary, you have to be smart. And that’s what’s going on now.

Did you march?

Billings: Oh, hell yes. [Laughter.] He’s my friend, but that doesn’t mean that I do everything he tells me to do. The people who are invisible at this table right now — Jill, her sister [writer] Faith Soloway, and [co-executive producer] Andrea Sperling, and the rest of the people involved in this show — the importance of their voices needs to be underlined in a way that is not only historically accurate, but looks to the future of who we are. And what Jeffrey said onstage at the Emmys is extraordinary. “I’m fine being the last cisgender person to play a transgender person. I’m okay with that.”

“I feel like sometimes people watch me act and they’re like, ‘Wow, you’re really good.’ It’s like, was I not supposed to be good?”
— Alexandra Grey

Lysette: The people behind me were like, “Cisgender? What’s that?” And I’m like, “Google it!”

Liebegott: [Talking into her phone] “Siri, what is cisgender? [Laughter.

Zackary Drucker: What’s so astounding is that these conversations have been happening internally for so long, and maybe in a way we have been very cloistered. Then the Matt Bomer scandal erupted a few weeks ago [when it was announced that Bomer, a gay cisgender actor, was going to play a trans woman in the upcoming indie film Anything]. It was very surprising to me that no one at the highest levels of the production saw this coming. Somehow it still didn’t permeate.

Do you think that when a gay man is cast in a trans role, there is a sense of “Well, he is part of the LGBT community. Close enough?”

Drucker: Yes. There’s always been a conflation of those identities. Trans women versus drag queens.

Alexandra Grey: I’m probably going to get into trouble by saying this, but I really don’t care who plays who. As an artist, I just want to be challenged. I’m kind of done playing trans roles. I’ve played so many! I want more of a challenge now. The bigger issue people miss is that trans actors mostly aren’t given the opportunity to audition in the first place. That’s why it’s a big deal.

Lysette: I’ll tell you why it bothers me. When you cast a gay male or a cis male to play a trans woman, it gives society the idea that we are men in dresses. And we also haven’t yet explored the fact that many hetero cis man are attracted to trans women. Society hasn’t accepted this yet. I don’t know why it scares people, but it does.

L-R: Zackary Drucker, Alexandra Grey Photo: Emily Berl/Vulture

And your character on Transparent, Shea, has a story line this season that specifically addresses this attraction.

Lysette: Yes, we do touch on it this season. But [this fear that straight men have] is the reason I’ve been single for eight years. [Lady J] and I talk about this all the time. Why are we, two women who have it together, still single?

Billings: And so gorgeous!

Lysette: Society is still so scared to talk about us being loved. And we deserve love. 

I think there’s also a fixation on the sexual act between a trans woman and a cis male and what that looks like. Straight men don’t want to imagine themselves going there.

Lysette: Yes, publicly they don’t, even though a lot of them imagine it privately!

Rhys and Silas, what has most scared and/or surprised you about what it means to be male in our culture?

Ernst: One of the first things I noticed after transitioning was that I was treated completely differently by male strangers, like gas station attendants or clerks. Before that, I was very gender nonconforming and treated really weirdly and often with hostility. So to become privy to this new behavior, almost like an undercover agent, was really interesting. I’m a sort of feminist double agent behind enemy lines. [Laughs.] Now, I try to be out as trans as much as possible because it actually makes me uncomfortable to be read as a cis man. I’m sort of in a weird position because at times I feel like I’m betraying the privilege I’ve been given. I was a socialized female for most of my life, for 25 years, and I still defer way more to women and want to surround myself with women.

Have you had to, say, feign interest in sports and other stereotypical male things in order to fit in with straight guys?

Ernst: [Laughter.] Oh, God, yeah.

Silas Howard: I think I didn’t transition for years because I actually didn’t want to be in that world. As a gender-queer person, I’d worked carpentry, which was a very male environment.

“Otherized queer people have never been shown on TV or film with any love until very recently. They’ve always been presented as freaks and damaged.”
— Ali Liebegott

Did you feel welcome in that world?

Howard: Yes and no. Sometimes I was literally hidden in a room on a construction site. They’d be like, “We’re not sexist, but the boss doesn’t really want us to hire women. So can you hide in this room?” I was like, “Well, as long as you’re paying me!” But then I came to the point when I just wanted to feel comfortable in my body, so I was like, “Okay, I’m going do this.” Man, straight dudes really love each other. Like so much! It’s beyond gay. [Laughter.]

Liebegott: It’s shocking!

Howard: So now I am always out as a trans man because I want them to know. I’ve been in casting sessions where someone will make a trans joke. And I’m like, “Okay, you’re definitely not getting a callback.” [Laughter.] I didn’t transition until my late 30s, early 40s, so I had a longer time to live as a gender-queer person. Then you realize … straight white middle-class dudes — they have so much exponential power. We are so often in a world of scarcity; there is only one spot for otherized people and this is toxic for everyone.

Lady J: The notion of toxic masculinity should really be reframed as fragile masculinity. The camaraderie they have with each other helps to protect their privilege. When I transitioned, I didn’t know I ever had male privilege because I always was like, “I’m a fag, I’m whatever.” Then when I started passing as a woman, I would just try to sit down and keep my mouth shut. “Oh, thank you!” I was treated very differently. Before, if I was walking down the sidewalk, men never got close to me. As a woman, men come closer to me. They make comments. So ultimately I did experience a great loss of privilege and the world became a much harder place. I think a lot cis men know that the world is a harder place if they lose theirs.

Which is why, one could argue, that Trump is doing as well as he is with certain groups. He’s tapped directly into these kinds of fears.

Lady J: Yes. He’s trying to reclaim that privilege because they see and feel that it may be ending.

Liebegott: If you look at it within the framework of Hollywood, otherized queer people have never been shown on TV or in film with any kind of love until very recently. They’ve always been presented as freaks and damaged. So when people meet us in real life, it takes three years before they can just look at us as people because they’ve got all this shit in their head! But the backlash of representation now is that everyone’s trying to be p.c. But if you have to be politically correct to be in a room with otherized people, then you don’t really think they’re real people. Does that make sense?

Billings: Yes. But what we really need to do is replace the concept of political correctness with human kindness. If it’s a struggle for you to act and behave kindly towards people, that’s something you need to look at. Look, what’s the worst thing you can call a young boy in a schoolyard? A girl. We represent something in American language: the feminization of the American male. And that is terrifying to men, and to women, too. This is why when we transition, we all conform. We wear makeup. We do our hair. We wear high heels. I was with [Transparent actress] Kathryn Hahn at the Governors Ball after the Emmys and she had her heels on the table. They were huge and uncomfortable. I asked her, “Why are you wearing those shoes?” She turned to me and said, “I don’t know.”

The thing about Donald Trump is I believe he’s doing really well because he’s reminding us of all the things we have stuck to for so long: stereotypical masculine, patriarchal rules. But it’s all learned behavior. How we sit, dress, sound, walk, talk, behave with each other, treat each other. It’s cultural and it’s tribal.  If we can somehow get past what we believe to be true and get to the center of what we know is true, this whole conversation will be moot. We’ll be talking about humanity as a whole instead of picking ourselves off. There’s a false perception of neutrality with any dominant cultural position, whether it’s whiteness, maleness, et al. Transparent has been a great leap forward in the scope of film and television history. When you look at all the ways we’ve been misrepresented, we are now doing the work of feminism — dismantling those systems of power, which is why it’s all so threatening. We are now participating as a collective and no longer as the one exception.

The 2013 film Dallas Buyers Club earned a lot of critical acclaim, including Oscars for lead actor Matthew McConaughey and supporting actor Jared Leto, who played an HIV-positive trans woman named Rayon. Rhys, you’ve been critical of Rayon, calling her “a throwaway character, a drug addict who was there to make the protagonist learn about himself, and she was named after a synthetic fabric. That’s not a real person.” What should the filmmakers have done to avoid what many felt was just another trans caricature? Whose responsibility was it ultimately?

Ernst: Well, it’s too late when you’ve gotten to the casting phase. That said, even if an incredible trans actress played that role, it still would have been very problematic to me. The actor could have maybe intercepted or tweaked a couple of lines, but the character was still written to be in subservience to the male protagonist. One solution would have been for the filmmakers to partner with a trans writer very early in the writing process. That’s why this idea of strength in numbers is really important. And while casting is crucial, and I’m so glad it’s become the lever for change, even if every trans role was cast with a trans person I personally wouldn’t be satisfied with that.

So much was made and celebrated about Jared having thrown himself into the role, losing weight, staying in character on set, and “living” as Rayon while they were shooting.

Liebegott: But he didn’t have a lifetime of misrepresentation to know what that even meant. Best intentions are great, but not if you don’t understand the oppression that the people [you are portraying] have suffered.

Howard: Queer and trans PTSD.

Liebegott: Right. You’re not going be able to recognize what’s wrong with the script when you don’t understand the things you’ve been privileged to have. 

Lady J: I’ve heard this argument from writers about whether you need a trans person in the room to tell trans stories. “Well, I don’t have to be a musician to write about music.” But that’s because we’ve had hundreds of years of lovely stories told about musicians. And we see them as human beings. But when you’ve had an otherized group of people only portrayed in a negative light — not as human beings — this is adapted into our subconsciousness. And you are going to continue writing that character as someone who is not fully human.

Billings: That is hilarious to me — equating musicianship with being trans. Like they’re even in the same container. One is something you do and the other one is something you are! Years ago they started to cast [singer] Billie Holiday in movies and she played maids. At one point and she said, “Okay, I’m not going to play any more maids.” And she never worked again. Similarly, I told my agent years ago, “I’m done playing roles where I’m dying in a hospital and being saved by cis people. And I am also done murdering people.”

Lady J: I’m not done with that. [Laughter.]

Billings: And I didn’t work for three years! Then Transparent comes along and Faith Soloway asks me to audition. I said, “I’m not going do that.” She said, “No, no, no. It’s a whole other thing.” When I got the role, I told Jill [Soloway] very succinctly, “This is what I look like. This is how I sound. This is how I dress. This is how I walk. I’m not in peril. And if I am in peril, I’m working my way through it like every other human being on the planet. If there’s chaos in my life, I don’t need a cis person to give me a hand.” What I am is very different from what I do. I can’t take off my brownness. I can’t take off my transness. It doesn’t come off in a closet and hang somewhere. It’s what I am. It’s my birthright. So this equating being trans so casually with something like being a musician just kills me.

Howard: And what I think Transparent is showing the industry by getting all these awards is we’re not breaking into TV; TV is breaking into us.

L-R: Alexandra Billings, Silas Howard Photo: Emily Berl/Vulture

Liebegott: Thank you. And they’re lucky to have us!  

Billings: That’s amazing. “They’re lucky to have us.” Let me write that down!

Drucker: At the same time, we’re incredibly fortunate to be here and to be working together.

Liebegott: I know that too, I feel that.

Drucker: We’re fortunate to be living in this time and place and have allies like Jill and Jeffrey, who are using their platform in a responsible way that no other allies have before. We’ve gone from being mildly sympathetic characters to being completely embedded in the very fabric of how a show is made. But unfortunately, when you zoom out of the microcosm of Transparent and L.A. and California, where our gender identity is protected in anti‑discrimination clauses, there are 32 states where that isn’t the case. We have an enormous responsibility to represent a community that’s still tremendously marginalized.

Ernst: Yes, and back to the musician comparison: Imagine if being a musician meant that you were murdered disproportionately, fired, and/or overall not protected in the majority of the U.S., and incredibly misunderstood by 99 percent of the population. Having disparaging story after disparaging story written about you. Imagine if every musician was depicted as a dead sex worker in the gutter.

Lysette: We’re getting ready to see the first major trans character on network TV [with Laverne Cox’s role on CBS’s upcoming legal drama Doubt]. And Jamie Clayton’s role [on Netflix’s Sense8] is amazing. And we need more of that. We need whole characters. We need to see their ups and their downs.

Grey: It’s all been a little conflicting for me. My role in Transparent is probably the most normal one I’ve had. On a lot of other shows I’ve done, it’s the first time they’ve ever worked with a black trans woman. And some of the things I hear on the set I’m like, “Oh, that’s not good.” And I feel so conflicted about speaking up because I’m happy to be there, but it’s really hard being the pioneer. I feel like sometimes people watch me act and they’re like, “Wow, you’re really good.” It’s like, was I not supposed to be good?

“[Being trans] is something that happens, and we don’t really know why. And we don’t have to know why. It’s a part of the human experience.”
— Rhys Ernst

They are surprised to learn that you’re a real artist and not just a novelty act?

Grey: Yeah. We’re breaking ground, but it’s still very challenging sometimes. 

Ernst: But no one can be or do all those things — speaking up and telling the production they should do this differently, while also concentrating on your role. It’s not fair to be the only trans person. It’s too much pressure. 

For the actors, how does it feel now when you go in to read for other roles? Are you able yet to be seen simply as actors?

Lysette: Well, I don’t have to hand the casting people my headshot anymore, thank God. [Laughs.] And there is a perception that I’m probably auditioning like crazy now, but I’m not. I’ve had maybe six this year total. And when I talk to other actors who I’m parallel with career-wise, they say, “Oh, I go out for like four a week.” So I go out for non‑trans stuff, but also trans stuff. I just hope that all of my preparation and lived experience will take me somewhere. And that season three of Transparent will show more of my chops.

In the new season, there is an incredible flashback episode, written by Lady J, that shows Maura as a girl, and she is played by a young trans actress named Sophia Grace Gianna. It depicts the painful challenges experienced by some families as they struggle to accept their child’s gender identity. For people going through this, what can they learn from the show and your experiences?

Drucker: I think we all communicated to our parents in our early adolescence that we didn’t feel like our bodies lined up with how we were being treated. And many of us have supportive parents, but they really did not know that trans people existed, or that it was an option.

Lady J: I think it’s about reframing of what the child is. The child is not a boy who’s becoming a girl. The child is a girl who you are assigning the wrong gender to. So it doesn’t have to be “I have to treat my child differently.” Just accept your child and listen to them. If parents didn’t have the chatter in society telling them how children should behave, they could more easily allow their child to prosper in whatever gender identity they assume.

Liebegott: There’s nothing more horrible than the gendered colors of a baby shower, right? I just saw an excellent article about a parent whose kid was gender-nonconforming. The child was hitting a hard age, which was maybe 10 or 11, when they start to get shamed. But the parents were letting the child experience the world as they are.

Howard: I have two godsons. And before the younger one was born, I told the older one, “You’re going have a little brother!” And he scolded me and said, “You know, Silas, we all think he’s a boy now, but we don’t know for sure. It may be a girl.” And I was like, “You’re so right, my 8‑year‑old godson!” [Laughs.]

Grey: This is why I think my character this season is so important. I knew as early as 4 that I wanted to be a girl. But growing up in the hood, you don’t know what that is. Being gay isn’t even talked about.

Did you tell anyone how you were feeling?

Grey: I didn’t. I was in foster care. I didn’t have time to be like, “Hey, I want to be girl!”

You were just trying to survive.

Grey: Yes. Also, in the African‑American community, this stuff is not even up for discussion. For my foster parents it was like, “Okay, maybe the gay thing is okay.” But then when I said I was trans, it was like, “You gotta go.”

“We didn’t sign up for this.”

Grey: Yeah. That’s why it’s so important that we’re introducing this character because there are black teens and parents out there who need to see this. This can happen to anybody no matter what color you are. This could be your child.

Liebegott: When I was in school, we didn’t have LGBT clubs. So for kids today to be able to say, “This bathroom isn’t correct for me” is sign of progress. And for the school to say, “We’re going provide a safe space.” Though, I hate to ever suggest there’s ever a positive change in society. [Laughs.]

Lady J: When I transitioned, I was teaching in public schools in New York. I don’t ever recommend transitioning while teaching. Not because of kids. The kids were like, “Okay, cool. Mr. J, Miss J, we don’t care.” [Laughs.] I was teaching music.

Liebegott: So being trans and being a musician are the same thing! [Laughter.]

“We don’t have that high-profile male who can be [an] example for other men; someone who is attracted to trans women. That actor. That athlete. That politician. We all know who they are.”
— Our Lady J

Lady J: And then I introduced the idea of making the classroom a safe space for all genders. But then a co‑teacher would say, “Okay, the girls should do this, and the boys should do this.” And I’d see the butch in the back of the room just totally shut down. So accepting there are trans children is new and huge. Even ten years ago, it was still, “This is an adult issue.”

Drucker: And there are trans people everywhere, whether they’ve transitioned or not. I’m constantly surprised at the bearded men I meet who disclose to me that they have a second life or a part of themselves that they’ve never expressed to anyone.

Lady J: Casting a trans child in our show also really changed our opinion of who Maura is. In the writers room, we think of Maura as being a girl from birth. We never refer to her as a boy like, “He was Mort then.” No, Maura has always been Maura. It was the world that saw her as Mort.

Ernst: A parallel I don’t hear made very often is that people who are gay weren’t straight before they came out. They were always gay, they just hadn’t let it be known yet. And that’s an easy metaphor to use for transness. I’ve heard about many trans kids who make it known when they’re about 3 or 4. And if a kid is going be that persistent about “This is who I am. I have anxiety when you put me in this other role,” it’s probably not going go away. For whatever reason, transness is a part of community diversity, like being flat-footed. It’s just something that happens, and we don’t really know why. And we don’t have to know why. It’s a part of the human experience.

Drucker: Transness definitely destabilizes social order.

Howard: And binary thinking, which is killing us right now. 

Drucker: The future of gender looks very different than it does today. The big question is: How do we further define ourselves as trans people in a cis-dominant world, when for so long we’ve defined ourselves basically in resistance to this other thing?

L-R: Rhys Ernst, Our Lady J Photo: Emily Berl/Vulture

I’ve heard from a few trans people that Transparent is too painful for them to watch, and that they just want to quietly fit into society, the opposite of visibility. What do you tell people who feel this way?

Billings: It’s a great question. There’s a gift in honoring individuality in assimilation. I come from a generation where we were hunted and targeted. I’m approaching 60 and I’m really excited about getting there. My wife is also approaching 60. We’ve been together now for 40 years. Had we gotten married when we met, everything would have been fine. But then living outwardly as I decided to live, all of a sudden I was against the law. So I never lived in stealth. I speak for several people at this table who lost friends in the 1980s and 1990s during the plague, people who are no longer able to speak. So we are a representation of their ceased voices. And it’s important that we’re loud in a way that causes a cracking. Not just to pave a journey, but a cracking in human existence. In order for us to fit in, we have to allow ourselves to be true in every single moment. And if that means taking up an enormous amount of space, that’s great. And if that means containing ourselves, that’s great as well. We just have to be able to honor who we were so that we can bless who we are. And that’s true no matter what experience you’ve had. 

Drucker: Every human deserves the right to happiness, to be comfortable in their body to be safe in their environment.

Liebegott: The right to pee when they need to pee!

Lysette: I transitioned almost 15 years ago. And back then, we were taught that simply “passing” was the goal. It was about survival. When I started living my life as a woman, I didn’t pass at first. I transitioned in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, in a Spanish neighborhood. And I used to walk by these mechanics every day in my two-block walk to the subway station. They shouted at me and called me “maricon” [a derogatory slang term in Spanish for gay]. But eventually the more “passable” I got, their shouting turned into whistles and catcalling. For me that was the lesser of two evils. At least I wasn’t in danger of being gay-bashed! And then I’d go to work at Bloomingdale’s where I wasn’t allowed to use the woman’s restroom. For me, it was about getting away from all of that and becoming a part of society where I felt safe. And yet this is the deadliest year on record for trans women.

Howard: We’re dealing with so much anxiety all the time.

Grey: I was having this conversation with someone at the Emmys. People think that I have it easy because I’m “passable.” And it’s like, “Um, no!” I probably can move through society a little bit easier now, but it’s still just as dangerous for me. And I’m even more terrified now that people are seeing me on TV.

“I can’t take off my brownness [or] my transness. It doesn’t come off in a closet and hang somewhere.”
— Alexandra Billings

Billings [Gesturing to Grey, Lady J, Lysette and Drucker]: I have a question for all of you. This never entered my mind, probably because it’s generational, but do you consciously say to yourself at any time during the day, “I need to sound a certain way, act a certain way, and behave a certain way?” And when and why?

Lady J: Absolutely. But I just want to get my fucking milk at the store! I don’t want to take care of the [cashier] and his feelings about my gender. Though in California it’s different. The reason I moved here is because in New York, I used to get chased down the street. I had my life threatened over and over again. I wore the worst clothes in the world to look as homely as I could. And I really tried to hide. But this isn’t easy for someone who is six-two. So I’ve ghettoized myself in West Hollywood and it’s a lot easier.

Liebegott: But I feel all this violence goes back to what Trace said in the beginning: Men can’t deal with it.

Lysette: They have never dealt with us being desirable and that being okay. I never used to leave my house without a blade and mace because every day on the subway at 3:15 when school got out, I knew it was going be a battle. And I would walk with my head down until I raised enough money to get the gender-affirming surgeries that made me feel safe. There’s still PTSD from those days, but I look so different now. I live in L.A. I don’t have to ride the subway. So I’ve healed from it a little bit.

Grey: It’s overwhelming because she’s so beautiful, right? But also, for cisgender women too, the amount of attention that they get is almost overwhelming that it’s to the point where I just try not to even talk to guys!

Lysette: Especially in the hood.

Grey: Because when they find out, it becomes very dangerous.

Drucker: We also need a better multiplicity of representations of trans people. There are so many trans women out there like Maura who aren’t, say, an ingénue or a bombshell.

Lady J: And to that end, I would like to use this platform as a challenge. In the celebrity world, we don’t have that high-profile male who can be example for other men, someone who is attracted to trans women. That actor. That athlete. That politician. We all know who they are.

Lysette: Oh, yes, I’ve got a list. [Laughter.]

Lady J: But we need that famous, straight-identified cis man who is attracted to trans women to say, “This is my partner and I love her. So fucking stop killing people like her. It’s an attraction that is natural and it’s beautiful.” 

What is a question you hope you never have to answer again about who you are?

Billings: “Have you had surgery? What kind of surgery have you had? What have had done? What would like to have done? When did you have it done? How much would you like to have done? How does it work? How doesn’t it work? Can you still have orgasms?” I’ve been asked all of these those questions.

Lady J: “How big is your dick?”

Billings: I was on The Phil Donahue Show 150 years ago. And a woman in the audience stood up and this was her exact question: “So, when you’re performing onstage, I’ve heard you use duct tape. Doesn’t it hurt your penis?” I sat there and thought, “Okay, I can either actually answer her or find some sort of philosophical reply.” And I said, “I’ll tell you what. If you want to see mine, I would very much like to see yours.” [Laughter.] We have to keep reminding ourselves as much as we can that we don’t have to try to be connected to one another. That’s a done deal. All the rest is extraneous, learned behavior that, when we’re all gone, it will go back to where it began. So for now let’s concentrate on why we’re all on the planet together in the first place.

This interview has been edited and condensed.