Metro Weekly

Prison Break: Selenis Leyva

The latest breakout star on ''Orange is the New Black,'' Selenis Leyva's devotion to LGBT rights begins with her own family

LEYVA: [Laughs.] I can’t say a word.

MW: But knowing Jenji Kohan’s style?

LEYVA: Anything is possible. Jenji gives you things and just when you think she’s going in one direction, she surprises you with something else. You never know what to expect. When I say “I don’t know,” I really don’t know.

MW: Gloria is clearly a caring, loving woman, but she’s also incredibly hardened and tough. And you seem the polar opposite. What is it like getting into the shoes of this character?

LEYVA: She lives in me now, so much so that I don’t even have to second guess. I put on the prison uniform and those boots, and it just comes out. When we started Season 1, I remember coming into this thinking “Okay, who is this person? Who am I going to make her?” I wanted to pay homage to the women I [knew] in [the] Bronx. These women were strong. And that’s what Gloria is — a combination of all these women that I saw, who were so strong, had been through so much, had very little money, at times had to maybe sometimes work several jobs, some of them weren’t working, some of them were stay-at-homes, trying to just survive. There was something cool about them, but scary at the same time.

MW: Gloria’s backstory — the way she ends up in prison — is extremely compelling. She’s a very different person prior to her incarceration — she’s not a murderer, she’s not psychotic. But in prison, she’s evolved from a battered, abused woman into a tough, hardened leader.

LEYVA: She is a leader. It makes sense that once she’s away from the outside world, from the abuse, that she’s suddenly like “I’m going to be a different person in here than what I was out there. I’m going to be powerful. I’m going to have control.” And I think that’s why it was such a big deal to her to end up with a kitchen. And such a big deal for her to bring her girls in with her. She wants to be surrounded by her people. She wants to create this little family that she’s missing. She’s missing that family. She’s a woman who, when she was not in prison, was trying desperately to have something that was not there with someone who was loving her in wrong ways.

MW: It’s far more abuse than love.

LEYVA: We all fall for people sometimes that aren’t good for us. And it seems that the people who aren’t good for us are the ones we like to hold on to the most.

MW: Unlike the other leaders — Red and Vee — Gloria doesn’t wield any abuse on or manipulate the girls who surround her. She’s protective.

LEYVA: I love that about Gloria. She really is the mother hen. She wants to protect these girls. She’s been given a great situation here — the kitchen — and she’s going to hold on to it as long as she possibly can and make it work. She knows it’s the best job in prison.

MW: I started reading the book, which is clearly very different from the show, and it appears to me is that all they ever eat in prison are liver and lima beans. So they’re getting a relatively gourmet meal from Gloria.

LEYVA: Yes, they are, with the spicy eggs…

MW: Though there’s been no indication of it, I wonder if Gloria’s going to have a lesbian affair at some point?

LEYVA: [Laughs.] Well, you know, anything is possible.

MW: Let’s change course at this point and talk about your sister, Marizol. Can you tell us the story?

LEYVA: My parents had decided to open up their home to foster children, based on a promise that they had made. One of my youngest brothers was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of three. My parents were told that they should make his funeral arrangements. And my mother and my father, being believers of God, basically got on their knees and said, “If you give us his life, if you save him, we will open up our doors and help as many children as we possibly can, in whatever way you send them.” And so, to make that long story short, today my brother is a grown man, 36-years old, and alive.

Once my brother was in remission, my parents went into the foster care system. We had babies coming in and we’d take care of them and they’d leave and on and on.

So my sister came into our lives a foster child. She was a month old, straight from the hospital. She was born addicted to drugs. Her mother was a drug addict, so we watched this beautiful baby go through withdrawal. The parents were still in and out of the picture for a couple of years, but finally my parents decided, “This is our child, this is our baby.”

MW: And the baby grew into a gay man.

LEYVA: Yes. Marizol came out as a gay male.

MW: What was the reaction in the household when Marizol came out?

LEYVA: We all knew. It was no surprise. So at the age of 16 when Marizol said, “I am gay,” we were like, “Yeah, we know that.” No one was surprised at home. This is why I will always be very firm on the belief that we are born who we are. You don’t learn gay, you don’t turn gay at some point in your life. This is something that you are born with.

MW: When did it become apparent that Marizol was, in fact, more than gay, that she was transgender?

LEYVA: Shortly after coming out — under two years. She began to go secretly outside dressed as a woman shortly after coming out as a gay male. She would hide her women’s clothing in her room. She would then leave for school and change in the basement before going outside. I’d find the clothes, my mother would find the clothes. And we felt like we had to respect whatever she needed to go through. So we never confronted her.

I confronted her when she first came out. I said, “Do you want to be a woman? Do you feel you are a woman?” And at the time she said, “No, no, no.” But I think it’s because she didn’t know what she was feeling. It was all very confusing. And even to this day, I’ll ask her, “Did you lie to me at that point?” And she’ll say, “No, I didn’t lie, I just really didn’t know what I was going to do.” But she’s living her truth now. She’s living her truth.

MW: How did the family cope with it when she finally decided to be herself?

LEYVA: In the early stages it was hard emotionally for the entire family to come to terms with what we were losing. I was losing a brother, and my mother and father were losing a son, somehow. So it was hard. Even to this day I try to picture her before she transitioned, and it’s like this person has gone.

We had to get used to not saying the name. In the beginning, I had a hard time not using her birth name, her given name. It took me a while before I could address her as Marizol without it sounding or feeling forced. And again, it wasn’t because I couldn’t understand what was happening. I felt like I was losing a brother who I loved so much, whose face was everything I loved and had so many memories. It took me a while before I was able to fully embrace it. And I remember saying to her, “Please excuse me, because I’m having a hard time.” I said, “I want you to forgive me for slipping up at times and calling you by the other name that you do not want to hear.” I wasn’t doing it intentionally — it was something in my psyche that was still having a hard time letting go. Because somehow I felt like I was losing this other person.

MW: And now?

LEYVA: I no longer feel that. I no longer feel that I’ve lost anything, because that person is here. The essence, the spirit is there, in Marizol. But the big difference is that I no longer think that I’m going to walk into a situation hearing that she’s taken her life. Because when she wasn’t Marizol, I felt that any day she would commit suicide. I saw a pain there that worried me a great deal before she decided to live her life as a woman. I thought, “I’m going to lose her, I’m going to lose this human being.” She was on this downward spiral where she just didn’t care. She was out a lot and would come home very late at night and was depressed. There was lots of darkness happening there. It was a painful time for all of us to see. All of us. The family suffered a great deal during that time.

MW: You intimated at the junket that you watched her be abused by people on the street.

LEYVA: Yes.

MW: I know it’s difficult, but can you address that?

LEYVA: It was horrible. I have to tell you that for a while I was walking around really angry — angry at people, angry at the way they looked at her, angry at the comments. For a while, I thought, “Oh, my God, I’m going to end up fighting everyone in the streets.” Because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. If we were walking down the street, and someone said something disrespectful, I’d always find myself lashing out. Always.

The first year, I was very protective. Very protective. I just wanted to fight the world for her because I saw how painful it was for her to step outside the house. First of all, it’s brave. My parents have lived in the same house for the last 37 years. So everyone in the neighborhood knew who we were, knew her before she was Marizol. So for her to say, “I’m going to come out and I’m going to be who I am” [in that neighborhood] was brave.

A lot of the time people would call her by her male name, even when she was fully Marizol. They would laugh, they would make comments. And that’s when I would go crazy. That’s when I would go into full attack mode. And she would walk with her head up high. I remember saying, “Doesn’t it bother you?” And she’d say, “You know what? It used to, but it doesn’t anymore.”

There were moments when she’d come home after an entire day of being called names in the street and being made fun of. And she would be drained and she would be broken down and she would cry. And there was a time when I thought, “Why does this have to be so painful? Why? Why, why, why?” Now, thank God, it’s different. It’s easier in some ways. It’s still not where I would want it to be, but it’s not what it was. There is progress.

Selenis Leyva Photo by Elise Gannett
Selenis Leyva
Photo: Elise Gannett

MW: When Marizol came out, it was a different time. We seem to be on a path toward enlightenment regarding the transgender community. It’s slow but steady.

LEYVA: It was very brave to come out as a transgender woman in the early 2000s. Even three years ago would have been a big deal. We didn’t have Orange is the New Black and the wonderful Miss Laverne Cox on the cover of Time. We didn’t have the media talking about transgender women and men the way we are today. So it’s a different time and that’s why I get very emotional whenever I’m around Laverne. I hear her story, I see what she’s doing and the conversations she’s starting. I love the fact that she’s visiting colleges and universities all over the state. She’s educating people. And she’s giving this amazing face to what was once taboo, what was once considered this little dirty secret. It’s not. It’s a beautiful thing that we have an eloquent face attached to for these wonderful people that really haven’t had it easy.

MW: And Laverne’s an Emmy nominee now.

LEYVA: And she’s an Emmy nominee. I mean, come on. This is amazing.

MW: When you first came onto the set, and you realized that here was a transgender cast mate, did you share Marizol’s story?

LEYVA: I did, I did. It was during Season 1, and I remember sitting in the chair in the hair department and she was there and I shared my story. What we found we had in common was that we both have amazing mothers, especially who were so strong and so forgiving and so open and even if they don’t get it, even if this is something that they weren’t raised with, they made sure that nobody messed with their baby. And my mother, to this day, with her very proper and soft voice, will go to war for Marizol. And that’s one of the things that Laverne and I shared at our first confessional. We both cried that day. And so did the women in the hair department. They were so moved by what they had just seen between us. There was a special bond from that moment.

MW: Gay rights have come far in our society. Transgender rights are just starting to rev up to speed. How do we, in your opinion, change the hearts and minds of people with regard to how they view transgender people?

LEYVA: My mother, who is a strong Catholic woman, says, “God doesn’t make mistakes.” And if you believe in God, then everyone born is no mistake. God makes us all who we are and who we should be. Sometimes we end up in different packaging, but the truth is that God doesn’t make any mistakes. Not to sound like I’m a religious fanatic — I’m not — but I do believe that being transgender is just another form of being human. There’s no difference. There really, really isn’t. And we have to start being more accepting of us all. As a people we need to start really taking care of each other and being more accepting.

If we can go out of our way to help other countries with their struggles with religion and wars, why don’t we start at home being accepting of each other? Really getting to know what the other person is made of? How many people can say “Oh, I know a transgender male or female. I know what they’re like.” They don’t. They can’t say that.

So I invite everyone to really open themselves up, to really get to know someone in the community. And if you have someone in your home who’s gay, who’s bisexual, who’s transgender, don’t close the door. You’re doing so much damage by not being accepting. We have a lot of broken people out there, and it’s our responsibility to make sure that they have a safe haven. Don’t turn your back on them because it’s so much bigger than us. I could talk about this forever — I feel so strong about that.

I know a lot of beautiful, beautiful people in the gay community and I am thrilled that they are now able to get married, that they’re now able to raise a family and share health plans. I want to see more and more of that. And I want to see Marizol and transgender males and females being able to go out and apply for a job and being hired for their skills, not shunned away because they don’t fit a specific mold. I think that gender acceptance — and gender, period — should be part of the educational system. We talk about race, civil war, we talk about the Holocaust, we talk about a lot of things. I think it’s time to introduce different genders early on in school so that people know that this is not taboo, that this is not a bad thing, but that this is a way of life. It’s important. If we start there I think we’re going to be okay. We have such a long way to go but I think that we’re in a better place than we were fifteen years ago.

MW: I think your show helps tremendously. We’re going to look back a decade from now and point to Orange as a turning point for society, with the rise of Laverne Cox being key.

LEYVA: The way that the writers, that Jenji Kohan have told the story is real. No one is making it seedy, no one is playing into whatever warped idea society may have had about transgender women and men. They really are telling a story, and it’s a beautiful story about this male who finds himself going, “This is who I really am and I’m going to transition but yet I love my wife and I have a son.” That’s the beauty of Orange Is the New Black. It’s real stories. Everyone can relate to something. Everyone has lost, everyone has been in a relationship, in a marriage that perhaps it wasn’t perfect but they wanted to hold onto. It’s the same thing here.

But we have a long way to go. Laverne’s story is just one of millions to be told, and I’m so glad that the media is really paying attention to her. What a wonderful person to have in the forefront doing her thing. And I hope that it’s not a phase. I hope that people continue to have conversations. I hope people continue to educate themselves and that Miss Laverne Cox is just the beginning of many, many wonderful transgender men and women to come through and be successful and be invited into the party. Laverne has knocked on the door. And now people are paying attention.

Orange is the New Black, Season 2, is streaming exclusively on Netflix.com. Season 1 is available on Netflix and on Blu-Ray and DVD at Amazon.com.

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