Leyva Sisters Share Story of Sisterhood and Transition
At first, Selenis Leyva was thrilled to see Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair in 2015, but over time, she felt unsettled by it.
“I realized that this kind of representation, while positive for Caitlyn, was dangerous for those without the resources: what happens to those trans folks who don’t fall into this specific category of glamorous, rich, and famous?” Selenis Leyva, an actress known for Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” (OITNB) and Disney+’s “Diary of a Future President,” asks in the memoir she co-authored with her sister Marizol Leyva, “My Sister: How One Sibling’s Transition Changed Us Both.” “The decision to write this book came from a place of wanting to share a realistic account of what it means to be transgender – specifically, what it means to be transgender person of color of modest means.”
“My Sister” shares Marizol’s journey to her transition from the perspective of both sisters, two Afro-Latinas who grew up in the Bronx. In addition to sharing their personal story, they talk about challenges specific to the Latinx community, like anti-Blackness and machismo, and offer national and local resources for readers, including health care, suicide prevention and more.
While the sisters shared a childhood, they don’t always have the same memories of what they experienced. “In some instances, my recollection does not line up perfectly with Marizol’s, and we embrace these contradictions,” Selenis writes. “We want to remain true to the reality that memories have funny ways of changing over time, that the details of life experiences and stories are wholly dependent upon the storyteller.”
When Selenis asked Marizol if she wanted to write a book about her experience, it wasn’t a quick yes. Marizol explains in the book that most of her initial hesitation came from the fact that she’s never been fully open with anyone about what she’d been through. Eventually though, Marizol agreed. “I couldn’t stop thinking about my trans brothers and sisters – especially those whose voices aren’t usually heard,” Marizol writes. “We share so many unfortunate experiences, and so few people outside of our community understand the hardships we face. This was a chance to educate others and be a source of support for so many trans folks who feel like they have none.”
Selenis had two younger brothers until her parents – immigrants from Cuba and the Dominican Republic – fostered and eventually adopted two other children, including Marizol. Marizol came into the Leyva family as an infant boy named Jose, also from a Dominican background. A teenaged Selenis was immediately drawn to and protective of the child. She writes that she noticed early on that Marizol maneuvered through the world a bit differently. “My mother noticed it, too,” Selenis writes. “And though we never verbalized it, there was a moment when we looked at each other, almost to say, How do we feel about this? We’re fine. But we knew, from then on, that we had to be the ones to take charge and protect Jose.”
In the memoir, Marizol provides honest insight about some of the difficult experiences she faced, like the violence and abuse she experienced from her birth father during her childhood and in her romantic relationships. She also talks about her struggles as a young person, and the things that led her to skip school, lie to her parents and even steal from them. But through it all, Selenis was always there to provide her younger sister a sympathetic ear and even sometimes necessary tough love.
It was Selenis who brought up the possibility of gender transition to Marizol. At 16, when Marizol came out as gay, it wasn’t a surprise to Selenis. Instead she replied with another question: “do you want to be a woman?” Marizol says that she always identified as female, but she hadn’t heard the term “transgender” or met anyone who identified that way until after high school. Selenis’ question initiated the chain of events towards her new identity as Marizol. She would dress up to go out with her friends, but it wasn’t until her 21st birthday when she finally introduced herself as Marizol to her family.
That same night, Marizol attended a Drag Queen Cabaret in Manhattan, where she recognized the trans actress Laverne Cox performing on stage. Cox wasn’t on OITNB at the time, but she was a contestant on the reality show, “I Want to Work for Diddy.” “She was the first trans person I had ever seen on TV who wasn’t being made a spectacle,” Marizol wrote. “Seeing her was when I realized that, as a trans person, you didn’t have to settle for just being the man in the wig. You could be yourself, and you could be successful.”
The cabaret performers came around the tables later that night for tips. They all stopped to say something to Marizol. “‘Yaz, girl!’ Or, ‘I see you!’ Or ‘Yes, girl, work!’ It made me feel good, like I was connecting with other girls like me,” Marizol writes. “I was happy.”
A year later when Selenis was filming OITNB, she decided to share with Cox that she had a trans sister. As she was getting her hair done by one of the show’s stylists, Mamma D, she told her about her mother’s support for her sister. “It was an immediate connection, and soon, all three of us – Laverne, Mamma D, and I – were crying, sharing this little emotional moment together,” Selenis writes.
After Season 1 of OITNB, Selenis felt for the first time that her industry and society were actively paying attention to what it means for someone to be trans. She thanked Cox months later for giving her sister a voice. Selenis shared in the book that her co-worker smiled and said “Well, she’s always had a voice,” which she responded with “No. She might have always had a voice, but no one was ever listening.”
“My Sister: How One Sibling’s Transition Changed Us Both” was released in March and is available in both English and Spanish. It was important for the sisters to offer the physical book in both languages. “We’re Latina,” Selenis said in a chat hosted with Nydia Simone, founder of Blactina Media and #WeAllGrow contributor. “We felt the need to have this in (Spanish), so that our communities, so those that really, really, really, really need it can read it.”
It also made it accessible for the sisters’ parents to read it. Selenis described in the #WeAllGrow conversation that watching her parents read their book was “overwhelming.” “That was a beautiful thing for us to see that,” Selenis said in the #WeAllGrow chat. “To see our parents be able to read our stories, their story in their language, was extremely important for us.”