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'Transparent' actress on why she spoke out about Jeffrey Tambor and #MeToo: 'I knew it was the right thing to do'

Elena Sheppard
Wellness Editor
Trace Lysette (Photo: Getty Images/Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle)

To mark Women’s History Month, Yahoo Lifestyle is exploring notions of feminism and the women’s movement through a diverse series of profiles — from transgender activist Ashlee Marie Preston to conservative campus leader Karin Agness Lips — that aim to reach across many aisles. 

The first time Trace Lysette went viral was in 2015. That’s when the actress, while playing the role of Shea during the second season of Transparent, drew attention for a scene in which her character teaches fellow transgender woman — Maura Pferrerman, played by Jeffrey Tambor  — how to properly say the catchphrase, “Yas queen.”

The two go back and forth, saying it again and again, getting more and more animated as Shea corrects Maura’s intonation and pronunciation. The whole scene plays out — much like the entire series — as funny, endearing, and honest.

 

 

The second time Lysette went viral was two years later, for a much more serious moment: when she posted a statement on Twitter, along with the hashtag #MeToo, to reveal what she says was going on behind the scenes in that “Yas queen” moment. “Upon seeing me in my costume, Jeffrey sexualized me with an over-the-top comment,” she had written. “I shook it off.”

She then described what allegedly happened next, as the crew set up for a different shot: “My back was against the wall in a corner as Jeffrey approached me. He came in close, put his bare feet on top of mine so I could not move, leaned his body against me, and began quick, discreet thrusts back and forth against my body. I felt his penis on my hip through his thin pajamas and I pushed him off,” she wrote.

“When they called ‘action,’ I put that moment in the corner into its own corner in my mind. Compartmentalizing has always been part of my survival took kit… I was used to being treated as a sexual object by men — this one just happened to be famous.”

Today, she tells Yahoo Lifestyle about her decision to come forward. “I just knew morally it was the right thing to do. I had to speak the truth. I didn’t want to look back at my young self 10 years from now and think, ‘You didn’t do the right thing,’ or ‘You didn’t speak up,’ or ‘You were operating in fear.’ I’m not big on fear,” she said.

Speaking by phone about her feminist activism in honor of Women’s History Month, Lysette’s fearlessness is evident. At 36, she has already been performing for nearly two decades, her work as a performer and her identity as transgender deeply intertwined.

“I was a drag queen as a teen,” she says of her days growing up in Dayton, Ohio. “That was my introduction to entertaining people. I think that was the first time I knew that I could move a crowd and hold a room’s attention. I remember that doing drag was a big deal because I felt loved and accepted in my feminine form, which kind of started this journey to my womanhood.”

Lysette’s on-camera acting career began years later, in 2013, with a part on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, again providing a moment in which her womanhood and her performance career were intrinsically linked — particularly because Lysette, at the time, wasn’t telling people in her professional circle that she was trans.

“I had been taught that if you could pass in society as a cisgender woman, that you would take that opportunity to get whatever access you could to better your position in life. That’s what I was doing,” Lysette explains. “I was doing what my trans elders told me to do, and what society told me to do, and that was to conform. Eventually, I reached a point that I didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to acknowledge my womanhood and also acknowledge that I am a trans woman, just like women of different minorities acknowledge their multiple identities. I had to acknowledge mine,” she said.

While Lysette has decided to live her truth, she realizes that even amidst this progressive equality groundswell — which includes the #Timesup and #MeToo movements — not everyone has the bravery required to perpetuate equality forward. One group in particular that she’s disappointed in, she says, is straight men.

“The majority of trans women that I know, romantically and sexually, deal with straight men,” she says. “With straight men in particular who have an affinity for trans women, they’ve been silent in our struggle. So here they are, laying in bed with us but not sticking up for us. Not getting on the mic when they need to be speaking out and speaking up for the women that they lie with.”

This is a point Lysette made loudly from the stage at Power to the Polls: Women’s March Las Vegas in January, to rousing cheers and applause, and which she now contextualizes with an anecdote. “Recently, I was trying to get funding for a project, and I went to some prominent men in Hollywood who I know have a history of dealing with trans women … and I couldn’t get them to put their money where their genitals have been all these years,” she says. “I understand where it comes from — it comes from a fear of giving up their cis heteronormative privilege, or of being accused of being gay, or whatever. It’s a fear of judgment, and it all ties back to toxic masculinity as if there is shame in loving or desiring a trans woman. The reality is that trans women are just another type of woman, and there’s nothing wrong with desiring that.”

Looking forward, professionally, Lysette has a few acting projects in the works, but her Transparent career is on hold as the show decides how to move forward without Tambor. Meanwhile, personally, Lysette is hard at work — lending her voice at marches and movements, in op-eds and interviews, and doing what she can to promote acceptance and equality.

“I think that the key going forward is intersectional feminism,” she says, using a favorite buzzword of many Women’s March organizers, and referring to the belief that feminists, no matter how different their backgrounds and identities, can always find a place to intersect and work towards understanding. “Inclusionary feminism versus conservative old-school feminism, or white elitist feminism,” she explains. “Being a feminist is to be compassionate, and compassion doesn’t stop at just cis white women — it should permeate into all different walks of humanity. If you’re not with that, you’re going to get left behind.”

Finally, Lysette adds, “Being a trans woman to me is being a survivor,” and chokes up at the thought of what the self-possessed woman she is today would say to her 15-year-old self. “I would say there are going to be some really, really dark times, but I promise you that if you stick to the people who love you and show up for you, that things will get better. It might take a while for the world to catch up, but it will,” she said.

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