Selenis & Marizol Leyva on their new book, sisterhood, and the power of trans storytelling

My Sister: How One Sibling’s Transition Changed Us Both is a story of sisterhood everyone needs right now.

Written from the perspective of two sisters, Marizol Leyva-- model, cook, and transgender advocate--and Selenis Leyva--known for her role as Gloria on Netflix’s "Orange is the New Black” and strong ally to her trans sister Marizol. The Leyva sisters, who grew up in the Bronx, detail how their relationship developed, their love grew deeper, and their lives changed as they found power and purpose in fully supporting each other. 

Elana Nicolaou of Oprah Magazine wrote: "Unfailingly honest but compulsively readable, My Sister offers an essential perspective on what it takes to grow up both Latinx and trans—and what it means to be supported through that. By generously sharing their experiences, the Leyva sisters invite us to learn from them." 

GLAAD caught up with the Leyva sisters on the eve of their book launch to talk about the journey to tell their stories, the meaning of sisterhood, and their call to action for those in the trans community and allies ahead of Transgender Day of Visibility.

GLAAD: What inspired you to put your stories on paper and share with the world?

Selenis: The inspiration came from the lack of stories that highlight support for the transgender community. It felt necessary for me as a cis woman and also with my platform to step up and share our story. We need people to hear more of these stories about families and loved ones that make it a point to learn, love, accept and respect someone who courageously takes a step to live in their truth. We didn’t see a lot of stories like this when Marizol was transitioning, especially not from Latinx people, and we wanted readers to see themselves, their loved ones, their family members in a way that we didn’t have the opportunity to.

Marizol: What inspired me to put our story on paper was my trans community! The more visible I became as a trans person, the more I felt like I could make a difference. I say this because our story is many others’ stories, too. You don’t have to be trans or part of the LGBTQ+ community to be able to relate. Anyone who is trying to figure out who they are will find something in our experiences. After talking with different trans women and trans men, I began to realize how much we had in common. We have many different struggles and experiences that we face that so often those conversations aren’t had because we fear of being judged. Not to say in the past few years those conversations haven’t started; they have, but we need to continue to have them and share our stories to change the narrative on how people view trans people. When my sister asked me if I wanted to write a book, I did have to think about it for a few days. But I realized there’s a bigger picture here, and it isn’t just about me. My inspiration all came down to my LGBTQ+ community and the families that have someone who’s part of my community. Representation matters!

GLAAD: Why was it important for both of you to share from both of your voices and perspectives?

S: We thought it would be helpful to show the different points of views and feelings that affected us during the same experiences. It was important to give both perspectives so people can connect with us as individuals and as sisters. For me as a cis woman and as a sister to a trans woman I needed to speak my truth even if it’s not perfect at times. We didn’t always know how to support Marizol. I wanted to acknowledge that messiness and the failures; it’s my way of saying its ok to make mistakes along the way as long as you remain open to learn and open to be supportive.

M: It was important for us to share in two different voices and perspectives because we really haven’t seen anything like this before and often just hear stories about the trans person alone. We felt, in order to educate, we needed to show how families do support their loved one. I believe it adds another layer on how to show up for your them, and it all begins with love! So it was extremely important for me because I, too, want my trans brothers and sisters and my LGBTQ+ community to experience the same love that I have.

GLAAD: Who do you hope finds this book and what do you hope they take away after or during reading?

S: We hope that someone thinking about transitioning or transitioning finds comfort in knowing they are not alone. We hope families and loved ones will read this book and connect with our voices and find our resource section useful. The hope is that this book will inspire families to support their loved ones.

M: I hope this book finds those families who don’t or didn’t have the tools or the vocabulary to help their loved ones. I hope it finds those family members who have not accepted their family members for who they are and to come to a realization that family does matter and plays a big part in supporting us in our lives. I hope that our book continues to change the narrative on who transgender people are. Love is very powerful, and it isn’t hard to give.

GLAAD: What has the response been so far?

S: So far it has been wonderful to hear people describe our book as raw and honest. Because that is what we wanted to share—our honest account even if it wasn’t perfect.

M: Honestly, each time I interact with someone who personally thanks me and my sister for putting our story out there and giving them the hope they needed or for helping them find their identities and come out to their families, that’s always a memorable experience. It’s such a beautiful feeling to know that my sister and I can inspire people with our story. I am super humbled

GLAAD: How has your life experience together informed what sisterhood means to you, and through this collaboration?

S: Sisterhood really is about fully accepting your loved one, both the good and bad. This journey of writing this book together tested us in many times. We both had to relive moments that were difficult for us individually and as sisters. The process was not easy but the outcome was exactly what we envisioned and perhaps even beyond what we imagined.

M: My experience with doing our book together brought me and my sister even closer. My sister has always been there for me, and sisterhood was instilled from the very beginning. However, without the proper vocabulary to express myself, I didn’t know that. Our sisterhood has always been natural, and I believe our life experiences have made us more courageous, more loving, caring and compassionate about others. We have big hearts and want to help others. Sisterhood is love!

GLAAD: What has the most surprising thing been about the process of going into your history together and writing this book?

S: The most surprising thing was to learn of moments that we were each in our own very painful worlds oblivious of the others pain. I learned things about Marizol’s experiences that I wish I could undo, and that I’m glad she shared with me while we worked on the book together.

M: This entire process has been a surprise. It still hasn’t sunk in that I’m an actual author! It definitely makes me feel visible in the world and validated. When I reflect back, the most surprising thing was truly discovering all the pain that I endured in my past. Writing this book helped me to start a healing process. I realized how much it was triggering, the many unexplored emotions, and how much it affected my entire life. I could no longer keep it in. So I got it out during the process of writing this book. It was a healing journey.

GLAAD: In the book you talk a lot about machismo and the impact of rigid gender roles societally enforced for both men and women, boys and girls. What have you both come to understand about where this comes from and the consequences everyone faces when having to conform to these?

S: These ideas are generational. And unless we are honest and open about them they continue to be cycles. These ideas of specific gender roles are damaging and don't allow for ANYONE to live their truths or allow for new ideas and ways of seeing each other to happen. The idea that we can't change how things "have always been done" is harmful for everyone regardless of sexual orientation, race, gender etc.

M: I believe that machismo/toxic masculinity comes from what is taught in your families and households, which reinforces what comes from society at large. Many are policed for not acting like the gender role many expect you to follow, and at times it’s dangerous, especially for trans women of color. I believe we need to break the cycle of what we expect from women and men in order to be our full, authentic selves.  We all have both feminine and masculine energy, just saying, and it begins with knowing who you are 100% and accepting yourself for who you are! It’s a beautiful thing, and gender roles shouldn’t be thrown on to us! Don’t be sorry for it! Be unapologetically you!

GLAAD: It was especially heartening when Selenis first meets you as your full self, Marizol. How she sees your happiness and recognizes you as the person she’s always known, loved, and protected. This isn’t to say you didn’t have ups and downs because you did, but there was always a sense of care that came through for each other. For people struggling with embarking on this journey to self-discovery and acceptance right now in their families, what advice do you both have for them?

S: What I can say to people who are trying to understand and support a loved one through the process is you need to remain aware that the essence, the soul and spirit of your loved one does not and will not change regardless of what they are going through. The person remains the same. Your connection will be the same. To those struggling with acceptance from family or friends, I can say you will find comfort and allies and a community. More people than not are with you. So many wonderful organizations exist with people just waiting to love, and support you. Don't give up. We need you!

M: My advice is to express how you feel to your loved ones. I say this because when I was young, I didn’t have the right vocabulary and tools to back me up on how I was feeling. But the beauty of today is that these conversations are happening and the vocabulary, knowledge and the educational aspects are available and can help you and your families express yourselves and help one another throughout the process.

GLAAD: The book is very compelling, insightful, and also accessible for those who may not know a trans person in their own life or who are just coming into learning about the community. What advice would you give to them and what would have helped you hear along each of your journeys?

S: We both realize we lacked support in our community. We had to make efforts to go beyond what we both knew. I wish we would’ve had access to organizations like GLAAD to help us during the early years. Use the internet! Everything we need is really at our disposal no matter where you are in the world.

M: My advice is to ask respectable questions. Listen to trans people when we speak. At the same time, it’s also important that people seek knowledge themselves because it is not our responsibility to educate 24 hours of the day! I say this because often people are so quick to turn to research and become extremely knowledgeable about a variety of topics, but when it comes to trans related conversations they don’t put the same energy to it.  

GLAAD: Your book will be released a week before Transgender Day of Visibility, an annual event dedicated to celebrating transgender people and raising awareness of issues the community faces. What does it mean to both of you and your story will be visible and accessible to people all over the world?

S: Our book is a book of survival, of how love conquers. I have always envisioned our book teaching, saving lives, saving families, relationships. That is cause for celebration!

M: Our book is showing true love, passion, support and acceptance and I strongly believe that is the example that my sister and I want to set for our readers and listeners. Visibility matters to all of us, and we all want to be seen and respected for the individuals that we are.

GLAAD: In the book, Selenis, you describe the conversation you had with Laverne Cox sharing about your sister Marizol on the set of Orange is the New Black. Looking back, what does it mean to you to have been a part of that show and its truly transformative cultural power? Marizol, what did seeing Laverne’s character Sophia Burset on Orange is the New Black mean to you and having your sister Selenis be a part of that television history?

S: Being a part of OITNB really transformed my life in many ways, as an artist, and advocate and human. I am so proud to be part of something that will forever be historical and groundbreaking. All the characters were written and performed with the highest level of respect. We entertained and educated without losing our edge. So proud of that journey.

M: Seeing Laverne’s character Sophia Burset from Orange is the New Black was super exiting to me for the simple fact that there was going to be hope for trans individuals and their visibility. The trans community rarely gets to see themselves portrayed positively or be represented with a character who resonates like Sophia Burset did, so when the show came out, I thought we were going in the right direction, and for once we weren’t portrayed in a negative way. I thank Laverne for doing such an amazing job playing her character and setting an example. I also have to thank the amazing creator of "Orange is the New Black," Jenji Kohan, for being extremely inclusive and adding a trans character to the show. Not to mention how inclusive she’s been on so many levels with different cultures, religions, sexuality, and genders on the show. Having my sister part of such a groundbreaking show was truly a blessing to watch. I grew up watching my sister struggle to make it where she is today! And I admire her for never giving up.

I remember Selenis going to LA for a casting call. She called me after an audition and said that if she didn’t get the part her acting career would be over. The next day she got the part. My sister’s life changed tremendously at a moment in her life where she was ready to give up. I’m forever thankful and humbled to see my sister living her dream.

GLAAD: Finally, what's something you want people to know as they may be going on this similar journey?

S: I want them to know that the road is never perfect, we make mistakes as we learn and move forward but we do so with the foundation of love and respect.

My Sister: How One Sibling’s Transition Changed Us Both is now available for purchase as a book and audiobook. Since this interview, Marizol and Selenis participated in Instagram and GLAAD's production of the #TransLoveStories IGTV and portrait series which can be seen on GLAAD's Instagram.