Trans women are almost fifty times more likely to have HIV than cisgender people, according to a study from 2012, and it’s only recently that the statistics and health of the trans community have begun to be documented. History has never been kind to the transgender community, and although there is still an incredible lack of understanding and support, there are many leading the charge and helping to make life safer and more inclusive, which benefits everyone. One of those incredible people is San Francisco Pride’s Grand Marshal, Our Lady J.
Our Lady J is a world-renowned musician, writer and pianist, playing everywhere from Carnegie Hall to NYC’s famed CBGB. She has collaborated and performed with artists like Sia and Lady Gaga to Broadway stars like Chita Rivera and Justin Vivian Bond; she’s worked as a writer and producer on the Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning series Transparent, and is now contributing her talents to the revolutionary new show POSE—which breaks every boundary, challenges dangerous stigmas towards the LGBTQIA community and represents what life was like in the ‘80s for those communities.
But like many of our idols, they weren’t always as strong as they seem, and have a story to tell that will change the way you see yourself and the world around you. We had a chance to catch up with the prodigious Our Lady J before the parade. In her own words, we give you—Our Lady J.
You’ve performed in some of the most prestigious venues and are a multifaceted artist. Has performance always been something you were drawn to?
I took piano lessons at a really young age. Mostly because it was how I avoided being bullied in school. I noticed early on that if I did really well and excelled in one area that I kinda got a pass from the bullies for a minute. Also, it was a great way to channel all of my pain and confusion into the arts. It wasn’t really something that I sought out, thinking, “Oh, I’m gonna be a performer.” It was more of a therapy for me, and then it became my ticket out of my hometown. I was raised in a village of 200 people and I ended up getting a scholarship to an arts school when I was 15. It really saved my life, actually. I was a performer by way of survival.
What were your thoughts when you realized you would be the first trans woman to perform at Carnegie Hall?
I didn’t know! (Laughs). I didn’t know until many years later. There was an online discussion that I witnessed about trans performers and Carnegie Hall. I’ve performed there five times I believe, and I was just doing my job at the time. That was before the trans movement had really gained mainstream momentum, so we weren’t really doing things like keeping track of who was doing what first back then. We were just really all hustling to do anything. It was much later that someone recognized that. I was kind of astounded that I was the first actually because the first should have happened decades ago, but we are just coming into an age of equality for trans folks—an age of awareness in mainstream media around trans talent, so I am grateful that it’s happening—but it should have happened a long time ago.
After working on Transparent, you’re now working on the incredible new show POSE, which has the largest trans community on TV in history! Can you tell me more about your work on the show?
I am a writer and a producer. That is my official title but also, I feel like I am a witness to this amazing project. The moment I heard about it I knew it was going to be special. I met with Ryan Murphy and he told me that he wanted to bring in Janet Mock as well. I have known Janet for years, but I have never worked with her, so I was really beyond excited that two out of the five writers in the writers room were going to be trans. Not being the only trans person in the writer’s room has been really incredible. The more you can build with your community, the greater the outcome is going to be. It’s really been an amazing collaborative experience with the community. I believe there are 140+ LGBT people in POSE—whether behind the camera or in front of the camera—so it’s been a community effort. I think that’s being recognized in viewership as well, so hopefully it’s a model for future TV shows about our community.
POSE is really shedding light on tough topics like the stigma around HIV/AIDS. My twitter feed was on flames. What was the conversation when the idea was brought up initially, and why do you think it’s necessary?
Episode one begins in 1987 . . . It’s just a historical fact that our community suffered the most from HIV/AIDS. In particular, trans women of color were affected the most and neglected by the system that was supposed to be taking care of them.
We wanted just to have an accurate historical representation but also, we realized that trans people are often neglected in the conversation around HIV/AIDS. We wanted to talk about communities at risk and shed light on why mainstream healthcare neglected trans women in the ‘80s—and currently still neglect trans women. I have been HIV-positive myself for 15 years, and I was very passionate about more than one character being HIV-positive because I think that’s also something that has not been accurately told in the media—how many trans women have been affected by this disease.
Also, just to capture the humanity around people who suffer from HIV is something that has never been done before. In most representations in the media it’s a very sad story and focuses on the illness and the death around HIV, but I personally wanted to tell a story of triumph and how HIV inspires Blanca. It really is the thing that inspires her to become a mother. It inspires her to live life to the fullest.
I know in my own life that has been the case. When I found out I was HIV-positive it inspired me to come out as trans. I had yet to come out as trans and I immediately transitioned because I knew that it was my only chance at living, and I wanted to live life the way I wanted it rather than how other people expected me to live or behave. It really is an inspiration for life, rather than focusing on death and sickness.
You’ve talked about being a role model for trans kids. When you were growing up was there ever anyone that you could look up to in that same way?
I didn’t know what trans was. I am a hillbilly. I grew up in this tiny, tiny town. We didn’t even have the word “trans.” I snuck MTV at my grandma’s house because we didn’t have cable. Once in a while I would see an image of a drag queen on TV, and then RuPaul. I remember when “Supermodel” came out I was like, “Oh that’s sort of what I feel like I am, but not quite.” The glam for sure I identified with. (Laughs). But there were no trans role models.
It made it really hard to see myself as someone who thrived in the world. I suffered a lot because of that. It wasn’t until I started meeting trans people after I moved to New York in the early 2000s that I was able to relate and to identify. I said, “Oh that’s who I am. That’s what I am.” Especially when there was such negative stigmas attached to being trans. It wasn’t even about being trans, it was about being feminine. There were a lot of anti-femme sentiments happening around the ‘80s and ‘90s, and that was anotherreason why I just buried myself into music, because music didn’t have a gender. I was able to thrive in the world of music and kind of ignore my own gender until I was safe enough to address it.
You’ve talked about growing up on both sides of the gender binary, and understanding male privilege. As a woman, how has that changed for those who may not understand or think that it even exists?
I think it’s a tricky conversation. I think to say that trans women have male privilege is not quite accurate, because there is so much happening internally that it is really impossible to align with that privilege. It’s a controversial debate. I don’t believe trans women experience male privilege, but I did notice after I came out I lost a lot of work and I was treated very differently by society. I couldn’t separate the transphobia from misogyny because they both happened at the same time. Now that I “pass” more, much later in my transition I feel like I receive misogyny perhaps more than transphobia when I pass, but it’s really impossible to detangle the two.
You’ve said that “thriving is political.” Could you elaborate on that?
In the ‘80s and ‘90s LGBT people were under extreme discrimination from all angles—from the government, from religious institutions—and the thing that I heard over and over again was that I wasn’t going to thrive in the world if I were to come out. I was doomed to die of AIDS or not have a career, and be lonely and unlovable. These were all messages that I heard over and over. There is a lot of fire behind rebellion and a lot of inspiration to be found in that fire. I used that fire to fuel my very existence. I think one of the reasons I was able to leave my hometown and be a success story was because I wanted to prove this wrong. To say that I can thrive—that I am doing so well in the world—is a political statement.
Pride itself is very political—what would be your message to those who may be attending pride for their first time?
My first pride was in 1997. I know that I just needed to watch and bear witness to the family that awaited me. It was really overwhelming for sure, because there is a lot of fear about being recognized, about being seen when you first come out—because there are real dangers in being out in the world—but I would just say to take in all the love. Enjoy yourself, because celebration is also rebellion. Celebration is political as well.