Writer & Producer Our Lady J Brings the Realities of the Trans Community to Television Audiences
by John Francis Leonard
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
Looking at the life of Our Lady J, it would be natural to assume that she’s led the charmed existence of the beautiful and accomplished. A prominent member of the trans community, she’s been a writer and producer for two critically-acclaimed hit television series: Amazon Prime’s Emmy Award-winning Transparent and this year’s breakout hit on FX, Pose. She’s also a classically trained concert pianist and recording artist who has played Carnegie Hall and for both the acclaimed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and the American Ballet Theatre. Speaking to her by phone, I found her to be both incredibly poised and gracious, more gracious than any of the incredible subjects I’ve had the privilege of interviewing for a story. But speaking to her in depth, one realizes that that incredible confidence was not always with her and that her remarkable success was hard won.
Lady J was born in a village of 200 people in Pennsylvania—a village that even for its small size, had many divisions. There were the Evangelicals, the secular, the Mennonites and the Amish. She says, “I couldn’t wait to get out. I didn’t see myself reflected anywhere neither in my village or in television or media.” She knew she was trans from an early age, but she didn’t fully understand just what that was. She describes it herself by saying, “I didn’t know what the word trans was—I just knew that I enjoyed being a girl.”
It was a lonely and confusing time but did bring with it one great gift, the piano. Starting at an early age, initially as a means of escape from a world in which she was bullied and misunderstood for being femme, she lost herself in playing the piano. It turns out, as she herself puts it, “I was freakishly good at it.” Years of dedication to her art led her to a way out of her small town for her junior and senior years. She earned a scholarship to the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan. It changed Lady J’s world, to put it mildly. She found herself among like-minded people. The arts have long been a haven for the different, people who were artists were often LGBT, were often different, who were isolated from their peers. This welcome change of scenery came at fifteen, and she would spend her junior and senior years at Interlochen.
In 2000, like so many LGBT people, she felt the pull of the large, urban centers and made a move to New York City. Lady J found success there doing what she loved to do most, playing the piano in concert. Even when she played Carnegie Hall however, all was not well; there was something elemental to her happiness and fulfillment missing—the puzzle was not complete. As she puts it, “What I didn’t have were the tools for a fertile development of my identity. Music only took me so far; there was only so far I could go before I felt lost.” She wasn’t living her authentic life and, even though she was playing Carnegie Hall, even if she looked like a success from the outside, there was something fundamental missing. She continues, “I was lost because I had so much confusion about my identity and so much confusion and shame about my trans identity. She started meeting other trans folk, others like herself, and she knew that this was who she was.
The impetus for change and her claiming of her identity came from a point of crisis. She received her diagnosis in 2004 at a point where, as she puts it, “I was a complete mess, I hadn’t been tested in over a year and was living in denial, from my gender to the state my life was really in.” This diagnosis served as her wake-up call. It was what she needed to turn her life around and claim her true identity. “I had so much fear to acknowledge my body and my trans-ness that I had completely let it go to waste and was very unhealthy,” she remembers. “But HIV woke me up.” She had 200 T cells and more than one opportunistic infection. She tells me, “My doctor was at St. Vincent’s and he told me that I was malnourished and that I wouldn’t make it if I didn’t change my life.” He gave her six months to a year if she didn’t. “I had to choose whether I was going to live or die. It would have been very easy to die at that point.”
She decided to stay alive. She went on meds and responded to them quickly—boosting her T cells and rendering her viral load undetectable. As I listen to her story, I’m struck at how frank and honest Lady J is about her life. There’s no self-pity here, no drama, just candor and the apparent fact that she’s now at peace with herself. She faced her demons and found support groups all over the city that supported that sobriety and others that helped her come to terms with her gender. She began to thrive and began her transition to the person she knew herself to be. As she puts it, “It was during that time of getting my life back into shape that I was honest with myself about my gender for the first time. I remember saying to a friend of mine—I said why not? Why not be the person that I was meant to be? It was within a year that I began transitioning.”
Through all of this, she managed to keep her music career going. But it was this final change, this final transition that put the brakes on that career. She lost a lot of work because she was trans. Shockingly, some of the resistance to her identity as a woman came from the LGBT community itself. Lady J recalls, “I’m an artist, so I’m constantly surrounded by LGBT people and yeah, I think a lot of the work that I lost in the classical world—those decisions were made by gay men.” Trans individuals are still seen as “less than” by far too many people in our community. She wasn’t thwarted, however. “All that mattered was that I was open to myself and that light that I found through rigorous honesty and the dedication to living my authentic life eventually was the light I needed to soar into the future that I live today. A successful, abundant, HIV-positive trans woman,” she says with evident pride. She was undetectable, healthy both physically and emotionally and it was time for a new opportunity as an artist.
That opportunity soon came calling in the form of a hit Amazon television series that followed the life of a middle-aged man coming to terms with being trans and embarking on her own transition. Lady J had hit a wall with her career as a pianist in 2013 with an album she had poured herself into but which just wasn’t a commercial success. The glass ceiling just wasn’t ready to be broken for a trans artist. But she noticed something happening in television with the actress Laverne Cox [A&U, June 2014], a close friend of many years now, starring in Orange is the New Black and gracing the cover of Time, as well as the new show Transparent on Amazon. Its creator, Jill Solloway, asked Lady J if she could write when both were in attendance at the GLAAD Awards. She thought, “Why not?” She had always written, journaling had been encouraged at Interlochen. She was encouraged to take her voice beyond playing music and to write lyrics, short stories, theater pieces, she had even written an opera when she was very young. She submitted a short story to the producers at Transparent and they asked her to take a screenplay workshop to see if it would be something she was good at. She happened to be very good at it and soon joined their writing room as its first and only trans writer at the time, eventually being named a producer. “It felt very easy,” she tells me now, “it felt natural—to take the shows I had been doing as a singer-songwriter and translate that into television.” She brought her own experience as an HIV-positive trans woman to the screen with the show’s breakout character Shea, played by the incredible Trace Lysette. In one episode drawn from Lady J’s own experience, Shea, a trans woman, is about to embark on an intimate relationship with the show’s central character Josh, a cisgender straight male played by Jay Duplass, but has to disclose her positive HIV status. It’s a tense, dramatic moment which anyone who’s positive can relate to and both the writer and the actors illuminate it beautifully. She says now of this experience, “I felt like my voice was accelerated because of that. In a way it was a blessing to have that pressure on me because I had to refine my skills really fast. It was on the job training and the stakes were very high.”
With one acclaimed hit series under her belt, a new challenge presented itself. She was approached by television producer Ryan Murphy about joining the writer’s room at his new FX series Pose. Both she and renowned LGBT activist Janet Mock were asked to come on board and punch up the pilot. Pose is a weekly drama which centers on NYC’s ballroom scene in the late eighties. Its incredible cast features many talented, authentic trans actresses, over fifty in all, playing trans women of the time struggling with many of the issues of the community. In addition to joining the writer’s room, Lady J is a producer on the show and her influence helps make the stories real and compelling. She wanted to tackle HIV/AIDS head on; it was a defining issue for the trans community of the time. “I was proud that I was able to use my own experience with these characters,” she proclaims. The numbers are astounding, with trans women fifty times more likely to be positive. It’s criminal. The show’s main character Blanca, played with great heart by actress Mj Rodriguez, is TV’s first trans woman of color living with HIV in a lead role. Soon it became two positive leads and Lady J is very proud of the writer’s room for saying yes to that. This compelling and dynamic portrayal of a community that thrived in spite of many obstacles has been a critically acclaimed hit and been renewed for a second season. But Lady J notes that “[i]t doesn’t seem like it’s an HIV-positive-centered show—it’s a show about family, about finding abundance in the world when the world has no acceptance for you. So I’m really more proud of Pose than anything I’ve done and I hope that everyone tunes in and finds inspiration.”
Our conversation soon turns to trans issues in general as well as the current political climate. As far as trans issues go, Lady J is struggling with the medical community and the insurance companies catching up to the health issues trans people face. She is cognizant of the fact that for her, the countless surgeries involved in her transition haven’t been the issue that they would have been for someone who’s not a writer and producer on two hit television series. She’s quick to point out, however, that the idea that being a trans woman is all about bottom surgery and taking hormones is false. There’s a lot more to it in her estimation. She can hardly count the surgeries she’s had to align her body with her gender and before any of these there was a need to come to terms with her trans identity, for her a long struggle. She’s currently advocating with her own insurance company to cover the medical services needed by trans individuals.
Lady J and I end our incredible talk with her thoughts on the current political situation. She says it’s insanity and that at times she just doesn’t know what to think but does say, “It’s important to not join the mass hysteria because that just clouds our judgment and gets us nowhere.” She leaves me with some final words on this, words that had a deep affect on me. “I had a show in L.A., recently,” she tells me, “I talked about this from the stage. Where I have to commit to keeping my heart open. And keeping my heart open in these political times feels dangerous and awful and yet I have to do it every day. Otherwise, I’ll go back to that place of fear and nothing comes from that place.” Inspirational words for us all.
Makeup by Cetine Dale • Hair by Johnny Stuntz • Photo Assistant: Jessica Murray
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.