Selenis Leyva: We All Love The Same

The OITNB actor opens up about diversity in Hollywood, LGBT rights in America and having a transgender sister.


I love Gloria Mendoza. Defying the stereotype that victims of domestic abuse are weak, this feisty Latina prison chef is tough, maternal and sassy as hell. But when I meet Selenis Leyva in person, my fandom jumps up several notches. Not only is she a terrific actor on the world’s hottest TV show, she’s also a passionate LGBT advocate who recently won the Stonewall Foundation Vision Award with her transgender sister, Marisol. And as if that didn’t make her cool enough, Selenis is full of warmth and wit and looks all kinds of glam out of those khaki scrubs. Here’s what she had to say.


DIVA: Why do you think queer women love Orange Is The New Black so much?


Selenis Leyva: You’re seeing your stories being told. These stories are human, they’re layered, they’re complicated. It’s taken this idea that the LGBT community’s so different from all of us. No, we all love the same, suffer the same, survive the same. So I think that’s the appeal. And you know, Laura Prepon has a lot to do with it too.


Agreed. It’s also wonderful to see so much diversity onscreen. There are women of different races, body shapes and ages as well as sexualities.


I’ve always been, according to Hollywood standard, outside of the mould. I’m not 5’8, 110 lbs, blonde, blue eyes. I’m short, curvy, Afro-Latina. In the beginning of my career, they didn’t know what to do with me. They were saying, “She’s so exotic” which means “We don’t know who you are.” So to get to a place where what everyone said was a flaw is suddenly not - I am in the presence of different types of women and all these “flaws” are what has made this show so different, so unique, such a success because I think that the audience was ready for that. The audience was ready to see themselves on the small screen.


What’s it like to be a part of that?


For many years I was told that I was not enough of something. I thought, “I’m not good enough, tall enough, pretty enough, thin enough”, and then this comes along. My “not-enoughs” have become “more-than-enough”.


I’ve been reading the articles you’ve written for the Huffington Post and it’s amazing to learn what an advocate you are for LGBT rights.


I’ve had a front row seat to a struggle within the community. I have a transgender sister. She’s much younger than I am so from the age of three I knew she was in the wrong body. I didn’t know how to articulate it. She didn’t know how to articulate it. My parents certainly didn’t know what was going on. And it wasn’t until much later that my sister looked it up online and realised that what she felt was not bad, that there were others out there. And now here I am in this show with this platform. It’s like the stars were aligned just perfectly. For me to be part of a show that celebrates the LGBT community along with diverse women, I’m able to be a voice for my sister and bring her in. We just received the Vision Award from the Stonewall Foundation. My sister was recognised for being brave enough to live her truth and I love that. She’s so excited that she has a voice, that she’s being heard. Laverne [Cox, who plays Sophia on OITNB] always tells me, “But she’s always had a voice” and I say, “But she’s never been heard”.


Do you have any advice for LGBT women going through difficult times?


You have to stick it out. To surround yourself with people that love you and support you and will protect you, is key. There are so many resources. You can get support, you can get help. If they don’t have it in your community, seek it elsewhere. Use that damn internet for good.


What are your views on the current situation in America with issues like the bathroom bill and public perception of the LGBT community?


My views are it’s all horse shit. These people that are claiming to do it in order to protect their own, they’re not protecting anyone. They’re making it very easy to cause a frenzy and to make it very unsafe for the community.


Hear, hear. Whenever I see any backstage pictures of the cast together, you always look like you’re having a fantastic time.


When we’re partying, we party. That Lea Delaria, she’s a hot mess. But when we’re on that set, you’re in the moment and you receive something that perhaps you hadn’t thought of. That’s when it starts, for me, getting good. And I just want to keep doing it.


Please do. And finally, what can you reveal about Season 4?


Expect the unexpected. We’re going on a really interesting ride. You’re going to feel it ‘cos we were feeling it. It was rough. Brace yourselves.


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