Exclusive: Selenis Leyva Talks About Her Memoir Written With Her Transgender Sister Marizol
Actress Selenis Leyva opened up to People CHICA about her revealing new memoir My Sister: How One Sibling's Transition Changed Us Both, co-written with her transgender sister Marizol. The Cuban actress of Dominican descent, 47, says seeing the Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair cover in 2015 prompted her to write this book. “I remember being very excited for Caitlyn for living her truth,” the Orange Is the New Black star says. However, she also felt uneasy about it because “it wasn't the real story of how most transgender people live their lives. If you don't have the financial means or the fame you're not really accepted. There are more people that do not have the means, do not have the fame, and on a daily basis worry for their lives, for their safety.”
That was the case of Marizol Leyva, 29, who agreed to tell her story in this memoir co-written with her famous sister. “I feel that this book is about saving lives. It's about educating the families, the communities to be supportive because what LGBTQ people and trans people in general need is support,” the actress says. “I know that my sister wouldn't be here today with us if she didn't have the support I gave her and then my family gave her.”
Selenis always supported Marizol in living her truth and defending her identity, and her parents show her unconditional love and acceptance today, but it took them longer — as members of an older and more traditional generation — to process the change. “I talk about not only what it meant for her to transition but what it meant for us, a Latino family from the Bronx, children of immigrants,” she says. “This child from a very early age showed signs that they are trapped in the wrong body,” she recalls of Marizol, who since age three had a feminine essence. “The book will educate people that this is not a choice, you were born this way. Regardless of how you feel, we need to respect and acknowledge that there is no mistake in the way we are born. If you are born in the LGBTQ community, it is not a mistake,” she adds.
Selenis admits they had to fight stereotypes even within their closest circle. “El machismo is very deeply rooted in our culture. Growing up I remember lots of jokes between the uncles about gay people, mimicking of a gay guy coming into a room, everybody had stories that they would laugh at,” she says. “Whether you agree or not with someone's life, the message here is that we are human and that we need support, love and acceptance.”
The actress says Marizol “was born in a male body but identified as female,” and when she came out as gay at age 16, she stood by her. “I looked at my then 16-year-old brother and I never really saw this brother, I saw ‘other' all the time,” Selenis says, also detailing in the book Marizol's path to being a transgender woman. “There were things that I didn't know about, that I suspected happened to my sister along the way, but I never talked about it because it was always my nightmare, my worst-case scenario,” she reveals. “When you read it, you will understand.”
Writing the book together brought her even closer to her sister, but there were challenges along this cathartic creative process. “There were many moments in the book where we had to stop writing and go to a therapist and have sessions,” the actress says about her and Marizol. “The hardest part about this book was discovering the deep dark secrets that each one of us had during the time of her transition. When you go through trauma, there is a period of time when it brings people close and a period of time when it brings people apart because you need a break and I feel that we both went through that. Like, ‘Oh my God, this is too much for both of us to process and to talk about.' We didn't break completely, where we didn't talk to each other, but we felt like, ‘I feel so exposed.' We went through that and now we are back to a place where we're fine again.”
Selenis admits that while Marizol was going through her life-changing transition, she had personal issues of her own. “I was struggling with my own life. We talk about depression, I have struggled with depression all of my life, we talk about instances where she needed me and I was her only lifeline, but there were moments when I couldn't be there for her because I was having a hard time being there for myself,” the actress admits. “We get very raw in the book and just the other day I sat down with my beautiful daughter Alina, who is 16 years old, and I had to share with her what was going to be in the book, specifically a very dark moment in my own life that I needed for her to hear from me, and I needed to explain to her before she read it the book.”
The actress, who also stars in the new series Diary of a Female President, has no regrets about how revealing her memoir is. “I want people to hear our story. We touch on emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse. We touch on things that it's hard to hear and discuss, but it's needed and it's honest. If we weren't honest in the book, then what's the point of writing it?”, she reflects. “This is not about being perfect, it's about being transparent so that other people in the same situation can feel that they are not alone and that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that there is hope. This is a book about survival.”
My Sister hits stores in March, but is now available to preorder.