‘Tangerine’ Star Mya Taylor Wants To Break More Barriers For Trans Women

By Kitty Lindsay

Magnolia Pictures

Mya Taylor’s meteoric rise to fame is the stuff from which fairy tales are spun; call it a Cinderella story for the new millennium. Plucked from a Los Angeles street corner to star in last year’s critically acclaimed indie Tangerine, Taylor, an aspiring actress and trans woman of color, may not have been invited to Hollywood’s biggest party this year (in case you forgot, #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarSoStraight), but the spell she’s cast on the industry’s tastemakers is far from broken.

In addition to two Best Supporting Actress wins and some 10 nominations on the festival circuit, Taylor’s also poised to win the Best Supporting Female award at this weekend’s Film Independent Spirit Awards — which would make her the first transgender actress to win the honor. All this as fans await her much-anticipated transformation into trans activist icon Marsha P. Johnson in the upcoming Happy Birthday, Marsha!, as well as her more somber turn as a transgender pagan priestess struggling with self-acceptance in Diane From the Moon.

Taylor opened up to The Establishment about her struggle to reconcile her faith and her identity, trans women’s anxiety about “being passable,” and the biggest barrier facing trans people today.

Kitty Lindsay: What was your experience as a trans woman growing up in a strict Christian household in Texas?

Mya Taylor: I have so many horrible memories from when I was growing up in Texas and everything that I just kind of leave that there. But I still carry that religion along with me today. The issue wasn’t the religion or the spirituality or anything like that. The issue was the fact that when I did finally come out, I was told, “Oh, you know, you’re going to hell” and this and that. But I knew my Bible and nobody’s gonna tell me about my Bible ’cause I know what’s in it. I’ve read it a million times and when I have an issue, I refer to my Bible, so for someone to tell me that I’m going to hell, right there you’re judging me and that’s one of the sins and no sin is greater than the next. God loves me. God loves everybody and I had to tell myself God lives within me. So I can’t listen to what other people are telling me is gonna happen to me. I have to follow my heart. He lives within me and I just follow my own instinct when it comes to Him.

Kitty: What led you to Los Angeles?

Mya: I have an aunt who’s biologically my uncle. She’s transgender, too. I came out to her first and she was proud of me. She was, like, “Oh, girl, I already knew.” I moved to L.A. to be with her. But this aunt, she used me in the worst way possible. [She taught me how to sell my body and] I went out to the streets to help to support us. [Here she was living a great life and] I ended up homeless.

Kitty: Sex work can be dangerous, especially for trans women of color.

Mya: It was the worst experience. Every time I stepped out of my car and stepped on that block, it was so scary. It was so scary because you’re scared of all the other girls that are working on the streets, too, because they’re known for robbing you or getting you beat up, so I immediately isolated myself from them. Then, there were men who got upset [because I didn’t give certain services] and actually tried to take advantage of me while I was in their car. Once I remember standing at the corner of Santa Monica and Bronson and this guy grabbed me and pulled me into the bushes with him and tried to have sex with me. Things like that I will never forget.

Kitty: Have you encountered harassment?

Mya: Looking at me right now, you probably just see a girl. But when I was less passable, and I looked harder around in the face, I always wore shades on my face in the morning and at nighttime. I was always hiding myself because I was so insecure about the way I looked. I was so scared about what society was going to say when they figured out I was trans. For me, my insecurities came from seeing how other [visibly] trans women were treated. A lot of young trans women are so focused on being passable when they really should just be focused on being themselves. You shouldn’t have to be so focused on being passable. You shouldn’t have to feel like that. But you can’t help but to be like, “What do I look like today? Did she figure me out? Or is he looking at me for that reason?” I’m guilty of feeling like that. Because even though I say I don’t care about what people say about me, deep down inside, I really do and it hurts. It hurts like hell when somebody says something mean about you. Especially when you don’t bother anybody.

Kitty: How did you find Tangerine director Sean Baker, and how did this project come to be?

Mya: You know, I was simply sitting in the right place at the right time, at the LBGT Center on Santa Monica and McCadden. I was in the courtyard talking to my friend. Sean came up to me and was like, “Can you tell any stories about this area? What do you know about it?” And in the midst of me telling him that, he fell in love with my personality, so I told him pretty much all of my experiences from being out there and everything. I could make him laugh, and I told him, “You know, I would love to be a part of your project because I’ve always wanted to be a full-on entertainer. I’ve been singing for years, but this will be my first time acting. But acting comes very natural for me. Very natural for me.”

So, yeah.

Kitty: So, did you always want to become an actress?

Mya: I did. I wanted to be able to do everything. I wanted to act, to sing, to model, to dance. I want to do it all and it’s going to happen.

Kitty: What is the biggest barrier facing trans people?

Mya: Employment. Employers find out that you’re trans by looking at your I.D. [and they don’t hire you]. I have my driver’s license changed now, but at the time I couldn’t afford to get it updated because I couldn’t get a job, and I couldn’t get a job because the information wasn’t changed.

I applied for 186 jobs in one month and [I have proof of] being discriminated against. It’s not the case for every employer. Of course there are some jobs that I just wasn’t fit for. But for you as a cisgender person, let’s say you’re looking for employment, maybe you’ll find an employer that says, “I’m sorry, but you don’t fit the description for this job” or “We found someone just a little more qualified than you.” It’s just that one thing and you move on. You don’t have to worry that maybe it’s because you’re transgender. You don’t have that against you. You can change the fact that maybe you just didn’t impress them in the interview, but you can’t change the fact that you’re trans.

Kitty: Do you feel the lack of employment opportunities led you to sex work?

Mya: Oh, yeah. ’Cause you have to do something to survive. L.A. is not cheap. Generally, [L.A.’s welfare system will] give you this card and if you qualify, you’ll get $200 in food stamps and $120 in cash a month. When I struggled with my best friend, we were limited to spending $6 a day on food just to make it through the whole month. We could’ve probably spent $30 on one meal just to treat ourselves for the month, but that’s it. My phone bill alone is $60. Hormones are between $70 and $130. It’s gone.

Kitty: Do you have hope that trans rights are progressing?

Mya: I do have hope for that, but I don’t see it happening right now. And the reason why is because people are so focused on hating something. Why hate a group of people because they are transgender? Or why hate gay people? Why hate black people? Why hate white people? I find people hate trans people just for no reason at all. This is what I think needs to happen; I think for people to actually get used to transgender people, in every employment agency, there needs to be lessons on how to treat trans people; how to use the proper pronouns and everything, and how to deal with those situations. Not much will change until that happens. ’Cause people are so ignorant.

Kitty: How did Happy Birthday, Marsha! go?

Mya: They hunted me down for this role. They were like, “I have to have Mya Taylor.” They’re so sweet. I loved the role because I’m actually playing the real-life person of Marsha P. Johnson, a trans activist from 1969 who’s broken down a lot of barriers, mainly as the first person to start the Stonewall riots. I loved playing her because it was very different from me. The only thing we had the same is skin color and the fact that we care about people a lot. Her whole aura, everything about her, is different from Mya Taylor, so I would say it’s challenging to play her.

Kitty: After all your personal struggles, what does it mean to you to be honored for your acting work in Tangerine?

Mya: I’m just really, really grateful for everything that’s happening to me. Because it’s breaking the door down for other trans women to come in and try to accomplish something. It gives us hope. I’m out of that horrible lifestyle, but I think about all the people who are still going through it.

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