May/June 2019 Cover Story: MJ Rodriguez Is Placing A Stamp On Our Hearts
Pose starlet MJ Rodriguez revels in being taken seriously while paving the way for protection of her global trans-children…
Text and photos by Sean Black
“Cats out of the bag!” American actress MJ Rodriguez recently posted on her Instagram page, spilling the tea on the highly anticipated return of the hit series Pose (Season 2 will begin Sunday, June 9). “So excited!!!” noted Rodriquez – and, of course, so are we.
MJ Rodriguez is exactly the person you hope she’d be: regal, bright, affectionate and warm. An old soul ensconced in youthful vivacity.
Drawing on years of classical training in performing arts as well as stints of adolescent rebellion, she embodies a character whose story isn’t that dissimilar to her own…only happier.
MJ got involved in the underground NYC ballroom scene at 14 years of age, commuting a short distance across the Hudson River from Jackson Township, New Jersey, where she was born and raised. (She fesses up to gnawing guilt over sneaking out of her house – “I’d tell my dad,” like the good girl she was.) She learned to vogue on those trips into the Big Apple, with the escapades sanctioned by her close-knit and supportive parents. MJ is particularly close with her mother, Audrey, and still lives with her at home.
Parental lenience and freedom over earned trust, paired with the creative outlet of ballroom, together helped her to both lose and discover herself. The confidence she exudes on screen today derives from real life. “I got to know who I was at a very young age.” MJ is grateful that her parents were attuned to her uniqueness and embraced the fact that she was different. And, she points out, “When I say ‘different,’ I don’t mean it in the context of something bad. I mean it in the context of something beautiful.” It’s important for MJ to acknowledge her good fortune in her parents and upbringing.
Her parents’ commitment to foster the potential they saw in their child was ultimately what has landed her success. But school helped: The school she attended had programs like music, voice and drama, and MJ now champions quality education for all children, just as she was afforded. “It was one of those spaces that allowed me to feel comfortable and confident. I was always confident in what I loved: my artistry,” she reflects gratefully.
She is a graduate of the prestigious Newark Arts High School and later attended Berklee College of Music, where she was both a 2009 Star-Ledger scholarship recipient and a 2009 Young Arts first level-scholarship recipient.
The 28-year-old is open and unapologetic about how she identifies in terms of gender. “Personally, I’ve always expressed myself as someone who is just simply who they are. I never really tied anything to [a particular] gender. I just saw myself as a feminine being walking through this space [of life], and that’s what made me so confident in who I am today. I was also that way when I was a kid.”
In her portrayal of Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista, she glows with a confidence that she shared with me over the phone (several times) after the photo shoot which first brought us closer. The effortless comfort she exudes in her own skin is perhaps her most endearing quality.
Hardly a newcomer to theatre or Hollywood, MJ is acclaimed for her portrayal of Angel in the off-Broadway production of Rent in 2011, for which she received the Clive Barnes Award. She has appeared in television series such as Nurse Jackie (2012), Carrie Diaries (2013) and Luke Cage (2016), marking the first appearance of both a transgender actress and character in the Marvel franchise. In the independent film Saturday Church (2017), a tender musical about a 14-year-old boy struggling with gender identity, her portrayal of Ebony earned her a well-deserved nomination for Best Actress at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.
“I think our visibility is very important because when we show ourselves on TV and through social media, or when we express ourselves by speaking [out about our lives], it is important. People need to know that we are human. There is still more work that needs to be done when it comes to our lives.”
Recent news of the second killing in the US this year of a person of trans experience – on the eve of the International Transgender Day of Visibility, March 31 – is a call to action for the rising star.
“A lot of people dehumanize us when they see us, or when they find out about or suspect our trans-ness,” she says. “I think that we need to constantly speak out about it. We need to [enlist] individuals who have even greater power and more of a platform. I mean, as a trans woman, I now have a platform, but there are others whom we need, [allies] vouching for us too. We shouldn’t be demonized. We shouldn’t be ostracized. We need to make sure that we keep our voices loud when it comes to our trans community and the deaths that are happening.”
The timing of her recent turn in Pose is poignant, allowing us to relive the bittersweet juncture of New York City’s underground ballroom scene as it collides with the catastrophic outbreak of AIDS. In our present day, as LGBT individuals we are confronted with another test of time worldwide, with regressive legislation impacting our basic human rights in many countries, including the recent proposal in Brunei to introduce death by stoning and amputations for adulterers and homosexuals within the Southeast Asian country.
In real life, the role of Blanca has given MJ heft, and arguably aligned the trajectory of both her off-screen lived experience and her acting career with her advocacy. Recently, she attended and performed “Home” at Sheryl Lee Ralph’s fundraiser Divas Simply Singing. “Beauty Sang Tonight!” tweeted Ralph following the event. MJ was joined onstage by her Pose castmates Dominique Jackson, Hailie Sahar, Indya Moore, and writer/producer Our Lady J. The series marks a great stride in history for the LGBT community, boasting the largest cast of trans actors in a scripted television series.
MJ is earning notoriety and fame through highly visible award presentations, runway shows and socially engaged platforms, not to mention personal appearances including this year’s Golden Globe Awards and the GLAAD Media Awards. Her visibility is shining bright.
“I feel like they’re taking me a little bit more seriously as far as artistically, and it makes me feel good, you know? It makes me feel like I’m wanted in a space where I never thought I would be wanted. So, it’s kind of uplifting. And I’m just gonna keep on constantly doing it, trying to make sure that I advocate [for others] through my work, and hopefully try to be a [touchstone] for people that, you know, don’t feel like they have a person to look to.”
The highlight of her career came in February this year, when former US President Barack Obama invited her to present to a room filled with young men of colour, many cis gender and heterosexual members of My Brother’s Keeper Alliance (MBK Alliance), an initiative of the Obama Foundation since 2017. She also sat on panels the following day. Within the Obama Foundation, the MBK Alliance focuses on building safe and supportive communities for boys and young men of colour, where they can feel valued and have clear pathways to opportunity.
“It was quite amazing,” she recalls. “I got to meet President Obama – I almost died on the floor. We exchanged very quick words before I had to go on stage and present. I was so honoured because he told me, ‘I’m happy that you’re here, and I’m so glad to see you.’ And I got to tell him the same exact thing. I didn’t know that I would reach out to so many young African-American men and men of colour. And it felt great, because I finally felt like, you know, I was making a stamp on their hearts, and opening their minds to trans rights, and trans individuals. I had a lot of them come up to me after I spoke and say, ‘I never knew about women like you, or I never knew what to do in circumstances when someone like you was put in situations where you’re helpless, and I want to do more. I want to make sure you’re okay. I want to make sure you’re protected.”
Like most transgender individuals, MJ has felt the pains of rejection and ostracization simply for living her truth.
“But seeing young men come up to me – not just African-American young men, young men of all colours, different beautiful shades – who came up to me, and they were telling me how much they appreciated me, I was kind of important. I cried a little bit in front of their faces, which I didn’t want to do, because I wanted to look strong. [But overall] I felt great about that [event]. I did something good, and it feels good. My heart feels pretty big.”
MJ looks up to those who helped pave the way for her in her ability live her truth, especially fellow actor Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black) and her launching (with trans activist and writer Janet Mock) of the hashtag #girlslikeus, now at over 602K tweets.
“I have to give a shout-out to Laverne Cox. I mean, she was the one who actually catapulted that hashtag [#girlslikeus], and it just went soaring. A lot of individuals in our community started posting pictures of themselves, and [sharing visibly] their issues and actually being happy living in this world that can be sometimes crazy, but also beautiful if you really just accept yourself.… It was only right for me to carry that on, and to make sure that I constantly do that, and let other women know of my experience that we, yes, girls like us are happy, proud, and not worrying about what other people [think]. Maybe [one day] they might actually take the lead, and post about us even more and show some love to us, and show that there’s value in our lives, and that we don’t have to be stigmatized, pushed aside – that we actually matter, and that our existence matters.”
By placing stamps on hearts, MJ Rodriguez is stomping out hate.
SEAN BLACK is an HIV+ artist, Los Angeles-based journalist and college educator. He holds an MA in photography from California State University San Bernardino and an MFA from the University of Miami. He has photographed and interviewed icons and luminaries including Kylie Minogue, Alicia Keys, Dita Von Teese, John Waters, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Laverne Cox, Rep. Barney Frank, Dustin Lance Black, David Arquette, Gilles Marini and Melissa Rivers. Follow him @seanblackphoto.