Ivory Aquino has always relished her privacy. But that may be over.
With her appearance in When We Rise, an ABC miniseries that premiered in February and chronicles the LGBT civil rights movement, Aquino shared publicly that she is a transgender woman, much like the character and real-life person she portrays in the miniseries, activist Cecilia Chung. “It’s been very freeing,” Aquino says. “There’s been an outpouring of love.”
Aquino had jumped at the chance to offer a painfully accurate depiction of what women like her go through — both Aquino and Chung underwent gender confirmation surgery. In the case of Chung, she became estranged from her family and isolated at a time when society was less accepting of transgender people.
“It was important for people to see the tortured state she was in,” says Aquino, who played Chung starting in the 1980s, the period prior to Chung’s surgery, when she was homeless in San Francisco.
To visually capture that, Aquino’s waist-length hair was tightly wound under a tousled wig and her breasts were bound. Aquino also studied YouTube videos of Chung at various stages of her transition.
“I had a specific voice for the different parts,” she says, explaining how she’d raise or lower her pitch for scenes according to how much hormone therapy Chung had undergone.
“I had to let go of my ego and vanity,” says the actress, who often felt like she was going back in time. “It brought up memories.”
Born and raised in the Philippines, Aquino was fortunate in having a family who supported her dream to move to New York City and pursue acting. A crowning moment was playing Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in Bryant Park. “At the closing-night party,” she recalls, “I remarked that I could go to heaven now.” That was before she made her TV debut. “I’m still pinching myself,” says Aquino.
Now she hopes When We Rise — which is available on Hulu — and her personal disclosure will help others “to live as authentically as they can.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 6, 2017