March 2, 2022 10:35 PM EST

In January, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez made history as the first trans actor to win a Golden Globe. The 31-year-old won best actress in a TV drama for her role as house mother Blanca Evangelista on Pose, the FX series about New York City’s ’80s and ’90s ball scene. Just six months earlier, Rodriguez had also broken barriers by becoming the first trans woman to earn an Emmy nomination in a lead acting category.

This recognition means more to the actor than adding trophies to her shelf. Rodriguez, who proudly identifies as an Afro­Latina trans woman, has long felt the scarcity of role models who look like her in Hollywood. Rising to the top of her field is validation of the change she’s striving to make. “When I was younger, I didn’t have representation for anyone of color in the LGBTQI community,” she says. “Now, I want to be the example. I want to show them that it’s possible.”

Michaela Jaé Rodriguez in Los Angeles on Oct. 11, 2021.
Natalia Mantini for Latina Magazine

Rodriguez’s passion for acting dates back to her childhood in Newark, N.J., where she attended performing-arts schools. After studying for a year at Berklee College of Music in Boston, she got her start in a 2011 off-Broadway production of Rent, and then began medically transitioning. Her big break came with the 2017 debut of Pose, which boasted the largest trans cast in TV history.

Read more: Pose Was More Than Just a TV Show. It Changed the Culture, Onscreen and Off

The show, which closed with a moving finale last summer, solidified for Rodriguez that equity is possible. “People have this idea of how trans women of color, trans women, and women in general are supposed to navigate this world. I want to break that down,” she says. “I want people to see what I am before I’m trans, before I’m Black, before I’m Latina. I want people to see I’m human.”

Now, Rodriguez is looking to what’s next: in addition to more acting roles, she’ll release her first EP, a collection of pop and R&B songs, later this year. Whatever form her artistry takes, she remains hopeful for the future. “Now I feel, as a person who identifies as trans and also as a woman, that there are no barriers for me,” she says. “Instead, there are barriers to knock down for others.”

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com.

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