By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
Throughout the summer America has delighted in “Orange is the New Black,” Netflix’s excellent, hour-long “women in prison” drama, while the transgender community and its allies have delighted in the success of Laverne Cox, a transgender actress who portrays a trans inmate named Sophia.
Cox understands the response, and remembers the hope she felt a few years ago when trans actress Candis Cayne was cast on the show “Dirty Sexy Money.”
“That moment was such a huge inspiration for me,” she says. “I had been trying to have a substantial career as an actress for a long time, and I began to believe it was possible because of Candis Cayne.”
An activist as well as an actress, Cox understands the importance that a breakthrough role like hers can have. “I think representation is really, really important,” she says. “We see that the majority of Americans believe that gays and lesbians should be able to get married, and we had the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I think a lot because of the hearts and minds of people, the majority of people in America, were changed through media representation. So I think it’s really powerful.”
Cox has been working on television for several years, competing in 2008 on the reality show “I Want to Work for Diddy,” and producing her own reality project in 2010, the sadly short-lived “Transform Me,” a sort of “Trans Woman Eye for the Straight Girl” that showcased her empathy and charisma.
Cox is quite candid about how she’s changed since she started working as an actress. “I’ve worked on a lot of my own stuff,” she says. “My own internalized transphobia, my own internalized racism, you know? AKA, shame. I think when we are able to accept ourselves more, then we can bring different elements of who we are to the character.”
While the character Sophia can be subdued and measured, in conversation Cox is a capital “E” extrovert. Her personality and charm leap through the phone; pity anyone who has to follow her in an audition room.
Cox says she and Sophia are different in many ways. Sophia worked a masculine job pre-transition, while Cox studied ballet. Sophia is attracted to women, which Cox has never been.
“But the ways in which we’re similar are that once we decided we needed to transition,” she says, “we did whatever it took to get there.”
Although, she adds, “I didn’t break the law to do it.”
Cox isn’t surprised by the public’s strong reaction to the show. “Well, the writing is incredible,” she says. “It’s really smartly written, and I think the public has really been craving women’s stories, and the chance to see women who look different. These stories are told with such humanity and multi-dimensionality. The conventional wisdom in the business is that you have to be or look a certain way, and our show is challenging that.”
Cox is hopeful the success of “OITNB” will affect the way others shows work, particularly in terms of casting.”I hope the industry starts to see that it’s ok to have a trans woman integrated into your cast…,” Cox says. “Like the world won’t explode, you know, if there’s a trans person on television.”
For years Cox has been an activist and spokesperson for trans causes, appearing on MSNBC and submitting editorials to outlets like the Huffington Post. She says she feels a need to use the platform she’s suddenly been afforded to talk about the issues she feels strongly about, such as her desire to see trans issues “foregrounded in LGBT circles [as it’s often] gender expectations that oppress LGBT people.”
“I mean, sometimes it’s about who you’re having sex with,” she says, “but a lot of times when we enter culture, it’s about gender and it’s about expectations. I can’t think of how many gay male friends of mine have been told they’re not masculine enough by other gay men.”
She also hopes to turn the focus to the plight of trans women of color. “Our unemployment rate is four times the national average,” Cox says. “The highest homicide rate in [the LGBTQ community] has been among trans women for several years in a row. Our people, our trans women are dying in the streets, and we need support. We need help. We need a focus in terms of the movement on our issues.”
Cox credits the support she received early in her transition for helping her believe she could succeed like she has, citing her therapists, her family, and the support groups she attended at her LGBT center.
“Support groups were really, really important for me — just to meet other trans women who were doing things,” she says. “There were trans women who were working on Wall Street, who were in real estate or computers, and who had all these fantastic jobs. I was like, ‘Ok, I can be trans, and do all this stuff.’”
Cox knows her high-profile role on a hit show has helped her communicate that idea to countless trans people around the country, but she works to keep things in perspective, laughing about having recently been told she’s an icon.
“First of all,” she says, “I feel way too young to be an icon. But I know it’s important for trans folks specifically, but for anyone really, who’s not seeing their stories told on television to see their stories told up there and see people like them on TV.”