Film & Video
5 min

Breaking out

Laverne Cox talks about her new life as a mainstream trans actress

In 2008, Laverne Cox became the first African-American transgender woman to appear in a mainstream reality-television show. She was chosen as a contestant on VH1’s I Want to Work for Diddy, a competition show that awarded the winner the job of assistant to hip-hop mogul Sean Combs. She quickly became one of the show’s standout personalities. I Want to Work for Diddy went on to win a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Reality Show and made Cox one of the most recognizable trans women in America, kick-starting her television career.

“I think everyone needs to feel a sense of connection, a sense of belonging,“ Cox says. “When I’ve seen trans characters up on screen played by trans actors, it gives me hope and inspiration that I can be up there doing it as well, but also, it validates my experience. When we see ourselves up on the screen and we see our stories, we feel less alone, we feel less invisible, because we don’t really get to see the reality, the humanity and the diversity of the trans experience.

“Six years ago, when Candis Cayne became the first trans woman to have a recurring role in a prime-time series, in Dirty Sexy Money, that was a watershed moment and such a huge inspiration for me. It inspired me to get an agent,” she says. “I had been trying to have a substantial career as an actor for a long time, and I began to believe it was possible.”

While pursuing her dream of becoming an actress, Cox scored small parts in such shows as Law & Order and Bored to Death before returning to the reality genre and becoming the first African-American trans woman to produce and star in her own television show, 2010’s Transform Me. Airing for one season on VH1, her show followed three trans-women stylists as they provided emotional and physical makeovers for biological-women participants.

Now Cox can be seen in Netflix’s big-buzz summer series Orange Is the New Black, a groundbreaking show based on a memoir by Piper Chapman that details Chapman’s experiences, and those of her fellow inmates, in a women’s prison. Cox is cast as Sophia Burset, a former firefighter who commits credit-card fraud to pay for her transition and winds up incarcerated.

The show plays out like a dramatic and comedic Sapphic hybrid of Oz and Weeds, creator Jenji Kohan’s previous hit series about a suburban mother who becomes a drug dealer. The show’s queer content is further supported by the appearance of out actress Lea DeLaria, whose presence and acting talents lend a sense of authenticity to the strong ensemble cast.

The road to becoming an acclaimed actress in a hit show hasn’t been easy for Cox, who points to her therapist and her acting coach as the keys to how she was finally able to unleash her talents.

“I think the misconception about acting is that it’s pretending to be someone else, but the reality is that we’re tapping into the truth of who we are as human beings to give that truth to our characters,” she says. “I’ve worked a lot on my own stuff: my own internalized transphobia and my own internalized racism and shame. I think when we are able to accept ourselves more, then we can bring different elements of who we are to the character. I’m more aware of who I am and I like myself more, so I can give more of myself to my work.”

Cox’s character, Sophia, is a unique pop-cultural depiction of a trans character — she is married to a woman who is supportive of her transition, and she has a son who struggles with her change. Sophia’s story line has become a favourite among the program’s fans and provides the show with some of its most touching scenes, scenes that ring true for Cox.

“I relate to Sophia’s feelings of guilt around sacrificing everything, her family and her freedom, to be true to who she is and to live as her authentic self,” she says. “I can certainly relate to the conflict that comes from being true to myself and that potentially being difficult for the people in my life.”

Cox is thrilled about her successes while acknowledging the support of her mother, brother and a community that helped empower her when she first began to transition. “Support groups were really, really important for me, just to meet other trans women who were doing other things. There weren’t any mainstream actors in my support group, but there were women who were working on Wall Street, who were in real estate, who were computer technologists and who had these fantastic jobs.”

Another true-to-life feature of Sophia’s plot line is her struggle to gain access to hormones while in prison, a very real concern for many trans people, both in and out of the penal system. “I’ve had some moments in my adult life where I’ve been denied some healthcare because I’m trans, and that was really difficult for me,” she says. “I think, ultimately, telling human stories is what gets us somewhere politically.”

As Cox’s career grows, she finds herself becoming a very visible figure, and she makes a point of bringing up her political concerns for the trans community.

“Our unemployment rate is, like, four times that of the national average,” she says. “When it comes to the homicide rate among LGBTQ people, the highest is among trans women and has been for the past several years in a row. Trans women are dying on the streets, and we need support, we need help, we need focus in terms of movement on our issues.

“It’s really about gender more than anything and gender expectations that oppress LGBT people in general,” she says. “I mean, sometimes it’s about who you’re having sex with, but a lot of times as 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 that they’re not masculine enough by other gay men.”

When asked if her role signals a potential turning point for trans actresses in mainstream media, Cox is skeptical. “I think the industry has to change, and I think their ideas have to begin to change about who trans people are and what it means to have trans folks playing ourselves and playing characters that are written as trans on television,” she says. “I hope that the industry starts to see that it’s okay to have trans women integrated into our casts with other women. And that the world won’t explode, you know, if there’s a trans person on television. Quite the contrary, actually.”