This interview was conducted as part of the interview series, LGBTQ&A, a weekly podcast that documents modern queer and trans history.
It’s easy to forget how different things were in 2013 when Orange Is The New Black first premiered. At the time, representation for trans people on TV and film was almost nonexistent, and featured, with only a few rare exceptions, cis actors in the roles that were trans.
Then came Orange Is The New Black, the show that introduced Laverne Cox to Netflix’s global audience, setting her on the path to becoming one of the most recognizable trans people in the world — maybe ever. And with that visibility, Cox has continued to use her platform to move the conversation around trans people away from surgeries and medical transitions, to insist that the public also talks about the issues that shape the lives of trans people and so often go ignored.
Most recently, Cox took Chase Strangio, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, to the Emmy Awards, walking the red carpet together to bring awareness to the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case — on whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, also applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Laverne Cox sat down with The Advocate’s LGBTQ&A podcast to talk about why this case is so important, how HIV/AIDS has impacted her life, and the pressure she faces at being such a visible member of the trans community.
Jeffrey Masters: In 2014, the headline of the Time magazine cover you were on read, “The Transgender Tipping Point.” I’ve always wondered if you knew that’s what the headline was going to be and what your reaction was to it?
Laverne Cox: What did I know ahead of time? I knew it was a cover try, so I wasn’t 100% sure I would be on the cover. They told me if some news item happened that was really big that I would be bumped from the cover. I didn’t know what the headline would be.
JM: What was your reaction to the headline?
LC: It’s hard for me to separate my reaction in 2014 from the subsequent reaction that my community has had to that title. There was so much criticism from my community of that title and the suggestion of that tipping point, and criticism of the way the article was written and who was excluded.
What I like about my community and what I appreciate about activists who are on the ground doing the work is that in their honesty, they keep us accountable. They keep us pushing to go further, to be more inclusive, to think differently about who is being left out and what we’re not talking about.
I was very clear in 2014 that that moment was not about me and that it was about a community that I was a part of. It was about all the activists who had worked for years to create space for me to have that moment on the cover of Time magazine, and so now that is coming to fruition that more of our voices are being elevated, it’s taken a lot of pressure off me.
JM: At that time, Orange Is The New Black and the Time cover made you one of the most recognizable trans people in the world. Did you know that would also require you to take on an educator role, educating the public about the trans experience?
LC: No, I certainly didn’t know that. When I booked Orange Is The New Black, I just hoped I could get another job from it. I mean, in 2012, I just thought I was doing a web series. People weren’t really streaming shows. I was just happy to have a job, especially since I owed back rent. I was just happy to be able to pay my rent, if I’m being honest.
I was clear though, because I had done media work before Orange Is The New Black, that when I have a platform that I wanted to be able to change the conversation, elevate the conversation about and with trans people. I just felt it was my job as a person with a platform to challenge people to think differently about how we talk with and about trans people.
I had done a reality show in 2008 called, I Want to Work for Diddy, so I had been working with GLAAD for many years and in various capacities. I had been going to marches. So I was engaged as an activist in my community. I was certainly the person who was being publicized or the person who had the platform, but I didn’t feel alone.
JM: So you felt prepared to be in that position?
LC: I was prepared. I think the beauty of having my breakthrough moment as an actor, that also coincided with the advocacy work that I was doing, having that breakthrough moment over 40 and after sort of struggling in New York City to be an actor for over 20 years, I was prepared.
I was prepared as an artist and I was also prepared as a human being… and barely. Can I tell you? Barely. Because there’s nothing that can fully prepare you to be famous and to have people recognize you on the street and all the criticism that comes with that.
Nothing can really fully prepare you for that, but I was way more prepared than I would have been 10 years earlier, before the lovely therapist I have now and all the lovely tools and work I’ve done on myself to build shame resilience, to build trauma resilience, to just be able to exist in the world, in my own skin with a sense of worthiness.
It’s really, really hard if you don’t know who you are and all of a sudden, the world is telling you who you are. If you do not have a sense already of who you are and then all of a sudden you’re famous, I think that’s very, very dangerous.
JM: You were able to learn and make mistakes in private.
LC: Oh, all the things I did. If it were on Instagram, it would be terrible. Girl, I’ve lived and I’ve made my mistakes, but all the things that I did when I was younger — that young people should do — it wasn’t publicly. It wasn’t on Instagram or on TMZ or whatever, and that’s good. I was a mess.
I was a mess, but I’m glad I got to be a mess.
JM: Do you still find that you’re being asked the 101 level questions in interviews? “What is trans?”
LC: No. What I’m most excited about now at this stage of my career is I do tons of interviews now and don’t even talk about being trans or I’m not asked about it. I’ll bring it up because I love being trans and I think it’s important to still continue to talk about it, particularly considering what’s going on in the world with trans folks. But no, the conversation has shifted.
I was thinking about this now as I prepare to talk more about the Title VII case that’s going to the Supreme Court on October 8 and there are amicus briefs that are being submitted to the Supreme Court by folks who think it should be legal to discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community in employment. They’re basically debating the legitimacy of trans people, right? That there’s no such thing as being non-binary or trans and I’m just like, “I’m not interested in debating my identity or existence anymore.”
At stake with Title VII is really, is it legal to discriminate against LGBTQ people? And I don’t think that’s the issue. I think the issue is, should it be legal to discriminate against anyone in this country? And I say no.
So I’m just done debating my existence. I’m done debating whether trans is real. I’m real. I’m sitting here and I have lived experiences as a woman, as a woman of trans experience, as a black woman, and so I’m done with that and I know a lot of trans folks are done with that.
We don’t need to debate trans existence. We need to say that we shouldn’t be discriminating against people because of who they are.
JM: For all the work we still have to do, one of the victories of the movement is that trans people are no longer being told that in order to be happy, they can’t reveal that they’re trans or appear visibly trans in any way.
LC: Not at all. I mean in 1998, when I started my medical transition, that was what I wanted to do. The women who inspired me to transition, that’s what they did. That’s what you were supposed to do, but that wasn’t an option for me.
I never blended in. I would always enter spaces and someone would know I was trans and so I had to get to a point where I was comfortable with people knowing that was trans. I had to get to a point where I was comfortable owning my transness. #TransIsBeautiful came out of that, in part, for me. This effort for me to be able to say to myself and say to the world, “I’m trans and that’s beautiful and there’s nothing wrong with that and I should not be denied a job for that. I should not be denied love and access because I’m trans.”
JM: You have a different sort of trans visibility now as a celebrity. Does that offer protection from certain safety issues that come with being trans?
LC: I think I have to be really, really careful what I do and say. I’m feeling very free in this interview and I have my, “Oh, did I say something I shouldn’t have said that could negatively impact my community?” Those are the things I’m constantly thinking about because if Laverne does it, then it can reflect badly on my entire community, and that is a pressure that is real.
I’ve been very blessed, that there’s just been so much love in my life as I travel and as I work on different sets and in different countries. It’s just been a lot of love, and so I feel very, very blessed and I’m someone who has felt physically unsafe most of my life. Lots of childhood trauma around physical assault, sexual assault, walking the streets of New York as a recognizably trans person.
The trauma of what I’ve experienced throughout my life doesn’t magically go away because I’m a recognizable actress now. So there’s trauma there that I still have to work to build resilience around and I’m still super careful. I’m always looking around me when I’m walking on the street, you know? I’m just programmed as a New Yorker, I think, to always be hyperaware and hypervigilant of my surroundings.
JM: If someone’s coming at you now, do have to figure out if this person is coming to attack you or is your biggest fan?
LC: I’ve had moments very early on when I was beginning to be recognized more and there was that, definitely. This was around 2013 and I was not used to being recognized on the street, but I was used to being called out on the street, misgendered, assaulted on the street, verbally and physically, and so when strangers would run up to me on the street in the beginning…actually, it’s still, it’s scary. It scares the bejesus out of me.
I was leaving one of the wig stores on 14th Street, because you know a girl’s got to get her bundles, and all of the sudden I felt this person running up behind me, screaming, and then she grabbed me and I started screaming and I started running. And it was just so instinctive.
Then she was like, “I love you,” as I’m running away from her, and I was just so scared. This was this fan who loved the work and I’m running from her on the street because when that has happened to me before, oh my goodness. It just even brings up a lot of emotion for me now. So that is the thing that I don’t know if my fans always understand, that I don’t always feel safe.
JM: You said that you were harassed on the street in New York City every day while living there. Did that only change when you started becoming famous?
LC: Well, it didn’t change when I became famous. I remember I was going to a hotel bar to be interviewed for the cover of this magazine, Bustle, in 2015 and as I entered the hotel, someone called me a man. I was being called a man. I’m going to be interviewed for a cover story for a magazine and being harassed and misgendered as I go in.
Yeah, I mean I have my “incognegro” look when I travel now, which helps. But yeah, it still happens.
So often, I feel so powerless. That’s why I’m so excited to be working with (RED) and BAND-AID. I feel at a loss and I think a lot of people feel at a loss, but you can buy the (RED) BAND-AIDS at your CVS store and a portion of your purchase will go to a day’s worth of life-saving medications for people who are living with HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa.
That is something concrete we can do to change the lives of people who are living with HIV, to stop the transmission of HIV from a mother to her unborn child.
JM: As a trans person, as a black person, these different identity groups that you’re a part of are among the hardest hit by HIV.
LC: Absolutely. A dear friend of mine who passed away from HIV/AIDS. They didn’t get treatment because no one knew that they were HIV-positive. They didn’t want to tell anybody because of the stigma and the shame and they could still be alive if it weren’t for that stigma, and so we’ve got to let go of the stigma. We really do.
I have such incredible friends who are living with HIV, who are undetectable and living these incredible lives because they have access to medication and I want to celebrate those friends.
JM: I think it’s really good for people to hear that Laverne Cox, who is described as a “transgender icon” is also dealing with the trauma of her past.
LC: I’ve been doing a lot of work to heal from when I sort of went through puberty and was coming to age around my own sexuality: AIDS was a reality.
And so AIDS has been a reality my entire sexual life, and so for many years, because I grew up religious and I internalized so much transphobia and homophobia, I associated it with sex, with getting AIDS and dying. There was so much shame and stigma attached, and so to do the work to sort of separate those things has been work. It’s been lot of therapy.
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Laverne Cox has partnered with the BAND-AID® Brand, Johnson & Johnson, and (RED) to #BandTogether in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Every purchase of (BAND-AID®)RED bandages is enough to provide a day’s worth of life-saving medication to someone living with HIV.