Laverne Cox is most well-known for her role on the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black, and while most people do not think to immediately connect her with politics, she is so much more than just an actress. While she is not a direct part of the political sphere in the same way as a politician – take Hillary Clinton, for example – Cox, who identifies as a feminist, uses her platform as an entertainer, and the media attention that comes with it, to advocate for the issues – both social and political; issues, in fact, which often overlap between the two – that are important to her.
More specifically, she uses her voice to ensure that the ‘T’ within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning, intersex, asexual, pansexual, and more (LGBTQIAP+) community does not go forgotten. Due to her lived experience as a transgender women of color, Cox takes particular pains to speak up for transgender women, especially transgender women of color, who are even more marginalized due to the intersection between transmisogyny and anti-blackness, often referred to as transmisogynoir. Her brand of feminism is, of course, trans inclusive and focuses heavily on transgender women, who are often shut out of the conversation.
In regards to her political socialization, Cox cites certain books and authors as having an impact that stuck with her. This seems a fitting political socialization for someone who contributes heavily to media (a role that gives her a platform from which to do issue advocacy) in a fourfold way: as an actress, a speaker at speaking engagements, a producer (she has one production credit to her name already and with two documentaries  in the works, both meant to elevate the voices of transgender women of color and one set to air on MTV, is soon to have two more), and as a writer for the Huffington Post. Two books she mentions as resonating in a meaningful way are Confessions of a Sex Kitten by Eartha Kitt and Black Looks by bell hooks (Karlan, “Laverne Cox on the Books That Changed Her Life”).
On Confessions of a Sex Kitten, Cox said:
Eartha Kitt is a huge possibility idol for me. The thing about women like Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne, and Diahann Carroll — these black artists in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s — they were making a way out of no way (Karlan, “Laverne Cox On The Books That Changed Her Life”).
This likely struck a chord with Cox because of the barriers she faced – yes, as a black woman – but also as a transgender actress. Though she has made history both by being the first transgender women to grace the cover of TIME Magazine and the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy in an acting category, she faced many barriers on the way there (Adam, “Laverne Cox makes Emmy history; LGBT nominees abound”). For example, cisgender, or non-transgender, men are often cast as transgender women, such as was the case with Jared Leto’s infamous role in Dallas Buyer’s Club. This means that there are fewer roles available for transgender actresses hoping to break into acting.
On the issue, Cox said:
As an actor I get it, and I’m never going to say an actor shouldn’t take a role, but given there are so few well-rounded trans female roles out there, of course you would like the chance to play them (Hughes, “Laverne Cox: ‘We live in a binary world: it can change’”).
Though she was driven to perform from a young age, first attempting dance (which she later quit because it heightened her dysphoria with her body), she said she took her first on screen job, as a contestant in VH1’s reality show I want to work for Diddy because she recognized the need for more transgender representation on television (Hughes, “Laverne Cox: ‘We live in a binary world: it can change’”). Next, she hosted and produced her own makeover show TRANSform Me, again for the very same reason. After that, however, she went through a period of time where she struggled to find work.
Of the struggle, Cox said:
There were years when I thought I was done – before Orange is the New Black came along, I was thinking of going to grad school. The first time my brother saw me act he said, ‘You’re amazing. This is what you should be doing’, but he never thought I’d be mainstream. I remind him of that (Hughes, “Laverne Cox: ‘We live in a binary world: it can change’”).
Cox also had kind things to say in regards to the book Black Looks by bell hooks. She specifies that this was a book she read early on in life, one that awakened her to issues of race, class and gender. Both Black Looks and Confessions of a Sex Kitten were written by arguably feminist black women of color, and Cox was likely able to relate so deeply to the issues discussed in them because they were written by women with similar experiences to her own.
Of her experience reading hooks’ work, Cox said:
I read this in college and it totally made me think differently about the world around me in terms of race, class, and gender. It awakened my critical consciousness (Karlan, “Laverne Cox On The Books That Changed Her Life”).
Recently, Cox and hooks did a talk together, so Cox got to meet the women she credited with inspiring her as a young woman. Though their conversation remained respectful, hooks explained that she did not want it to turn into a “love fest,” and even criticized Cox for her stereotypically feminine look, which includes heels and blonde wigs. She cautioned that when black celebrities wear “white” hair styles, it “may be sending a message to somebody younger that ‘I must be self-hating’” (Robinson, “Laverne Cox blasted by feminist icon, bell hooks”).
During this talk, Cox made reference to another barrier she faced early on in her life: the struggle to be seen, especially in regards to being recognized as a woman. While she acknowledged that this is not the case for all transgender women, she defended herself against hooks’ criticism by saying that her manner of dress helped her to feel both “comfortable” and “empowered” (Robinson, “Laverne Cox blasted by feminist icon, bell hooks”).
Another barrier faced by Cox was that transphobia often inspired others to commit acts of violence against her person. She first faced this persecution early on in life, when she was bullied by her peers in grade school for acting in ways that were unmasculine, at a time where she was still struggling to understand her gender identity.
Of the experience, Cox said:
I was called sissy, I was called the F-word. I was chased home from school practically every day. There was always a kid or groups of kids who wanted to beat me up (Badash, “Laverne Cox: I Have One Wish For America”).
The bullying grew to be so bad, in fact, and her confusion too great (since she had not yet heard of the transgender label) that Cox attempted suicide at age eleven (Hughes, “Laverne Cox: ‘We live in a binary world: it can change’”). The suicide attempt was unsuccessful, something she is grateful for now.
When asked to reflect on growing up in Mobile, Alabama, she said the following:
I was assaulted a lot as a child. It became the case that I couldn’t be in Alabama and be who I was. I love going back to visit and appreciate it more but it’s not a place where I would live again (Hughes, “Laverne Cox: ‘We live in a binary world: it can change’”).
While many would find it easy to pass off the bullying as insensitive, childish behavior the violence faced by Cox did not end there. Cox also recounted an instance where, as an adult, she was harassed verbally and physically assaulted as she walked down the street.
I’d passed by a group of young black men in Manhattan and they’d started with gay slurs and trans slurs and one of them said, ‘That’s a man’, and then another one kicked me.
It is because of these violent experiences that Cox works, through her advocacy and media outreach, to destigmatize the transgender experience.
When asked what she feels the most pressure to do as an advocate, Cox said the following:
I think the biggest thing is taking away the stigma away from being trans. And the stigma leads to criminalization.
Statistical analysis absolutely backs Cox back up on this. Transgender women are often mistaken by police for prostitutes, and can be taken in on prostitution charges if they are so much as suspected of prostitution. This is a big problem in cities like New York, where many people use public transportation as opposed to cars, since transgender women can be accused of soliciting sex simply for occupying public space. In certain cases, finding condoms in a woman’s purse can be all the proof officers need to bring her in on prostitution charges, as has happened in countless cases.
According to the 2012 National Report on Hate Violence Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and HIV-Affected Communities, transgender people were 3.32 times as likely to experience police violence compared to non- transgender people, transgender people of color were 2.46 times as likely to experience physical violence by the police compared to white non-transgender people, and transgender women were 2.90 times as likely to experience police violence compared to overall people reporting violence. This serves to make transgender women, particularly transgender women of color, the most vulnerable group within the LGBTQIAP+ community.
Cox has also stated that is crucial that the rest of the LGBTQIAP+ community support their transgender compatriots. Much like the thirteenth and fourteenth amendment were passed without including women’s suffrage, many anti-discrimination bills do not include protections for transgender individuals. The Human Rights Campaign, for example, has a long history of supporting other members of the LGBTQIAP+ community while leaving out transgender individuals because they feel that the rights of transgender individuals are too controversial at the moment, and that equality should start with marriage equality.
She spoke, in particular, on one instance where the rest of the LGBTQIAP+ did come through for transgender individuals. Of this instance, she said:
I’m really excited that Equality Utah chose not to support passage of a non-discrimination bill that would exclude transgender people when that was offered. I think working to get policies in place that support trans folks is important (Lang, “Transgender Emmy nominee Laverne Cox talks LGBT politics in Utah”).
Still, Cox sees social change as something that something that has to happen alongside of legal change, in order for laws that offer protections to transgender individuals to be enforceable. That is where she comes in, as a transgender woman who tries to use her media platform to educate others:
We all know that just because there are laws in place doesn’t mean people still don’t experience discrimination. So, we still need to work on changing the hearts and minds of people, and celebrating and loving trans people, and accepting trans people on their own terms (Lang, “Transgender Emmy nominee Laverne Cox talks LGBT politics in Utah”).
Cox is one of the most visible transgender women in America, if not the world. Though her contribution to the expanded women’s rights movement has not yet ended, it is her celebrity status that pulls in headlines and gets people’s attention, allowing her to be such an effective advocate for transgender women.
Laverne Cox may not be the first person who comes to mind when one attempts to think of a feminist with political influence, but with time she will likely come to be recognized more widely for her efforts to support and lift up the voices of transgender women. Additionally, Cox’s political socialization has been influenced both by the barriers she has faced as a transgender women of color and by her exposure to the writing of other feminist women of color, she advocates for transgender rights with an emphasis on transgender women and transgender women of color, and has been so successful in doing so because of her celebrity status.
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