STORY: JOSHUA M. JENKINS | PHOTOGRAPHER: RYAN PFLUGER | STYLIST: JIMI URQUIAGA HAIR: URSULA STEPHEN MAKEUP: DEJA SMITH | PHOTO ASSIST: TRAVIS CHANTAR | STYLING ASSIST: NOAH DIAZ ALL CLOTHING: DISPOSL BY TAJA FEISTNER
So far in 2017, there are at least nineteen reported murders of transgender women of color in the United States. This striking statistic unquestionably correlates with our current hack-and-cheese administration, which has fueled bigotry and white supremacy like never before. Visibility of queer and trans folks and the immersion of our narratives within and in front of cis, white spaces is on the rise – a crucial step in eliminating stigma and raising awareness (not only of our issues and struggles, but of our existence.) We have always been here. We are the breadth and depth of your favorite parties and events. We are the shiver and tingle you feel as your favorite song plays through your headphones. We create, inspire, are appropriated, take a stand, are stripped of reparations, move on, and create something better. Our existence depends on being loud... vocal. In 2017, no woman has been more vocal than Laverne Cox.
Raised in Mobile, Alabama by her single mother and grandmother, Cox spent her early years meticulously curating her path to performance art, human-rights advocacy, and proud womanhood. Following a two year scholarship opportunity at Indiana University studying dance, “pre-Laverne” Laverne moved to New York, began her transition, started acting, and acquired a BFA degree from Marymount Manhattan College. Like many trans-actresses and actors in the early 2000s, many of her initial roles were limited to a prostitute. Wow...
*Film industry leaders*: “Congratulations on your degree, Cox! Your tenacity as a black trans actress is very inspiring to us all. You’re cool with playing a prostitute a few times to get your feet wet, right?”
**Queue my middle finger**
Nevertheless, these roles – despite encompassing a life of struggle and encouraging negative stereotypes – were, at the time, critical to trans-representation in the media. There are still plenty of decision-making heads in Hollywood today stuck too far into their own assholes to understand that trans people can (shocker!) perform in non-trans roles and still captivate cis and non-trans audiences (*faints sarcastically*). How does visibility of queer and trans folks in media move beyond narratives scratched by crime, drugs, or sex-work? (To be clear, I completely advocate for the decriminalization of sex-work and the elimination of its association to a “life of crime”. Cox shares these sentiments, as well.)
Cox believes visibility requires more than merely existing as supplements in black/brown LGBTQ+ stories with straight, cis, white directors, production companies, etc. It requires us to write, produce, cast, direct, and star in our own narratives. It requires a complete overhaul of our government’s initiatives to train law enforcement. It requires the media to stop portraying black/brown criminals as disposable and white criminals as Boy Scouts who were loved by their communities. We cannot control how racist/trans/homophobic assholes (or entire industries, for that matter) react to our existence. We can, however, control our reactions, responses, resolutions, and revolutions to these oppressions. I spent 40 minutes on the phone with Cox to discuss her take on acting, social media, trans-rights, police brutality, Ivy Park, #MeToo, and – fingers-crossed – love.
You studied dance at Indiana University (IU) Bloomington for a few years, which is where I also studied in the late 2000s. Quite surprisingly for Indiana, a part of the appeal of that university for me was its thriving queerness and community of acceptance (which is what ultimately lead to me coming out as gay my freshman year). Despite the 12 year gap between our enrollment there, did IU have a similar tone for you at that time?
Well, I don't ever confirm or deny a year [laughs]. Oh my gosh, it's so weird because I went back to IU a couple of years ago to give a lecture and I had not talked publicly, until going back, about my initial experience when I arrived there.
So I studied at the Houston Ballet Academy the summer before I went to IU and went straight from Houston (on a Greyhound bus, I might add) to Indiana to attend college! I arrived at the Briscoe dorm - I don't know if they still have it now.
Prior, in high school in Birmingham Alabama, I started expressing in a way that was completely me. I started wearing makeup and bell-bottoms and started existing in this gender non-conforming space even though, at the time, I didn't use that language. I just wanted to be myself and express myself. So when I arrived at IU, I dressed the way that I always dressed.
Living in the dorms, I was vehemently harassed to the point that I didn't feel safe. It was really scary. I remember going to an RA and this person telling me that "if you stay in these dorms, you will not have a successful time here but there is a dorm for people like you and it's called Collins living Learning Center."
I'm actually getting emotional now because I remember when I moved to Collins... it was just like night and day. I arrived and there was this community of people who were like me, who thought I was fabulous and thought the way that I dressed was fabulous and it really changed my whole life. I found people who were cool with who I was and it was awesome. I ended up joining the dance department and enjoyed working in the theater department doing a couple musicals. It was a good two years but I knew that I needed to be in New York City.
"SO THERE'S A DESIRE TO CAPITALIZE OFF OF US FROM PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT TRANS AND HAVE NO TRANS PEOPLE IN THEIR LIVEs. THAT PERSONALLY AFFECTS ME. I THINK IT'S REALLY IMPORTANT THAT TRANS PEOPLE ARE INVOLVED IN THE CREATING OF OUR STORIES."
You’ve been acting since the early 2000s. In multiple roles, including those in Bored to Death and Bronx Paradise, you played a prostitute. In Orange is the New Black, your backstory begins as Marcus - a male, married firefighter with a loving son. You begin your story at Litchfield Penitentiary as Sophia, whose relationship with her family crumbled after being sent to prison for hustling and stealing credit cards to pay for her gender reassignment surgery. Considering these particular roles, how have roles available to trans men and women changed since you started acting, and how are trans men and women and their allies fighting for more roles unaffiliated with a life of crime, sex, and drugs?
I don't know, it's really complicated, right? Two Emmy nominations and two SAG Awards later, I still get sex worker scripts. I turned down two different roles over the summer that were sex worker rolls. They were interesting scripts but I'm really done with that role.
Don’t get me wrong, I'm pro-decriminalizing sex work and I don't think it should be a crime as sex work is a reality for a lot of trans folks. We should make sex work safe for anyone who chooses to do it, but I've played a sex worker seven different times and unless it's like this groundbreaking portrayal of one, then I just feel like I've done it, personally.
I still talk to trans actors who are still only offered those parts. I still talk to trans activists who have conversations with writers and directors about why their scripts are so problematic. Not just because it might be sexual, but because it might be something else. We are still very much in a space where problematic roles are being created for trans folks.
And then there are shows like Orange is the New Black, where I'm a criminal on the show. There are shows like Transparent on Amazon and AO on Netflix along with Sense 8 [with Jamie Clayton's brilliant character] and many films where there are other roles. But we still have a long way to go, really. I think part of it is that I see a lot of cis folks who are like "oh, this trans thing is interesting and fascinating and it's a moment so let's capitalize on it!" So there's a desire to capitalize off of us from people who are not trans and have no trans people in their lives. That personally affects me. I think it's really important that trans people are involved in the creating of our stories.
After I watched Herstory, the Youtube show starring Jenn Richards and Angelica Ross, it just changed the game for me in terms of thinking about trans stories being written and how important it is to have trans folks in positions of creating those stories. We need more of that. I also think it's important that trans people get cast in roles that are not specifically trans. It's really crucial. I got to do a pilot back in March [that didn't get picked up] for a show with a character that was not written as trans. I have a role on a show in development now at ABC called Spirited that was not originally conceived as a trans character. I've been cast to play her and it's basically just because of my particular qualities that I have as an actor that everyone at Warner Brothers and ABC and Brownstone believe are the qualities necessary to play this character. Another thing that I would say about this, too, is that so often when people cast cisgendered people to play trans parts, they say that there are no trans actors to choose from. The problem with that is that people don't ever cast us for non-trans roles. My friend Jenn Richards from Herstory makes a point to talk to casting directors and say that, you know, Nurse #6 or Barista #7 or whatever it is - those roles don't necessarily have to be gendered at all, so you can cast trans people in those parts and we can begin to get experience being on set and eventually move up to supporting and leading roles. It's really important for casting directors and producers to begin to think out of the box when it comes to casting trans folks, people with disabilities and people of color.
Trans individuals often spend a lot of (too much) time correcting misconceptions about their role and gender, specifically when it comes to pronouns or being misidentified or associated with the gender with which they no longer identify. Although your twin brother M. Lamar played the role of Marcus - your pre-transitioned self on OITNB, what went through your head seeing “your” male self on television? Although fictitious in theory, was it difficult to re-associate yourself with a gender you spent your life quashing?
When I see my brother as Marcus, I see my brother as Marcus. I mean he is my twin so, at one point, we did sort of look alike (and I guess we still do a little bit), but I just see my brother. I'm also aware that the way he looks now would maybe be close to how I would look if I did not transition but I don't feel like I'm confronted with my pre-transition self when I see my brother on camera. When I see him, I just see him as an actor playing a character.
"I DON'T THINK THEY REALLY CARE ABOUT WHERE TRANS PEOPLE GO TO THE BATHROOM. I THINK IT'S REALLY ABOUT PERPETUATING MYTHOLOGY ABOUT WHO TRANSGENDERED PEOPLE ARE TO FRIGHTEN PEOPLE AND GET THOSE PEOPLE TO COME OUT AND VOTE A SPECIFIC WAY THAT KEEPS CERTAIN PEOPLE IN POWER."
We all know you’re a one of the most vocal trans and human rights advocates of our generation. Excuse my bluntness, but I have to ask: what the fuck is up with Caitlyn Jenner and/or any queer or trans person supporting Donald Trump and the US’ current administration? I’m curious if you have any thoughts on what these voters expect to gain, and hope you can provide clarity for those reading on what they have to lose.
I think the evidence is literally mounting by the hour about what we have to lose as a country, as citizens of the world, and as human beings by the choice made last year. You know, I was talking about this last night with a friend and I think, for me, it's always important to note that 3 million more people did not vote for the current President of the United States. This election has sprouted such incredible work around voter suppression, gerrymandering, and voter ID laws; and 2016 is the first presidential election without the preclearance section of the Voting Rights Act.
If you recall when the Supreme Court uprooted the guts of the Voting Rights Act, the very next day, Texas and states all over the country were enacting voter ID laws. So it's really clear that these voter ID laws are really not about any sort of voter fraud, they’re about keeping certain populations from voting.
There is this federal court case I was just reading about and basically they're estimating that around 41,000 votes were suppressed due to voter ID laws in Wisconsin and the current President of the United States won Wisconsin by 23,000 votes. So there's the current Administration that's really troubling and problematic on so many different levels and then there are way too many people who chose not to vote for whatever reason. We also have to acknowledge that between gerrymandering and voter suppression and the Electoral College, democracy is not happening. The system has been set up in a very corrupt way, so as citizens, what we have to be vigilant about is changing that system so that our vote counts.
As far as people who chose not to vote or voted for third-party candidates, it's really tricky because there's so much propaganda. As we find out the role that Russia played in the last election, we understand that there was so much propaganda around Hillary Clinton. There was a concerted effort to make sure that she did not win and so much of that works in terms of misinformation, "fake news", alternative facts - a lot of that.
There are a lot of reasons why we're in the situation that we're in that are not just about who specifically voted for this person who [Lord have mercy] is the President of the United States. But for the people who did vote for him... is this what you really want? That's the first question I have. Then I wonder, what information are they getting? The ways in which our social media is aggregated so that we get the news that confirms the views that we already have, the ways in which something like Fox News reports very specific world views that really have very little to do with reality… all of this is really complicated. It's like, how do we get real information? Real facts?
And in terms of voting against our own interests - that is part of the way this is set up too. It's all so much and all of these issues (abortion, trans rights, etc.) that, quite frankly, the right wing tends to use to divide us are dangerous. All of the proliferations of all of these bathroom bills are really about using us as a wedge issue. I don't think they really care about where trans people go to the bathroom. I think it's really about perpetuating mythology about who transgendered people are to frighten people and get those people to come out and vote a specific way that keeps certain people in power.
Because what we also see is that whenever Republicans (Democrats are subject to this too - I'm a registered Independent just so we're clear) seem to have, historically, more of the issue of when they get into office, they are most interested in tax breaks, suppressing women's rights to have control over their bodies and suppressing their votes. The Congress that is currently serving the United States right now, before they were even completely settled in, the first thing they wanted to do was to get rid of the independent ethics committee. That's the first thing they wanted to do. So what does that tell you about the ways in which so many of our politicians want to operate (particularly Republicans)? So the system is certainly broken on so many different levels but anyone who said that the situation in 2016 was the lesser of two evils, I think they need to really reevaluate that.
A lot of us also got complacent under our really brilliant President Obama and felt that progress was inevitable and happening. So much of what is happening now is the rolling back of so many Obama policies and it's pretty scary. So, ultimately, I think the resistance movements that are happening, the challenges happening in the court systems, folks speaking up and calling their senators and congresspeople is all really important along with mobilizing so that we are all registered and voting. You know, we're on the verge of nuclear war so who we vote for is really really important.
“IF YOU HAVE NOT INTERROGATED PATRIARCHY AND TOXIC MASCULINITY THEN THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT THE WAYS IN WHICH THOSE MODALITIES OPERATE THAT KEEP YOU FROM YOUR FEELINGS… KEEP YOU FROM BEING IN THE TRUTH OF WHOM YOU ARE.”
Let’s talk about attraction. Before coming out, I suppressed my “femininity”. I never thought I would be intimate with a drag queen or fem-identifying man because, to quote my 18-year old self, “I like dudes. If I wanted to be with a woman, I’d be straight.” Has who you’re attracted to changed over the course of your life? What life experiences do you think contribute to who you find attractive?
Yes, it has changed. I've never been attracted to women... that part has not changed [laughs]. If I'm placing myself on the Kinsey Scale where one end is completely straight and the other is completely gay, a lot of people fall in the middle, but I am completely on the left. I am strictly... [laughs] into men. I have yet to date a trans man but I wouldn’t rule that out.
I love men but the kind of men that I'm attracted to and seek out and allow into my life has changed over the years. For a really long time, I was living in New York and just being young and dating finance guys and the wall street dudes and the (I don't want to paint all of these guys with one brush), but there was definitely sort of an alpha-male guy I went with for a really long time. And that did me no favors. When I was younger, some of that was definitely about validating my womanhood and it was complicated. I often found myself with men who were emotionally unavailable, treated me badly, and I needed to choose differently.
Now I don't date guys like that anymore. Now I need a guy who's creative. My last boyfriend worked in a creative field and that's super important to me - that and a guy who has interrogated toxic masculinity and is in-touch with femininity. I can't say that I'm into feminine guys, per se, but a guy who is not subscribing to that toxic masculinity patriarchal vibe.
That's what shifted for me over the years. I'm dating differently and the outcome is much more fulfilling relationships. I'm respected more. If you have not interrogated patriarchy and toxic masculinity then there's something about the ways in which those modalities operate that keep you from your feelings… keep you from being in the truth of whom you are. I'm just speaking to my own experience in guys I've been with. I can't paint all hyper-masculine guys with the same brush, but that was my experience.
Let’s switch gears and talk about your modeling gig for Ivy Park. What was it like getting that call? Do you have a lifetime supply of Ivy Park gear?!
Not a lifetime supply, but I'm geared up for this current season! I guess I'm a model? [Laughs] It's so crazy. Getting the call was just everything. There have been a lot of moments in my career where I just can't believe the opportunity is happening. I couldn't believe it. When I was on set, I was just so unabashedly happy. The day of the shoot I got a really good nights sleep. I flew in from New York to Los Angeles the day before and I woke up and stretched so I could really be on my game.
I just had so much energy and was so excited to be doing this job for Ivy Park and for Beyoncé. It was heaven! It turned out so well and the brand exists all over the world so it's been so cool getting tweets from people in Berlin and Stockholm and England and all over the world where there are posters from the campaign in stores. What is so beautiful and powerful about it, aside from the line itself being so versatile and amazing, is that Beyoncé has said "Yes" an out trans woman fronting her clothing line. That feels revolutionary.
There are certainly incredible trans models out there. Andreja Pejic, Leyna Bloom who just covered Vogue Paris, and Hari Nef and so many incredible names. You know for some models like Andreja, she may front a magazine cover and people may see it and not necessarily know if she is trans or not. But I think because I'm so recognizably a trans person in these spaces, what I hope it does is embolden people to believe that being who they are, authentically, is not only ok but doesn't need to be an impediment to their dreams and living them in a big way.
You’re very active on social media. Multiple technology experts speak of a not-too-distant dystopia consisting of killer robots and humans who are too plugged in. Do you have this same fear? How do you un-plug yourself from The Matrix?
So one of my favorite lines from a movie is from The Matrix. It goes "there's a difference between knowing the past and walking it." So, you know, try not to look at my phone. I'm pretty plugged in so it can definitely get hard. I meditate and I work which can also get me off of my phone. When I'm with certain people who I really want to be present with, too. I hung out with someone special last night and I wasn't on my phone for many hours.
The spiritual piece, as well, is about unplugging to get connected to a power that is greater than me. It's funny because sometimes I'll listen to a spiritual podcast so this spiritual part is still happening through technology. The main thing that I've noticed is that when I'm too focused on technology, it pulls me away from being in the moment. So I'm currently going through a reevaluation of myself with technology in general because even phone aside, I still watch way too much TV. I just want to be more productive in my life and more connected. It's definitely something that is in progress and is a process.
Following the recent harassment allegations against media mogul Harvey Weinstein, the recent “Me Too” campaign (which raises awareness of sexual assault) became popularized and credited by most publications to Italian-American actress Alyssa Milano. Ebony.com recently pointed out that “Me Too” awareness was actually conceptualized specifically for women of color by black activist Tarana Burke ten years ago. This erasure of black stories is so prevalent in our society - what advice do you have for self-proclaimed black and brown allies and white news outlets who continue to miss the mark?
I think what's really interesting is that there is a history of black and brown people creating culture and it's really pervasive. You can look at Rock & Roll and look at people like Little Richard and Chuck Berry who were the architects of the genre and how they were very much erased in the early stage of this going mainstream. We also see this in Hip-Hop and hairstyles. I think one of the really interesting intersectional moments for me is language like "throwing shade" and "reading" and etc. That is language that was formed in black and latinx LGBTQ+ ballroom culture. So many of the architects of that language, none of them are mainstream in the same ways that their language is.
I did a speech about cultural appropriation a few years ago and I used a quote by Amandla Stenberg that said "I wish people were as interested in black people as they are black culture." I think that becomes the piece in a white supremacist culture where often people of color and marginalized people are called upon to spice up this thing that is mainstream white culture.
“I HOPE ONE DAY WE CAN CREATE A CONTEXT OF EMPATHY SO THAT WE'RE NOT DRAGGING EACH OTHER PUBLICLY AND SHAMING PEOPLE...”
Very rarely do people of color and LGBTQ+ people reap the financial benefit and rewards of having created that culture. Cultural appropriation is something that is inevitable because we live in a multicultural world, but I've made the point before that cultural appropriation is problematic when the people who are creating the culture are not benefiting financially or even at least with the credit of it. Even then, credit is good but the financial reward is so important because it's often people who are in destitute making this culture… and they remain destitute as people who are taking the culture are cashing in.
As I get into a position that is more privileged and I have more power, it's something that I have to be accountable for myself. What is my accountability? How do I begin to give credit and acknowledge those folks who have made it possible for me? Just having integrity in my own process and the ways in which I operate in the world. Those are intense questions that everybody has to ask themselves. What role are we playing in the liberation, status quo, or exploitation of a people? Everyone has the capacity to use their power in ways that are problematic at whatever race and level you are; so we have to be vigilantly engaged in asking ourselves these questions. It's complicated and I know I'm not doing it perfectly. There's no such thing as perfection but I think we can hopefully create a context of love, where we can bounce this type of stuff off of each other. I hope one day we can create a context of empathy so that we're not dragging each other publicly and shaming people, but creating a space where we can lovingly evolve together and create a more perfect union in spaces where everyone’s voice matters and everyone is equal.
I’ve lived in Chicago for six years. Every institution within this city - from housing and education to law enforcement - was built to protect and cultivate white communities while simultaneously dismantling and destroying black and brown communities. Real estate redlining prevented black folks from acquiring affordable housing within neighborhoods in which investors interest was piqued and trapped minorities within zones blacklisted from investment opportunities. In an (at least) 11-year cover up, Chicago police officers framed and tortured innocent minorities within the walls of the now well known “Homan Square” detention facility. Sure, not all cops are bad, but how many more videos of them murdering unarmed or innocent black men, women, and children going viral is it going to take for change? What is your stance on law enforcement?
Wow. On June 22nd of this year in New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared it Laverne Cox Day. When I made my remarks, I talked about the importance of the Right To Know Act. It basically requires a level of police accountability so that when police stop someone, they identify themselves. So the person has an ID of who stopped them. And they need to inform the person why they're being stopped. I mean, it's really basic stuff that you would think would already be happening but it's not. It is my understanding that there are enough votes in the city council of New York to pass the act but some forces are blocking it.
With the police, it's like, how do we create accountability and how do we create an environment where police stop shooting unarmed black people? There's policy that has to happen. I can't think of an instance in recent memory where an officer, even if he's indicted, has been convicted. There are probably some that I'm not aware of, but generally, police officers get away with it in terms of not being prosecuted. I think it's also important to note that it's not just white police officers; it's black officers too. How do we begin to shift our hearts and minds so that when we see a person of color, we don't automatically think that there is a threat posed by that person? That is the cultural shift and transformation that needs to happen in the hearts and minds of not just people in law enforcement, but in our culture in general. It's so interesting. If you think about something like 13th Ava Duvernay's brilliant documentary about the history of the 13th amendment its direct link to mass incarceration of black and brown folks today. It very much institutionalizes the idea of white supremacy and this idea that black folks must be enslaved. If we cannot enslave them, then we incarcerate them.
So when do cultures and police departments acknowledge that? We have to acknowledge that and then begin to change. It's so deeply engrained in so many parts of our culture, so dismantling white supremacy in America becomes this incredibly daunting task. That's a really great place to start.