This article was originally published in OPENWIDE back in 2014, and was written by Kelly Hobson
Laverne Cox is telling me I’m important. My feet are glued to the ground, my whole body rigid and immobile, as the actress who plays Sophia Burset on HBO’s hit dramedy Orange is the New Black gives me a pep talk on life.
“You are important,” Cox says purposefully. “I think your head knows that. Your core will catch up.” As she says this, she gestures to my midsection—which is admittedly less toned and striking than her long torso, clad in a vibrant blood-orange dress.
“There was a moment,” Cox goes on, gently flipping a crop of long golden hair over her left shoulder, “when I was seeing my therapist in New York…” She launches into the story with ease, all the while kindly ignoring my inability to speak or move.
Then, as suddenly as she appeared in front of me, Cox has moved on to the next person, offering life lessons to any of us in the room who will listen—and we all seem intent on doing so.
It is the evening of March 10th, 2014, and two dozen media spokespeople and VIP guests are crammed into a green room in the Mustang Lounge. Laverne Cox has just finished her address to a sold-out audience of Western students and London community members. Her talk, titled “Ain’t I A Woman: My Journey to Womanhood,” brought the audience on an anecdotal journey through Cox’s life, examining the trials and triumphs of being a black transsexual woman living in America.
Cox is a voice of authority in the mainstream media regarding the intersectional issues of race, gender, and sexuality—and not just because she’s a powerful presence in a room. Cox is the de facto source for information on these issues because she is one of the only transgender actresses in the industry.
“Me trying to have a career in mainstream media, it’s an uphill battle,” Cox explained in an interview following the speaking engagement. As such, she used to worry discussing race in conjunction with gender and sexuality would be detrimental to her career.
“I didn’t want to exacerbate that [uphill battle] by talking about race, but now I feel like it’s really essential to have those difficult conversations,” Cox continues. “So I’m more willing, consequences be damned, to have more difficult conversations.”
While Cox draws some content in her talks from major theorists in the field of gender studies—name dropping bell hooks and Judith Butler to cheers from the audience—the crux of her arguments and beliefs formed from her own lived experiences. Listening to her is transformative at best, enlightening at worst. However, Laverne Cox is just one person.
She’s a courageous, fierce advocate for the trans* community. She’s funny, kind, and firmly believes in having a grounded self-worth. But again, she’s just one person.
When Laverne Cox is asked her opinion on Jared Leto’s performance in Dallas Buyer’s Club, her response can be construed as representative of the entire LGBT community. (For the record, Cox believes heterosexual, cisgender actors should be afforded the right to play characters on the LGBT spectrum so long as the right to play heterosexual, cisgender characters is afforded to LGBT actors.) But the opinions and beliefs of the LGBT community are as varied as its many members—something the media industry, and all of us, would do well to remember.
What mainstream media needs now is more Laverne Cox. Not just more of her (although it couldn’t hurt), but more people like her. Mainstream media needs more trans* people in the industry, so that instead of a de facto voices of authority we as an audience hear a chorus of dissenting opinions on issues of race, gender, and sexuality. Mainstream media needs to allow the many worthy and courageous trans* advocates waiting in the wings to be seen and heard.
“I think when you have a sense of worthiness that comes from your core,” Cox explains, “it changes the way you can advocate for other people.”