On Each Other’s Team
Orange Is the New Black’s breakout star Laverne Cox strategizes the defeat of trans oppression, addresses femme-phobia within her own LGBT community and explains why eliminating HIV stigma from the playing field would be a major victory!
by Sean Black
Cover Photo by Nino Muñoz for Netflix
This disease has been a rough one [for many of my friends],” compassionately shares the transgender civil rights activist and actor prominently known for her portrayal as Litchfield Penitentiary’s resident hairdresser, Sophia Burset. Her character, dosed with the precise amount of sass is incarcerated for using stolen credit cards on Netflix’s noir comedy series Orange Is the New Black.
“I was just having a conversation about HIV last night with the sister of someone I am dating,” says Cox. “We were talking about how so many young people don’t understand the enormity of this virus and what it can do to people’s lives. I don’t understand this—how so many young people, in their twenties, are not using condoms?”
“I have spent my whole life in fear with the possibility of contracting HIV,” she confesses. “I have been terrified by it to be perfectly honest!”
Today she channels her fear into action and educates publicly. The celebrity she is amassing from her mainstream television role gives her the valuable prime time she needs to reach those twenty-somethings at her off-screen speaking engagements.
Laverne grew up in Mobile, Alabama, in the 1990s, a time when the terror of HIV was fresh and still seeping into public consciousness; hers too. She, like so many questioning youths, whether sexually active or not, was haunted by the what-ifs of AIDS and the death sentence it mostly was at that time. “I initially thought I might be gay, instead of trans, and I heard about how it [HIV] affected gay men,” she says. Raised with her twin brother by a single working-class mother, the lingering terror of the virus was only dampened by the teasing and bullying she was receiving at school. “I was called a sissy and I was called the f-word.” Being chased home and beaten up for being different she was taunted to the brink of a sixth-grade suicide attempt. Her resilience to endure has rewarded us with the remarkable and resolved person she is today.
“I have been very blessed to have had people who love and support me,” she humbly shares. I think that love can be deeply healing.”
Love is an imperative factor at play for Laverne; it is a staple in many of her public speeches. She is quick to mention too, her own self-care in tackling a lot of her early childhood traumas through acting workshops. She began with renowned acting coach Susan Batson. Through proactively seeking to improve her acting skills and release her anxieties creatively, she found a therapeutic inner healing over a decade ago that has helped her with moving beyond the bullying of her childhood and which ultimately prepared her to deal gracefully with the bigotry and ignorance she still faces today.
“There is this thing about being an actor, part of the artistic process that requires [us] actors to delve more deeply into the depths of who we are as human beings, so that we can give ‘truth’ to our characters,” shares Cox who holds a degree in fine arts from Marymount Manhattan College. “It has helped me to uncover ‘stuff’ and to find ways in which to deal with it.”
Like the ensemble writing of any well-scripted novel, play, or television show like Orange Is the New Black, her truths are not meant to be uncovered alone. As much as Laverne teaches others, she is open to the process of learning herself. About three years ago she began working with a new acting coach who introduced her to activist Jeremiah Johnson. Jeremiah is the HIV/AIDS Prevention Research & Policy Coordinator with Treatment Action Group (TAG) in New York, an independent AIDS research and policy think tank focused on accelerating treatment research.
“Our mutual friend Brad Calcaterra runs this amazing program that helps performers work through the intensity of being raw and vulnerable in front of other people,” says Johnson. “When I was asked to do a TEDMED talk on fear and shame-based messaging early last year, I reached out to Brad for advice on how to speak about such a personal and emotional topic in front of so many people—so he invited me to his workshop. Laverne was in that class—we bonded over our passion for social justice, and spent quite a few hours over coffee talking about the challenges facing transgender people and people living with HIV.”
“Jeremiah is a dear friend of mine,” sweetly says Laverne. “He does a lot of AIDS advocacy work and he is [publicly] HIV-positive himself. A lot of our conversations are about how people are shamed who have HIV. He has this great [TEDMED] talk about fearful messaging tactics that are used in healthcare media to try to get people to practice safer sex. I’ve seen so many folks who I know and love shamed and stigmatized for having HIV—it is deeply, deeply painful for me.”
Continuing, she says, “I have had some dear friends too who have passed away and I have some who are living with HIV—some trans folks and some gay folks. So it is a really personal issue for me.”
Motivated once again by the pain of loss and determined to stand by her friends, Laverne has gotten involved, something that both pleases and impresses Jeremiah. “It is often not easy or simple to be an ally for a community that is highly marginalized and stigmatized, especially if you happen to belong to a marginalized community yourself. Laverne and I have discussed this before, and acknowledged that I don’t always know how best to be an ally for transgender people, and that she doesn’t always know the best way to show up for people living with HIV. But we both try to have the bravery to talk about that, to learn from each other, to show up for the fight, and to have each other’s back,” says Johnson, who greatly admires Cox’s ability to weave together a passion for social justice with her career.
Having each other’s back is key if we are to make the type of critical progress we need as a united and powerful LBGT movement regardless of whether we embody the “L” or the “T” of this equation. Laverne’s ground-breaking interview with Katie Couric sparked a necessary and long overdue mainstream media dialogue about “what is and what is not appropriate to ask trans people.” And she told us at The National Conference on LGBT Equality Creating Change 2014 that she was proud to be able to have Carmen Carrera’s back when questioned about her anatomy, which, Laverne stated, traditionally becomes the sensational “take-away” when summing up the life experiences of people who are trans. “We don’t need to be fighting each other…there is enough spotlight to go around if we love each other,” she announced from the podium.
“Laverne has really opened my eyes to all the ways in which transgender individuals are ‘erased’ from the record or punished for even daring to exist. Our conversations have heightened my awareness to the lack of transgender visibility in HIV/AIDS. Despite the fact that we know that transgender women are among the most vulnerable for acquiring HIV, the data we have collected on the topic is woefully inadequate,” warns Johnson.
The CDC acknowledges the fact that because of inconsistent data collection, statistical information is lacking on the actual number of transgender people in the United States living with HIV. “TAG is presently working to push the CDC to take concrete steps toward providing transgender-specific data and reports on HIV/AIDS to better inform care, treatment, and prevention efforts in the U.S.,” reports Johnson.
“When we talk about the [disproportionate] HIV transmission rate amongst trans women, so often it’s trans women of color,” alerts Cox. “When we talk about the disproportionate homicide rate in the LGBT community, we know that its trans women, but we also know that it is mostly trans women of color.”
Frequently, trans women of color are not only attacked for who they are on the street, but then subsequently punished for who they are by the justice system as well. Laverne mentions CeCe McDonald, whose story she’s telling in an upcoming film called Free CeCe, about a young African-American trans woman who was walking with a group of her friends when they were attacked by a group of whites casting racial, homophobic, and transphobic slurs. When confronting the attackers, CeCe was stabbed in the face with a glass, severing her salivary gland. A fight ensued leaving one of the attackers dead. Defending herself, CeCe was the only person arrested that night and placed in solitary confinement at a men’s jail where she ended up serving nine months of a forty-one month jail sentence for a reduced charge of 2nd degree manslaughter. CeCe was released from jail on January 13, 2014.
“When we look into CeCe McDonald’s story, we see that the first word when she was attacked was the ‘N’ word. So the very first thing that these white supremacists noticed was that CeCe and her friends were black, and then they noticed that they were queer and LGBT and trans.” Laverne reiterates with emphasis that CeCe was the only person arrested that night and that it took a year to arrest her attacker. “CeCe’s incarceration at a men’s prison, and in solitary, was an attempt to ‘disappear’ her. Free CeCe looks at all of those intersections of identity and oppression and the culture of violence against trans women.”
Cox hopes that others do the work of self-care so that the cycle of oppressive violence ends. We need first of all to recognize where it comes from. “I think that whenever we have a problem with someone else we have it because we have a problem with our self. There are a couple things about discrimination and oppression: There are some folks who are just power-hungry and want to keep power and keep people down. Then there are those who don’t really realize that what they are saying is problematic and that their discomfort with other people is really discomfort with themselves.”
She continues: “There is this wonderful expression ‘hurt people hurt people’ and so often when we have trauma in our own lives we don’t know what to do with that pain so we discharge that pain onto others. I think a lot of the work [to be done] is to get right with ourselves so that we don’t discharge our own negative feelings onto each other.”
Laverne was recognized this past March at GLAAD’s 25th Anniversary gala with the Stephen F. Kolzak Award. Named in honor of the casting executive who dedicated the later part of his life to fighting homophobia and AIDS-phobia within the entertainment industry, the award is presented annually to an openly LGBT media professional who has made significant contributions by way of promoting equality within the LGBT community. Previous recipients include Sir Ian McKellen [A&U, October 1998], Ellen DeGeneres, John Waters [A&U, July 2011], and 2013 recipient, entertainment attorney and newly elected GLAAD co-chair Steve Warren.
Laverne was named one of OUT Magazine’s “Out 100,” made Huffington Post’s top 50 trans icons, and has been included as one of Metrosource Magazine’s “55 People We Love.” Her critical writings have appeared in The Advocate and The Huffington Post.
She is the first African-American trans woman to have a starring role on a major television outlet. At Creating Change 2014 she credited Candis Cayne [A&U, March 2009] in her 2007 recurring role on ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money for paving the way. “I would not be here without Candis Cayne,” Cox humbly concedes. Laverne is the first trans woman of color to produce and star in her own GLAAD nominated television show, VH1’s TRANSForm Me and the first trans woman of color to appear on an American reality television program, VH1’s I Wanna Work for Diddy. She received the Dorian Rising Star Award for her role on Orange Is the New Black.
Her approach to advocacy resists compartmentalizing. She extends her critical thinking across identities, seeking to bring to light all the ways people become marginalized or made invisible. “Most of us don’t fit neatly into the traditional gender-binary model. It’s either the men’s room or the ladies room,” weighs Laverne. The gender-binary model to which she refers perpetuates the notion that both sex and gender can be tidily packaged into one distinct gender classification. “The reality is that gender is so much more complicated than this,” she says. “I think a proper critique of binary gender should come with a feminist perspective.” She pauses then paraphrases something that she had heard Melissa Harris-Perry discuss recently on her MSNBC show. “We should be looking at certain issues through a feminist lens and asking who has been left out, who are we forgetting, and who are we missing?”
“When I think about the LGBT movement today. I also think—who has been left out?” Laverne asks, seconding Perry’s insights. “Whose truths are we neglecting in terms of stories, in terms of lives and in terms of experiences. I agree. Those are the questions that we should be asking.”
“Then I think about so many of the gay men that I know and love who’ve been told by other gay men that they are not masculine enough to date; that they only date ‘butch’ guys.” She adds, “These are butch guys where I come from, so I’m thinking to myself—if my friends aren’t butch enough then what exactly are these guys looking for, EXACTLY?” Laverne laughs and continues.
“Julia Serano talks about scapegoating of femininity in her book, Whipping Girl. Amongst feminists this is a big issue but I wonder if it’s not an even bigger issue in LGBT community among gay men particularly as well as with some gay women. There is this notion that femininity somehow weakens a person.”
Serano’s Whipping Girl (Seal Press 2007) begins with a great quote by the late Caribbean-American poet and feminist Audre Lorde. “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
Aimed at deconstructing misconceptions about trans women and “transgressing binary gender norms,” Serano sets out “to highlight the ways in which people who are feminine, whether they be female, male, and/or transgender, are almost universally demeaned compared with their masculine counterparts. This scapegoating of those who express femininity can be seen not only in the male-centered mainstream, but in the queer community, where ‘effeminate’ gay men have been accused of holding back the gay rights movement, and where femme dykes have been accused of being the Uncle Toms of the lesbian movement.”
“I think we all internalize this break-down in our value system that breeds homophobia, and transphobia.” Laverne reflects, “I often think about the question—is there ‘femme’ phobia within our LGBT community, a phobia of the feminine I wonder?”
Laverne Cox is steady when it comes to riding this third wave of feminist discourse. She possesses conviction and speaks her mind. Her strength as a powerful advocate is doubled by her ability to win over the hearts and minds of others easily through undeniably compelling addresses. She is committed to destigmatizing HIV, ending trans oppression, and confronting society’s fear of the feminine. She has been taking her empowering message of living more authentically to colleges and universities across the country and has already committed to an aggressive fall lineup later this year.
On spoiler lockdown and poised for Orange’s Season Two premiere on June 6 along with its likely, round-two barrage of critical acclaim, Laverne in closing reminds us not to worry about her character Sophia, that she is taller than the other women and the only hairstylist in the joint. “At the end of the day if someone has a problem with me, they can’t linger in that too long, or it is going to be to their detriment!” Unlike Sophia, though, Laverne would never hold a bad haircut over any of us. She has got our backs no matter what—and the AIDS community has got hers, as well.
Sean Black is an Editor at Large for A&U. He interviewed Phill Wilson of the Black AIDS Institute for the February cover story.