Emmys Make History With First Transgender Acting Nominee

"Orange Is the New Black" star Laverne Cox, who told THR she was on "cloud nine," scored a nomination for her stint on the Netflix dramedy.
Laverne Cox on "Orange Is the New Black"

The Emmy Awards made history Thursday when the TV Academy nominated its first openly transgender actor.

Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox, who plays Sophia Burset on the Netflix prison dramedy from creator Jenji Kohan, received a nomination in the outstanding guest actress in a comedy series category — the first time an openly transgender actress has been recognized for an Emmy, according to the TV Academy. Her nomination is one of a dozen Orange Is the New Black received, including outstanding comedy series and acting recognition for stars Taylor Schilling, Kate Mulgrew, Uzo Aduba and Natasha Lyonne.

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"I’m on cloud nine. I’m through the roof,” the actress, who recently graced the cover of Time magazine, told The Hollywood Reporter early Thursday. The cultural impact of Orange, which launched its second season in June, has not been not lost on Cox: "We're definitely part of a moment."

“What a wonderful, wonderful day for Orange and for black trans-women,” she said. Referring to the attention the series has received, she added: "People are obsessed. Would you ever have thought a show about a women’s prison would have this moment? It’s unbelievable."

Her Orange co-stars also celebrated Cox's Emmy nomination, with Mulgrew saying that "it’s recognition of a community that very much needs and wants to be recognized, understood and rewarded." She added: "I think that Laverne as both an activist and an actor is doing a Herculean job of bringing transgenderism to the forefront of American politics and culture."

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Added Aduba, with whom Cox had already swapped congratulatory notes: “I love Laverne, and she’s done just an amazing thing for the trans community, period, end of story."

She continued: "The fact that Jenji had the bravery — and the team at Netflix — to put someone on television like Laverne, like these women of color, with so many different sexual orientations, it’s exciting. I’m just thankful that they’ve recognized her, that’s all.”

GLAAD also praised Cox's Emmy nomination and applauded the fact that it's been a strong year for openly gay actors, including Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Kate McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Nathan Lane and Joe Mantello. (Earlier this year, Cox received the Stephen F. Kolzak Award for her LGBT activism at the 25th annual GLAAD Media Awards.)

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"From gracing the cover of Time magazine, to now becoming the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy in an acting category, Laverne Cox continues to break barriers," said GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis. "Today, countless transgender youth will hear the message that they can be who they are and still achieve their dreams — nothing is out of reach. Laverne's success on a hit series is a clear indication that audiences are ready for more trans characters on television."

While Cox is the first openly transgender person to receive an Emmy acting nomination, hers is not the first portrayal of a transgender person to be recognized with an Emmy nomination. The first openly transgendered person to be nominated for an Emmy was Chaz Bono who was nominated as a producer for the documentary Becoming Chaz in 2011.

Robert Reed, best known as father Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch, received a nomination in the lead actor category for a single appearance in a drama or comedy series in 1976 for his portrayal of a transgender doctor on CBS' Medical Center. 

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Also, in 1986, Vanessa Redgrave received an Emmy nomination for best actress in a miniseries or television film for her portrayal of transgender tennis player Renee Richards in the CBS TV movie Second Serve. Also, P.J. Torokvei, a transgender woman, received an Emmy nomination as a producer on WKRP in Cincinnati.

While several people have been nominated for portraying transgender characters in films, only one has ever won an Oscar for such a performance: Hilary Swank, for Boys Don't Cry, in 1999.

Cox's character, Litchfield's resident salon maven, found herself behind bars after committing credit card fraud, which she perpetrated to pay for her gender reassignment surgery. She struggles to receive adequate hormone therapy while in prison but tries her best to maintain a relationship with her wife and son on the outside as they continue to come to terms with her sexuality.

Lacey Rose, Ashley Lee, Scott Feinberg, Bryn Elise Sandberg and Lesley Goldberg contributed to this report.

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