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“The past four years I have been working like a dog,” says Orange Is the New Black actress and activist Laverne Cox as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of the ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast in mid-July. Cox, the first openly transgender person ever to receive an acting Emmy nomination — she was nominated three years ago and again last month for her work on Orange — and the first openly trans person ever to appear on the cover of Time also starred this season in the Fox TV movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again and on the short-lived CBS drama series Doubt. What makes all the effort worth it, says the actress, is feedback that suggests she’s not only excelling onscreen, but also making a difference off it, as well. “When I meet young transgender people who say that their lives have changed because of my work,” she says, “that they decided not to commit suicide because of my visibility, that they decided to pursue their dreams of being actors, or to transition or to come out to friends or family, that means the most to me.”
Life in Manhattan was a mixed-bag for Cox, who by that point was publicly presenting herself in gender non-conforming ways. By day, her appearance provoked cruelty and abuse (“I never felt safe on the streets of New York,” she says), but by night it led to an unprecedented sense of freedom and acceptance (in the downtown club scene, she discovered other trans people and became a “mini-celebrity”). Her rollercoaster of an existence ultimately brought about “a full-on nervous breakdown,” after which she resolved to fully transition. “When I claimed trans, it was just empowering,” she explains. “It was, ‘This is what I am.'” Not that her problems went away: “For many years, I wanted to blend in and wanted to sort of be stealth and to quote-unquote ‘pass,’ but there was invariably always someone who knew I was trans, and that was very difficult for me,” she explains. “It was really shaming, and I felt like a failure.”
A major moment in Cox’s life came in 2007, when Candice Cayne became the first trans person to play a recurring trans part on a primetime show, ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money, proving to Cox that her dreams actually could become reality. “I just started submitting myself for everything,” she says, and soon she began landing work in off-Broadway productions and indie films; as a bit player on TV series including Law & Order; and as a reality TV contestant, on VH1’s I Want to Work for Diddy in 2008 (“I was never really interested in being P. Diddy‘s assistant, but what I was interested in was advancing my career”) and then, on the basis of her popularity with that show’s audience, a producer and co-host of the same network’s TRANSform Me in 2010. With greater exposure came greater fame, but not much greater security, financial or otherwise. Throughout those years, Cox continued to work at the drag restaurant Lucky Cheng. She also faced eviction notices, and seriously contemplated quitting the business and applying to graduate school. An LBGTQ-focused acting class, however, convinced her to persevere.
Then, in 2012, Cox’s big break arrived — even if it took her a while to realize it — when, following several auditions, she landed the recurring role of Sophia Burset, a trans hairdresser incarcerated for credit card fraud in a women’s prison, on Weeds creator Jenji Kohan‘s Netflix dramedy series Orange Is the New Black, which was inspired by Piper Kerman‘s 2010 memoir of the same name. The show was unveiled in 2013 and quickly became a cultural phenomenon, the most watched original content on the then-burgeoning streaming service, with fans ranging from teenage girls to President Barack Obama. For Cox, the opportunity to depict, for a large audience, the challenges of being a trans person in prison was all the more significant because she had spent years trying but failing to make a documentary about a real trans person, CeCe McDonald, who ostensibly was imprisoned unjustly.
Life for Cox hasn’t been quite the same since the explosion of Orange Is the New Black. For the first season’s third episode, “Lesbian Request Denied,” which was directed by Jodie Foster and explored Sophia’s backstory, Cox earned her first historic Emmy nom; for the fourth season’s fourth episode, “Doctor Psycho,” which depicts what life is like for a trans person in solitary confinement, she earned her second. In-between, she also landed her Time cover and became only the second trans performer ever to be a regular on a broadcast network show with Doubt (though the series was canceled after the airing of just two episodes, additional episodes continue to air on CBS on Saturdays at 8 p.m.). Cox also was the first trans person to appear on the radar of many Americans, and by her very existence — as well as the excellence of her work — she has helped to pave the way for greater awareness and and greater acceptance as well — at least in circles outside of Donald Trump‘s White House.
Cox paved the way not only for other characters in pop culture, like Jeffrey Tambor‘s portrayal of Jill Soloway‘s “mapa” on Amazon’s Transparent, which premiered in 2014, and for which Tambor has won the last two best actor in a comedy series Emmys; but also for real people like Chelsea Manning, the controversial U.S. Army soldier who went to jail, for leaking classified material, as Bradley, but began identifying herself as a woman in 2013; Caitlyn Jenner, who transitioned in 2015; and the list goes on. Trans people clearly still have a long way to go in achieving real equality, as demonstrated by Trump’s ban on trans people serving in the U.S. military, which he announced Wednesday on Twitter. (Cox immediately issued a statement condemning Trump’s decision, thanking members of the trans community for their service and saying, “I’m sorry your ‘commander in chief’ doesn’t value it.”) But as Cox continues to fight for further progress, she also celebrates the progress that has been made. “At one point, for the two weeks that Doubt was on the air, there were two black transgender women series regulars on primetime broadcast television,” she marvels, the other being Amiyah Scott on Fox’s Star. “That’s exciting.”
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