'It's About More Than Our Bodies': Laverne Cox on 'The T Word'

The 'Orange Is the New Black' actress opens up about her MTV documentary on trans youth, media representation and what she thinks of 'Transparent'

'Orange Is the New Black' actress Laverne Coxopens up about her MTV doc on trans youth, media representation and what she thinks of 'Transparent.' Credit: John Lamparski/WireImage

Laverne Cox is everywhere these days, which leaves her very little time to be anywhere for long. Between speaking engagements and filming the third season of the acclaimed Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, the actress had to squeeze this phone interview in on a brisk walk to her New York apartment, over lunch, and during a car ride either to or from an airport. But there's one place she should be tomorrow night, which is in your living room, as you watch Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word, which premieres simultaneously on MTV and Logo at 7 p.m. EST.


The hour-long documentary follows seven transgender youth, ranging in age from 12 to 24, as they contend with the usual young adult stuff: dating, playing sports, choosing dresses for school dances. But for Kye, the first transgender Division One basketball player, the "usual stuff" also includes being asked about his genitalia instead of his three-pointers. For 12-year-old Zoey, it means fighting to be able to use the girls bathroom at her California school. For New Orleans-based L'lerret, it means trying to avoid arrest by police officers who mistake her for a sex worker every time she walks down Bourbon Street.

Even as The T Word celebrates the liberation all seven subjects experience after being able to live as the gender they knew they were since birth, it explores the unique and sometimes devastating challenges facing anyone who identifies as trans today. Shane echoes the concern of his mom when he wonders about his dating prospects: "Straight women are going to want to date a man, and lesbians are going to want to date a woman, so who's going to want to date [me]?" Daniella, meanwhile, is still recovering from the trauma of a sexual assault that was minimized by health care professionals after she revealed she was transgender. Cox shares a staggering statistic: 41% of trans people in America will attempt suicide, which is nine times the national average.

Basically, 45 minutes is hardly enough time to spend with these remarkable people, but there is a live forum afterwards, and nobody could ask for a better steward than Laverne Cox. The 30-year-actress has used her increasing recognition — she is the first transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy (for her role as Sophia Burset on Orange) — to subtly but persuasively educate people, including Katie Couric, on the misinformation surrounding the trans identity. (Recently, she corrected a CBS anchor who referred to her having been "born a boy" by saying, "I was assigned male at birth is the way I like to put it.") Cox is smart and talented and graceful, and fortunately she was able to spare some time to talk about The T Word.

Was there any one story in the doc that particularly resonated with you, or felt similar to your experience?
They all resonated with me in different ways. Kye's complicated relationship with his mom — my mom has had difficulty with pronouns. Zoey's desire to act, and to transition when she did, touched my heart. I'm jealous, actually — I wish I could have transitioned at her age. The hardship that Daniella experienced around violence affected me because of how easily I could be one of the disproportionate number of trans folks who've experienced a lot of violence. I can totally relate to the issues of dating that face Avery and Ari. Finding the love that Shane talks about has also been part of my life. L'lerret is just so articulate and smart and adept at building community and a safe space for herself. [So] yeah, I relate to a lot of aspects of their lives.

Overall, the documentary is optimistic, although there's certainly no shortage of grim statistics and stories out there. Did you want the takeaway to be uplifting?
I wanted it to be real and truthful: It's not all bad, and it's not all good. And the good is the courage these young people show us to live truthfully in a culture that tells us we aren't who we say we are. The reality is that people stigmatize trans identity so for anyone to come forward on national television is truly a courageous act.

I was disappointed when it was over after an hour because I wanted to hear more from everyone. Is there anything that you didn't get to cover or don't feel you were able to explore thoroughly?
Oh god, yes. I realized after the casting, when we really didn't have money to cast anyone else, that we did not include someone who is non-binary — someone who doesn't identify as male or female. And that is a huge part of the trans community, so that's one of the things that's glaring for me. But we are trying to rectify that at the live forum immediately after the premiere, and we're going to delve into some of the issues we didn't get to. We're going to have someone who is non-binary talking about their experience.

Was MTV an ideal outlet because you think young people will be more open to trans stories and, if necessary, to changing their attitude toward trans people than maybe their parents would be?
Absolutely. One of my favorite things that I do is speaking at colleges all over the country because I really think that young people are — I mean, the cliché is that children are the future, but there's a sense of hope and possibility that young people have, an enthusiasm for changing the world. But I hope that not just young people will tune in, because living authentically as who you are is a message for everyone to benefit from at every age.

In your experience, what's been the most common misnomer about trans identity?
A lot of people think that being trans is about surgery and bodies, and a lot of trans folks choose not to have surgery at all. Surgical costs are prohibitive and many trans people can't afford it. Trans identity is about more than our bodies. It's important to me that we dispel the misconception that we are not who we say we are because of our bodies.

In the course of your career and your activism, have you witnessed any shift in attitude toward trans people, a turning point of any kind?
A couple of things: A catalyst for my career came in 2007 when Candis Cayne became the first transgender woman to have a recurring role on a prime-time television show, Dirty Sexy Money. And when her character was killed off, I wrote an in memoriam piece and I posted it on MySpace — because it was 2008. Since then Facebook has exploded and Twitter has exploded, so that trans people are able to come together in ways that we weren't able to come together before. So it's not maybe one moment, but the convergence of several different moments. More people have been able to have a voice because of the democratization of the internet, which is giving us more connection with each other.

You said you related to Kye, because his mother refuses to use the proper pronouns for him. Since you've become a breakout star on Orange Is the New Black, has your mom started using the correct pronouns?
Even before Orange my mother had a turnaround in terms of acknowledging me as her daughter. My mom is amazing, and she's so proud of me, and she does not misgender me anymore; even when other people use the wrong pronouns to refer to me, she corrects them. But we got there by having a lot of very difficult conversations. I did a lot of educating my mom with videos and articles and books on the subject. It was a lot of years, but my mom's in a great place with all of it right now.

As an actress, in an ideal world, would you choose to be cast as a female character, period, or do you expect to play specifically trans female characters?
I certainly don't want to be limited. There's a wide range of characters that I would love to have the opportunity to be able to play, trans or otherwise. For me it's about the part, and how well it's written, who I'm playing opposite, who's directing. But I also think it's important to tell trans stories, and there's so many stories out there that need to be told. I had a guest spot on Faking It recently, and what was cool about that is that I played this high school drama teacher, and I don't think it was written for a trans person. There was no mention of the character being trans, it was just a fun part. That's the world I'd like to exist in as an actor, where if I can bring something to it, then I can be cast.

Shane mentions "passing privilege." Is passing as a particular gender often the goal, or is passing mostly a matter of avoiding danger, or does that differ from person to person?
It is indeed different from person to person. The reality is there's a certain amount of danger to being trans and passing can save your life. But I think it's actually important for us to empower being trans, and to understand that being trans is beautiful, and we shouldn't impose normative standards of beauty on ourselves.

In your busy schedule, have you been able to watch Transparent?
Yes. My dear friend Trace Lysette plays Shea on the show. I really didn't start liking it until episode four, but then I really loved it. It's funny, it's smartly written, I love the diversity of trans representation.

Creator Jill Soloway has gotten some criticism for having a cisgender male actor (Jeffrey Tambor) play a trans female on the show. What do you think?
My understanding is that Jill understood the potential problematic nature of how the trans community might view that casting, but I think it was necessary to cast someone who might be in the early stages of transition. And a project may or may not get made based on the name value of the actor in the role. I think back on [2005 movie] Transamerica and Felicity Huffman's casting, and that's why that film got made — because there was a star attached. But what I think is wonderful is that Jill has hired an unprecedented number of trans actors to have speaking roles in this series. We're seeing trans male representation, which is so lacking. And we're seeing Alexandra Billings and Zackary Drucker — a lot of trans folks have jobs because of Transparent. That's important to acknowledge.

Jill recently said that she feels its imperative to find a trans woman to write for the second season. On the set of Orange, did you feel like you had to play the role of educator, the de facto spokesperson for trans issues? Or was everybody pretty knowledgeable to begin with?
It's pretty remarkable that we don't have someone trans in the writing room on Orange, and yet there's such humanity in Sophia and such complicated nuance and understanding of her identity. But Sian Heder, who wrote the episode in Season One where we find out Sophia's back story, told me she did a tremendous amount of research in the trans community in Los Angeles to write that episode. And certainly Sian and other writers have told me that if I found something problematic or inaccurate to speak up, but I haven't really had to do that. I don't have to be an educator, which feels really, really nice. I get to just be an actress.