Laverne Cox is an American actress and LGBT advocate. She rose to prominence with her role as Sophia Burset on the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, becoming the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in the acting category, and the first to be nominated for an Emmy Award since composer/musician Angela Morley in 1990. In 2015, she won a Daytime Emmy Award in Outstanding Special Class Special as executive producer for Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word. This made her the first openly transgender woman to win a Daytime Emmy as an executive producer. Also in 2015, she became the first openly transgender person to have a wax figure of herself at Madame Tussauds. In 2017, she became the first transgender person to play a transgender series regular on broadcast TV as Cameron Wirth on CBS's Doubt.
Cox appeared as a contestant on the first season of VH1's reality showI Want to Work for Diddy, and co-produced and co-hosted the VH1 makeover television series TRANSform Me. In April 2014, Cox was honored by GLAAD with its Stephen F. Kolzak Award for her work as an advocate for the transgender community. In June 2014, Cox became the first openly transgender person to appear on the cover of Time magazine. In February 2018, Cox became the first openly transgender person to appear on the cover of any Cosmopolitan magazine (specifically, Cosmopolitan South Africa)..
Laverne Cox was born in Mobile, Alabama and was raised by a single mother and grandmother within the AME Zion church. She has an identical twin brother, M Lamar, who portrays the pre-transitioning Sophia (as Marcus) in Orange Is the New Black. Cox stated she attempted suicide at the age of 11, when she noticed that she had developed feelings about her male classmates and had been bullied for several years for not acting "the way someone assigned male at birth was supposed to act".
She is a graduate of the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, Alabama, where she studied creative writing before switching to dance. She then studied for two years at Indiana University Bloomington before transferring to Marymount Manhattan College in New York City, where she switched from dancing (specifically classical ballet) to acting. During her first season on Orange Is the New Black, she was still appearing at a restaurant on the Lower East Side as a drag queen (where she had applied initially to work as a waitress).
Cox appeared as a contestant on the first season of I Want to Work for Diddy; afterwards she was approached by VH1 about show ideas. From that came the makeover television series TRANSform Me, which made Cox the first African-American transgender person to produce and star in her own TV show. Both those shows were nominated for GLAAD media awards for outstanding reality programs, and when Diddy won in 2009, Cox accepted the award at the GLAAD ceremony, giving a speech described by the San Francisco Sentinel as "among the most poignant because [it] reminded us how important it is to tell our stories, all of our stories." She has also acted in a number of TV shows and films, including Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Bored to Death, and Musical Chairs.
In 2013, Cox began her recurring role in the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black as Sophia Burset, a trans woman sent to prison for credit-card fraud. In that year, she stated, "Sophia is written as a multi-dimensional character who the audience can really empathize with—all of the sudden they're empathizing with a real Trans person. And for Trans folks out there, who need to see representations of people who are like them and of their experiences, that's when it becomes really important." Cox's role in Orange Is the New Black provides her a platform to speak on the rights of trans people.
In January 2014, Cox joined trans woman Carmen Carrera on Katie Couric's syndicated show, Katie. Couric referred to transgender people as "transgenders", and after being rebuffed by Carrera on the subject of her surgeries, specifically what genital reconstruction she had done, turned the same question to Cox. Cox responded,
I do feel there is a preoccupation with that. The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don't get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of trans people's lives is that so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans women. If we focus on transition, we don't actually get to talk about those things.
News outlets such as Salon, The Huffington Post, and Business Insider covered what was characterized by Salon writer Katie McDonough as Couric's "clueless" and "invasive" line of questioning.
Cox was on the cover of the June 9, 2014, issue of Time, and was interviewed for the article "The Transgender Tipping Point" by Katy Steinmetz, which ran in that issue and the title of which was also featured on the cover; this makes Cox the first openly transgender person on the cover of Time.
Later in 2014, Cox became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in an acting category: Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for her role as Sophia Burset in Orange Is the New Black.
Also in 2014, Cox appeared in John Legend's video for the song "You & I (Nobody in the World)".
Cox also joined a campaign that year against a Phoenix, Arizona law which allows police to arrest anyone suspected of "manifesting prostitution", and which she feels targets transgender women of color, following the conviction of activist (and transgender woman of color) Monica Jones. Cox stated, ""All over the country, trans women are targeted simply for being who they are. Laws like this manifestation law really support systematically the idea that girls like me, girls like me and Monica, are less than [others] in this country," Later that year the Sylvia Rivera Law Project released a video in which Cox read a letter from transgender inmate Synthia China Blast, addressing common issues faced by trans inmates. But when Cox learned that Blast was found guilty of the 1993 rape and murder of 13-year-old Ebony Williams, she wrote on her Tumblr, "I was not aware of the charges for which she was convicted. If I had been aware of those charges, I would have never agreed to read the letter."
Cox was featured in the annual "Rebels" issue of V in late 2014. For the issue, V asked celebrities and artists to nominate who they saw as their personal rebels, and Natasha Lyonne nominated Cox. Cox was also on the cover of the October 2014 issue of Essence magazine, along with actresses Alfre Woodard, Nicole Beharie, and Danai Gurira.
On October 17, 2014, Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word, an hour-long documentary executive-produced and narrated by Cox, premiered on MTV and Logo simultaneously.
Also in 2014, Cox was featured on the fifth anniversary cover of C☆NDY magazine along with 13 other transgender women – Janet Mock, Carmen Carrera, Geena Rocero, Isis King, Gisele Alicea, Leyna Ramous, Dina Marie, Nina Poon, Juliana Huxtable, Niki M'nray, Pêche Di, Carmen Xtravaganza (House of Xtravaganza), and Yasmine Petty.
In 2015, Cox won a Daytime Emmy Award in Outstanding Special Class Special as Executive Producer for Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word. This made Cox the first openly transgender woman to win a Daytime Emmy as an Executive Producer; as well, The T Word is the first trans documentary to win a Daytime Emmy.
Also in 2015, Cox (among others) posed nude for the Allure annual "Nudes" issue, becoming the first openly transgender actress to do so.
Cox is the cover subject for the June 11, 2015 "totally not-straight issue" of Entertainment Weekly, the first issue of the magazine in 15 years to focus exclusively on gay, lesbian, and transgender entertainment.
In June 2016, the Human Rights Campaign released a video in tribute to the victims of the 2016 Orlando gay nightclub shooting; in the video, Cox and others told the stories of the people killed there.
In 2017, Cox began her role as transgender attorney Cameron Wirth on Doubt on CBS. However, after only two episodes had aired, CBS announced that they were pulling the series from their schedule, leaving the future of the remaining unaired episodes uncertain. It was the first official cancellation of the 2016–17 season, following weak viewership. CBS later announced that the remaining 11 episodes would be broadcast on Saturday, beginning July 1.
Also in 2017, Cox was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for her role in Orange Is the New Black.
Also in 2017, Cox collaborated with the ACLU, Zackary Drucker, Molly Crabapple, and Kim Boekbinder, in making a video about transgender history and resistance, called "Time Marches Forward & So Do We", which Cox narrated.
Also in that year Cox became one of the four faces of the fall campaign for the Ivy Park line of clothing.
Laverne Cox has been noted by her LGBT peers, and many others, for being a trailblazer for the transgender community, and has won numerous awards for her activist approach in spreading awareness. Her impact and prominence in the media has led to a growing conversation about transgender people, specifically transgender women, and how being transgender intersects with one's race. She is the first openly transgender person to be on the cover of Time magazine, be nominated for a Primetime Emmy, and have a wax work in Madame Tussauds, as well as the first openly transgender woman to win a Daytime Emmy as an Executive Producer. In May 2016, Cox was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from The New School in New York City for her progressive work in the fight for gender equality.
Honors and awards
- 2013 – Anti-Violence Project 2013 Courage Award honoree
- 2013 – Reader's Choice Award at Out Magazine's OUT100 Gala, honoring the magazine's selection of 2013s 100 "most compelling people of the year."
- 2014 – Woman of the Year by Glamour magazine.
- 2014 – Included in the annual Root 100; this list honors "standout black leaders, innovators and culture shapers" age 45 and younger.
- 2014 – Topped the British newspaper The Guardian's third annual World Pride Power List, which ranks the world's most influential LGBT people.
- 2014 – Stephen F. Kolzak Award from GLAAD.
- 2014 – Named to the EBONY Power 100 list.
- 2015 – Named to the 2015 OUT Power 50 List.
- 2015 – Included in the People World's Most Beautiful Women List.
- 2015 – Three Twins Ice Cream in San Francisco renamed its chocolate orange confetti ice cream Laverne Cox's Chocolate Orange Is the New Black for Pride weekend.
- 2015 – Named in the 2015 Time 100 Most Influential People List; her entry was written by Jazz Jennings.
- 2015 – Named by Forum for Equality as one of their 31 Icons of the LGBT History Month.
- 2015 – Winner of a Daytime Emmy Award in Outstanding Special Class Special as Executive Producer for Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word. This made Cox the first openly transgender woman to win a Daytime Emmy as an Executive Producer; as well, The T Word is the first trans documentary to win a Daytime Emmy.
- 2017 – Named to the 2017 OUT Power 50 List.
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“…I guess I’d like to believe that we can transform ourselves and the world around us with a whole lotta love, to quote Led Zeppelin” – Laverne Cox
Appearing in their first-ever public speaking engagement together, Laverne Cox and her twin brother M. Lamar opened Baruch College’s GenderFluid weeklong festival with a candid discussion on intersectional feminism and their own life experiences.
Original “gender outlaw” Kate Borstein took to the stage with an impassioned introduction that promised Sept. 9 would be a night no one in attendance would forget. If the standing ovation at the end was any indication, ze was very much correct.
“I’ve known Laverne for a few years and we had been talking about wanting to do something on stage with her and she had the idea of involving her brother,” said Chip Duckett, the curator of GenderFluid Week and programming and marketing manager at Baruch College. “She thought it would be great to do something a little unstructured with the two of them.”
The nearly two-hour discussion allowed insight into their varied paths, philosophy, and strong personalities. Much of the conversation centered around Cox herself as she provided an uninhibited portrayal of what it’s like navigating industry tokenism and negotiation as a pioneering trans woman of color through the gentle—and not-so-gentle—coaxing of her brother.
“We all sort of have to figure out in these systems how do we resist, do we resist, how we perform,” she said. “So much of my evolution as a woman and as a human being is to try to see myself more clearly trying to be more myself and also exist in a world where I am not invisible.”
If Cox allowed a peek into her life through their discussion, Lamar flung open his diary. Primarily known to most through his cameo playing Cox’s Orange is the New Black character pre-transition, he is also an established artist in his own right. A photographer and musician, he spoke of his radically-charged philosophy and work as well as his personal life.
Perhaps the most honest moment of the night came as the two talked about their contrasting feelings on their mother (with whom Lamar hasn’t spoken to in a over a decade).
“They talked about such deeply personal aspects of their family life that I was surprised,” said Duckett. “I think it was refreshing because it really helps to hear what other people have gone through and come out so successfully.”
Lamar, a male-identifying gay feminist and punk, came clad entirely in black adorned with silver spikes and heavy black eyeshadow. Juxtaposed against the high femme aesthetic of Cox, who wore a white form-fitting dress, stilettos and her blonde hair delicately curled, the pair were reminiscent of a yin-yang.
While expressing his love and pride for his sister, praising her for making her continual rise to fame as much about supporting other trans people of color, Lamar also questioned Cox’s operating within a mainstream framework.
“We’ve had some difficulty because of my positions…it’s been very interesting, me recognizing the value of what you do,” he said shortly after calling out GLAAD, an organization Cox has partnered with, for their excluding race in their LGBTQ-centered mission.
“I’m not interested in her roles written by white people,” he also said.
In a less-adversarial point of disagreement, Lamar teased Cox regarding her love of Beyonce, to which she responded: “It’s very important for me to allow him to have space to not be into Beyonce, and it’s very important to me to assert that I very much am.”
“And as much as I’d like to say I woke up like this, I didn’t quite,” she added, to resounding audience laughter and applause; one of many several shining moments in which her quick wit broke tension.
“It was intense, it’s always intense,” she said in an interview after the discussion. “My brother’s really intense and we have an intense relationship and I think that the truth of that was very present.”
“For me, being very interested in truth, I thought it went really well,” Lamar said. “I had fun; we have a playful relationship, too…we have fun together in our disagreements.”
“I think maybe it was more fun for you than it was for me,” Cox laughed.
While their methods varied, both were equally passionate when it came to exploring issues of marginalization and social injustice. Calling attention to the mainstream pornography industry’s objectification of the black male and trans women, systematic violence against black and trans people, and white supremacy, Lamar tackled controversial matters with unflinching, uncensored intensity.
He also showed several slides from his most recent photo series, “NEGROGOTHIC a manifesto: The Aesthetic of M Lamar,” including an image of a white man holding a whip meant to symbolize the black male phallus.
Meanwhile, Cox centered her comments around the importance of building safe spaces for healing from trauma and pain in both the personal and larger social contexts.
“A lot of these conversations that we have in this culture around racism, sexism, transphobia, around all kinds of intersecting oppression are really deeply painful and we often find ourselves feeling accused of something and that shuts down conversation,” she said. “If we don’t know how to talk to each other, how are we going to heal from this stuff? And it’s hard. It’s really, really hard.”
Wrapping up the night, Cox began her attempt to leave the crowd on a more positive note.
“When we work from the ethic of love, how can that transform public policy and the ways in which we think of invading other countries or policing our citizenry? …I guess I’d like to believe that we can transform ourselves and the world around us with a whole lotta love, to quote Led Zeppelin—”
“Which is actually a Willie Dixon song,” Lamar interrupted for the final time of the night. “What I love about that Led Zeppelin song is that Willie Dixon sued Led Zeppelin for stealing his music and they were like, ‘Yeah, we’ll pay you even though we stole your song’…I like Led Zeppelin…when they were stealing from black people, those white people made some awesome stuff.”
. . .
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Allee Manning is a queer feminist writer with a special interest in LGBTQ politics, art, and culture. She lives and works in New York, but dreams of moving to the country and opening a dog sanctuary. You can read her tweets at @AlleeManning.