Within a year of being introduced to the world as Sophia on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, Laverne Cox was easily the most famous trans woman in the world — the first openly trans person to get an Emmy nomination in an acting category, featured on the cover of Time magazine as the face of a “transgender tipping point.” But all throughout, she struggled, increasingly aware that her visibility couldn’t erase the suffering of other trans women — or the trauma of her own past.
Were you ever ambivalent about your power?
Oh yeah. The month I was on the cover of Time magazine, five trans women were killed. So I felt a lot of survivor’s guilt. A feeling like, Why me? I felt an obligation, so that year I said yes to a lot of things. But there were a lot of folks who wanted to invalidate me, scapegoat me, and make me a representative of all trans people. I never purported to be that, and so I just had to be really careful about what I said and what I did.
I know you have said that in order to use the power of your voice, you had to first feel powerful yourself.
It’s really that “Put the life mask on yourself first before you help other people.” It got to a point when it was hard to talk about trans people being murdered because I was doing it all the time. It’s a really dark place to live in. I remember when I was prepping to interview CeCe McDonald and I was doing tons of research on violence against trans women, I was at a bar and met a group of guys. One of them bought me a drink and was flirting with me. I have no tolerance; one and a half cosmos in, I’m drunk. His friends went outside and we started making out, and I hadn’t gotten a chance to disclose that I’m trans. It all happened really quickly, and I freaked out and just ran out of the bar and down the street. I kept imagining his friends coming in and murdering me. I don’t know if that would have happened, but I had been doing all this reading about trans women being murdered, so I was just like, “Oh my God, I’m going to get killed at Churchill Tavern on 28th Street in Manhattan by this group of white men.” This is what trans folks are walking around with.
Is it hard to do all the celebrity stuff in that context?
People need to see a black trans woman having fun, being successful, living her best life, in the face of all the violence and all the disenfranchisement. I deserve to live a good life. But I still have trauma. I still have the memory of being kicked on the street a block away from here and being catcalled and misgendered. It’s important for me not to get caught up in thinking I’m so fabulous, or I’m better than somebody because I’m at a party.
I don’t do a lot of marches, and I have a lot of guilt about that. But as a black trans woman, me getting arrested is different. Trans people experience horrible shit in prison. My friend Matt McGorry recently got arrested in a march and I’m like, A straight white man can go get arrested; black trans women can’t be in jail. The point of that is that I have to know that my contribution is going to be different from other people. Power is being clear about who you are.
Can you give me an example of a time where you really struggled with how to respond to a situation publicly?
I don’t know if a lot of people know that I’m the first transgender person that Caitlyn Jenner ever talked to. A friend of mine called me and said, “The tabloid rumors are true. Caitlyn is trans and she’s never talked to a trans person before. Can you talk to her?” And one of the first things I asked her when she called, because I didn’t feel comfortable calling her by her old name — I don’t want to dead-name her — was, “Have you picked a name yet?” So I started her calling her Caitlyn then. We talked for a couple of hours and it was lovely. After she came out, people were constantly asking me about her. Initially I was like, “I’m not going to say anything about her until she speaks for herself.” After her Diane Sawyer interview, I did talk about her, and what I remember saying at the time was that it is so important that we have diverse representation for trans people — that we’re not all the same and that some people might not connect to my story, but they might connect to hers. And then it became difficult to support her, because of some of her politics. I’ve been very intentional about not talking about her, mainly because she’s become so divisive. But I have love for her. She’s still a human being.
To be real, I don’t believe that early-transition people should be in the media, for the most part. I think if you’re early transition, you’re figuring out who you are. When I started my medical transition 20 years ago, I was a new person — I was like a baby and I was learning everything anew. A newborn should not really be in the press.
There are a lot more trans people in pop culture now, but things haven’t necessarily changed for the better. What are the limitations of that sort of visibility?
One thing I think about regarding the limitations of visibility for trans people is that in consumer capitalism, certain kinds of trans bodies are more easily consumable. I think that accounts for why there is more visibility of trans woman than trans men. Because our media already objectifies women.
People are obsessed with the artifices of femininity, and so certain kinds of trans women, who look a certain way, fit neatly into that. I am aware of that, but I don’t go into this uncritically. I do my photo shoots because I want to feel myself and I want to live and all that stuff, but I also understand that it is functioning in consumer capitalism in a very specific way. I am aware that with certain lighting or angles or whatever, I am able to embody cis-normative and arguably white-supremacist beauty standards. So I don’t make my aesthetic choices without that knowledge. But I also have the right to make them.
Hari Nef gave a great talk about embracing your femininity as a survival strategy. Being perceived in a more femme way on the subway means you might not get attacked that day. Does that mean the culture should not change? The culture should change, because not everybody is going to be able to embody a certain kind of cis-normative standard for survival.
Is it draining to have to be a role model in everything you do?
It is. I have to constantly acknowledge that I am a human being and that this is going to be imperfect. I did an interview once where I said that the men who date trans women are more oppressed than trans people are, and the trans community lost their minds. The truth is, I misspoke when I said that. I was trying to have empathy for the men who are attracted to trans women, but the reality is that they’re not as oppressed as we are. I’ve dated them and had sex with them in New York: all the Wall Street dudes, the hedge-fund dudes. We think of those people as very privileged and having a lot of power, and in some ways they do, but in other ways they don’t. The second you don’t toe the line of patriarchy, you’re excommunicated from it.
At the same time, by having sex with trans women secretly, so many of those men fail to relinquish any of that power, or be critical of those systems that oppress trans people. It would be nice if some of the men who sleep with trans women would actually speak out about the oppression of trans women. There is a self-loathing there. There’s also this whole space of oppressing someone that you’ve had sex with. Slave owners had sex with slaves. That’s does not mean that they were down for the liberation of slaves, or even had the capacity to love them.
Right, sexual attraction can be rooted in objectification.
I think for me, coming to power has been not allowing men like that into my energetic field. I learned that for men who fetishize trans women, if they moved from a space of fetish to fully humanizing us, that would ruin the fantasy. You cannot take a man like that and turn him into some ally. So then I’ve had to make different choices about those kinds of men in my life, and that has been wonderful.
In dating you get a lot of information about what’s really going on with people. If you’re into men, finding the right male partner who is not threatened by your power, who is not intimidated or in competition with you, who knows himself and loves himself and is able to love you … I think that is an issue. I’ve met a lot of men who thought I was too smart, I was too artsy, I was too empowered, and they can’t handle it. I dated a man who was so evolved in so many ways, but he was just more sexually turned on by women who were not as attractive or as successful.
Do you remember the first time that you realized that you had power?
You know, I moved to New York in 1993, and I shot Orange Is the New Black in 2012. That is 19 years. And in 2009, when I was shooting my own show on VH1, I thought that starring in my own TV show should make all of the pain of my childhood go away. It didn’t. I realized in that moment that it’s an inside job. That there is nothing in the material world that is going to really fill my soul and heal me. I have to do that work. That was nine years ago, and I really just started to do a deep dive into the pain and the violence I experienced as a kid. It was time for me to slowly begin to say, “This happened. This is horrible.” Oprah reminds us that we cannot be in our own power if we do not know who we are.
Are you glad you weren’t younger or earlier in your career when you got famous?
You know, if it happened when I moved to New York, when I thought it should have happened, I probably wouldn’t be alive. I think that’s the truth, because I can barely handle it now.