Talking to Laverne Cox is pretty much the best. It’s just that simple. Not only is she incredibly funny, kind and charming, but she also always has incredibly important things to say. She’s been working hard in the public spotlight for over five years, and now she’s seeing the fruits of that labor. For this interview, I was able to find out about what it’s like to be nominated for an Emmy, what it’s like to work with dozens of talented women on a TV show, some behind-the-scenes info on her music video shoot for John Legend, who inspires her and some of her thoughts and feelings about anti-trans violence and the history that we need to remember as we move forward with both the LGBTQ movement and the trans movement.
So first of all, just congratulations on your amazing, well, past year. But then also just the past few weeks where you’re on the cover of Time, you’re nominated for an Emmy, President Obama mentioned you in his Pride month speech, you’re in a music video. You’re pretty much everywhere. So how does it feel to be the queen of the world right now?
(laughs) If anything, I feel very much like I’m just working really hard and I certainly don’t feel like the queen of the world. I often reference Brene Brown’s work. She tells us that good feelings are the hardest ones to feel and to really feel like you deserve. So that’s been the challenge of the past several months for me – really allowing myself to be in a place of worthiness with all the amazing stuff that’s happening to me and to really be able to take it in and feel like not from a place of arrogance or ego that I deserve these things. (laughs) These lovely things that are happening to me because I’ve worked really hard for them. And also because I’m a child of God, you know, that my worthiness comes because I’m a child of God and that means that everyone is worthy. So those are the things that I try to remember and tell myself.
It’s really just a crazy adjustment that I’m making. Because my life is completely different than it was a year ago. So it’s all very new. So I’m trying to sort of keep it all in perspective and stay grounded with it. But I mean, the Emmy nomination particularly this week has been – it’s really a dream come true. It’s something that I have dreamed about my whole life. And it’s something that I feel like I’ve manifested in some ways. I’m just really, really happy and deeply grateful, and I hope that this inspires other trans folks to believe that their dreams are possible as well.
On that topic, this is a historic event. You’re the first openly trans person to be nominated for an acting Emmy, how does it feel to be part of such a big moment? It’s both this huge national and international spotlight for you and for trans people, and then also, like you said, it can inspire a whole generation of trans people to achieve their dreams.
It feels big. It feels big and it’s a weird thing. I’m trying not to sort of be arrogant when I talk about this, but these are things that I’ve dreamed about and worked for for a really long time. And this is what I’ve wanted my life to be for my whole life. I’ve wanted to make history, you know?
I remember when I did I Want To Work For Diddy, I talked about in my first interview on that show, I talked about the historical significance of that moment that was happening then, and that was six years ago. I’ve always really been interested in history, so it feels like where I should be, it really does. It feels like where I want to be and should be. But I’ve had to do a lot of work to get out of my own way to get here. I’ve obviously had to battle my own demons and then a lot of misconceptions and prejudice and discrimination and ignorance about people like me. And I needed to get a chance.
And I’m so grateful for this show. I’m so grateful for Orange is the New Black and for Jenji Kohan, who wanted to hire a trans person to play this part, and for Piper Kerman, who wrote the book, and Jodie Foster, who directed episode three, and Sian Heder and all the writers. So it’s so many people. And my acting coach, Brad Calcaterra, and my acting mentor Susan Batsan and my mom. And I’m so grateful for all the people who’ve been there to help me and guide me.
And the funny thing is, I know I’m not the first trans person to be nominated for an Emmy. I know I’m the first trans actress. But you know, Chaz Bono was nominated for an Emmy for producing Becoming Chaz. And there’s a trans person specifically in another category that was not acting who won an Emmy. I don’t know if she’s really out. So I know that there have been people before me, right? That there have been people who have come before me who have also made this possible for me to have this moment.
Speaking about Orange is the New Black, you guys got twelve Emmy nominations, which is amazing…
..And five in acting categories, which just shows the amazing talent of all the women on that show. How does it feel to just, when you’re making this show, to be surrounded by so many talented and amazing women making a very women-centered show?
It’s deeply inspiring. I met with one of my actress actor co-stars, co-workers last night and we just talked about how amazing it is to be working with such incredible people. And I’ve learned so much about the craft of acting working with such amazing people. I learned just as much from Kate Mulgrew and Beth Fowler, who are veterans in the field as I do from Samira Wiley, and Danielle Brookes, who just graduated from Juilliard. And all the other actresses. And I’m so happy for [Natasha Lyonne's] nomination and [Uzo Aduba's] nomination and [Taylor Schilling's] nomination.
I love these women and it’s so weird because we’re just – we’re not cookie cutter Hollywood anything, none of us. None of us. Even the folks you think might be cookie cutter Hollywood, they aren’t. And so it just feels like these real women who are just really good at what they do are in this moment celebrating.
And when I saw Lea DeLaria, she’s not like anybody else, right? When I saw her on Thursday, she was just in tears. And when Lea DeLaria is in tears… Lea is like bawdy and cynical and sarcastic. And she was just in tears and she was just like, “I’m so happy for you, and I’m so happy for all of us.” So it just feels really, really wonderful to be amongst a group of women who look like we do and who are so fiercely talented. And I’m inspired by every single one of them. The cast, crew, everybody.
Another thing that you recently did, you were in the John Legend music video for “You & I (Nobody in the World)”. How did that come about?
Yes. Well, his people approached me and they told me the concept for the video and I just thought that it was – I love John Legend’s music, I’m a huge fan. His voice is just gorgeous. And I love just his philanthropy outside of what he does as a musician. And I love the message of this particular song and I loved the concept of the video. And John Legend is someone I wanted to be associated with. So I was just like, “Yeah.”
The interesting thing is – I think I can say this – when they approached me they were like, “We would love to get a scene of you putting on makeup.” And I said yes, and I was thinking, I’m not going to do that. We know the cliché of a trans woman putting on makeup. So I’m not going to do that. I was actually in L.A., doing press for season two of Orange, and the director comes in to shoot, and I was like, “I have an idea. I’m not going to be putting on makeup. How about me taking off my makeup?” So we sort of deconstruct that trans cliche of trans women putting on makeup. Mishka [Komai, the director] immediately said, “I love that. That’s so great. That’s so awesome. Let’s do it.” And so that’s what it ended up being.
So not only did I get to, you know, be in this video with all of these amazing and diverse women – and I think it’s important that trans women be included in women’s spaces – but I also got to have a moment when we deconstruct this sort of narrative trope of trans women putting on makeup.
Apart from your acting and appearing in music videos, you do a lot of advocacy work and fighting for trans rights, and trans women of color have always had a prominent role in that movement. From people like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major, to now with people like you and Janet Mock and CeCe McDonald. So how does it feel to be a part of that legacy of inspiring powerful trans women of color?
It feels really good. I was grand marshall of the Pride parade here in New York and when I was asked to do that, I immediately thought about Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, who were at the Stonewall Riots 45 years ago. And I am amazed at how many young people, and people who are not so young, don’t know that at Stonewall, quote-unquote “crossdressing” was illegal, and when bars were raided not only in New York, but all over the country, the police would line up the patrons, and if you were not wearing three articles of clothing associated with the gender you were assigned at birth, you would be arrested. So many people didn’t know that. When I said it at an awards recently, people came up to me and had no idea about that history, that so much of the history of our LGBT movement has been about gender self determination has been about gender freedom and fighting the criminalizing of trans and gender nonconforming people and police brutality.
That history is so important, and knowing the stories and the names of people like Miss Major and Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson and Sir Lady Java and others is so important. We act like we are sort of fighting this new fight. There’s things about “The Transgender Tipping Point,” this new civil rights thing, but we’ve been fighting for gender self determination for decades, you know? And we’re certainly getting more visibility now than we ever have before, particularly in mainstream media, but this has been a fight that we’ve been fighting for a very long time.
I think it’s important that people understand that history, so that history I think can sort of anchor us and anchor the work that we do. And so that’s where I’m at right now. And so I really do want to honor those names. And I want to honor people like Janet Mock and CeCe McDonald, who are both huge inspirations to me. But also folks like you. Your journalism is activism and that’s why I wanted to talk to you today…
…And people like Jen Richards in Chicago and Kokumo in Chicago and Angelica Ross and Cecilia Chung. Oh my God, there’s so many. Kiara St. James and Lourdes Hunter and Madison St. Claire and Kylar Broadus. And there’s just so many amazing people who are fighting for our right and fighting for our dignity and who people don’t know. Not everyone knows them, you know? And they should.
Because the reality is that the work of all of you makes what I do possible. And I’m looking to all of these folks that I’ve named and more for guidance about how to advocate better for my people. But at the same time, I’m an actor and I’m trying to have an unprecedented career as an actress. And so that’s hard and it’s a lot of work. So it’s just figuring out how to balance the work I do as an advocate with the work of being an artist is my struggle. It really is right now.
Speaking more about trans women of color, trans women of color and especially black trans women face most of the anti-trans violence and discrimination here in the US. And just last month four trans women of color were murdered. So what do you think we can do to address this epidemic of anti-trans women of color specific violence?
I think about this all the time, and as I think about how I advocate and what I want to associate myself with – because I just don’t have that much time – violence against trans women is always the thing I want to talk about and want to focus on and find solutions for. I mean, I think that’s why CeCe’s story and Monica Jones’ story and so many other trans women’s stories touch me so deeply. Because violence has been such a huge part of my life as a trans woman of color.
But I think we’re a violent culture in general, right? We’re a misogynist culture and we are a deeply racist culture. And we’re transphobic and a transmisogynist culture. So the culture needs to change. The culture needs to begin to shift. So then, how do we as a culture become a place where we don’t use violence as a solution and where we don’t think that violence is a solution? And then also where we create spaces where we can really interrogate and dismantle patriarchy and misogyny. I think just basically that it’s about changing hearts and minds and teaching not only our girls differently – because women can perpetuate misogyny and patriarchy as well – but teaching those who identify as male differently and those who maybe want to assume that kind of male privilege, right? So it’s really about all of us changing our hearts and minds so that we treat each other and ourselves better.
And then there’s intersectionality too. I think when we look at violence, we are missing huge causal reasons why we have violence when we don’t look at intersections of race and class. Disproportionately when it’s trans women of color, and frequently black trans women [who are being attacked], there’s something about them being black. And is it about them being in certain neighborhoods? Is it about poverty? Is it about making decriminalizing sex work, for example, so we can have more safe spaces for people who are doing sex work? Because some trans women find themselves doing sex work and that puts them at more risk for becoming victims or survivors of violence too. So there’s all of these other issues that intersect with patriarchy and misogyny that we have to address as well.
And then how do we begin to create spaces where we don’t believe that trans women, particularly, deserve violence because of who we are? Because we basically live in a culture that has purported and set up a narrative that trans women, particular trans women of color, deserve violence simply for being who we are. Because just the very idea of us leaving our apartments or leaving our homes and existing in public space, we are tricking someone. And we are deceptive and we need to be punished for that.
But the patriarchy has historically punished women anyway, right? So this is not just a trans women thing. This is a women thing. So those ideas about how we treat women and particular trans women and trans women of color need to change and shift. Long answer.
And a great answer. And so just one last question. I know for a lot of Autostraddle readers and just a lot of people in general, you’re a huge inspiration. Not only do you help us to live more authentically and love ourselves and be who we are, but you also help our cis or straight friends to be able to accept us more. So what do you say to people when they come up to you and tell you that you’ve inspired them or helped their lives?
I say thank you and I say that I’m so grateful for them for sharing that with me. But I want to tell everybody that it’s a struggle for me. It’s still something that I work on and work at. The whole idea and process of loving myself and believing that I’m worthy and I am enough, it is a lot of work. And I think that what I want to say to my trans siblings, and to anyone else who is listening, but particularly my trans siblings, is that it is a lot of work to really love yourself in a world that tells you that you shouldn’t exist, that your identity inherently is illegitimate, that there’s something wrong with you, right? And to really really love ourself in that social context is a lot of work. And I’m doing that work, but it’s hard. But I wish for every single person out there, trans and non trans, to be able to love ourselves and to really empower ourselves and believe that we are enough and that we are worthy simply because we are children of God. I want that.
I just know for myself, I struggle with so much trauma. I struggle with so many demons every single day. And that’s okay. That’s okay, but I want us to begin to create spaces where we can gently love ourselves more so that we can love each other more and really lift each other up and really support each other. I think sometimes we have trouble doing that because we really don’t love ourselves enough. If I’m not loving myself, I want to run the other way from somebody who looks like me and who has a similar experience.
I’ve had moments where I’ve imagined being competitive with other trans people, and I have to slow myself down and I have to say, “Wait, no, no, no, no, no.” We can lift each other up. My sisters and my brothers’ successes are my successes, so I want to lift my siblings up with me. And I want them to lift each other up as well. I think the only way that I can actually lift up my siblings is that I lift myself up first, that I believe that I deserve and am worthy of the love and belonging. And then I can give that to the people who are already in the sphere of energy that I’m radiating. So I want that for my siblings. I really do. Because I think we can do a lot for ourselves if we can really begin to come together and figure out how to love ourselves and each other better and believe that we’re enough and that we’re worthy. For me, that is the work every single day, to believe that I’m enough and that I’m worthy.
And those days, on a better day when I’m believing that, I feel like I can really then take that and give that to my sisters and give that to my brothers and we can go on this journey together and really be truly liberated. I mean, what does real liberation look like? What does it look like? And I think a lot of it has to do with us really, truly embracing who we are, all of who we are, and when I can do that, I can then embrace all of who my siblings are who are like me. Because when I believe I’m enough, I can believe they’re enough too.