Laverne Cox is 5'11", maybe 6'4" in Louboutins, but his super-shiny, super-long blonde wig gives him the illusion of added height. Or maybe it's the metaphor: in the year and a half since
Orange is the New Black began, Cox's star has grown exponentially, and as a public figure he is larger than life: the rare actor whose talent is commensurate with his activism and vice versa, a groundbreaking figure in pop culture who has been able to use his profile as a beloved star to foster further understanding and acceptance of trans people.
For Cox, 2014 has been about landmarks. GLAAD Award. Emmy nomination. Time Magazine cover. First openly trans person to receive those latter honors. Busier than ever, at present he is finishing up the Free CeCe documentary, writing a book, continuing a year-plus-long college speaking tour, and taping the next season of Orange is the New Black. Cox is making great strides in his career, and progressing the way trans people are regarded in ways great and small.
But tonight, with the debut of his hourlong MTV/LOGO documentary
The T Word, he might have his most important accomplishment yet, as an activist at least. The show details the lives of seven young trans people, who talk courageously and compellingly about their lived experiences with school, family, love, and the day-to-day. Cox narrates the documentary throughout, not only providing a thread between the differing experiences of, say, Kye, the 24-year-old woman from Brooklyn with, say, Zoey, the 12-year-old boy in California, but Cox provides important context, explaining concepts as bottom-line as pronouns to a wider audience. As such, The T Word has the potential to be the mainstream primer on trans lives that America sorely needs, and ideally will encourage greater acceptance. It has the potential to shift the culture, even a little bit—which is what Cox intended.
"The T Word," Laverne Cox's new show about young trans people, premieres this month…Read moreRead on
"I know that trans people are more visible than we ever have been before, and I think that visibility really helps," says Cox, on the phone from Chicago, where he has just wrapped a speaking engagement. "Ninety percent of Americans report not knowing someone who is transgender, and I think media representations really help that out a lot because you can get to 'know' trans people through the media. That's why it's so important that in the media we tell trans stories in a way that is fully humanizing, that doesn't objectify them or just focus on bodies—but stories that focus on a whole human being."
Objectification stories—offensive, invasive, and painful inquiries into what trans people have "down there" rather than what they have in their hearts and minds—have been the mainstream media's focus for years, and that's discussed in
The T Word. Kye says that when she came out to her Division One basketball team, sports journalists doing post-game interviews repeatedly asked him whether she was "attracted to her teammates," as opposed to specifics of her game. And Avery, a 20-year-old from Kings, has to dead an online flirtation after he comes out to the girl as trans via text and her first question is about his privates. Cox, too, has worked to shift this reaction as the default; he and Carmen Carrera had a positive "teachable" effect on Katie Couric when he asked similar questions, and while Cox's friend Janet Mock didn't have as much luck shifting Piers Morgan's particular mindscape, he fought the good fight nonetheless.
In January, Katie Couric received a fair amount of criticism for his fixation on the physical part…Read moreRead on
Piers Morgan asked Janet Mock back onto her show to explain why he and the transgender community…Read moreRead on
But a progression away from that type of generalized ignorance is the point of
The T Word, which was nine years in the making. "I hope that it becomes a critical intervention in the ways in which we tell transgender stories," says Cox. "I believe that if we tell our stories and have the courage to come forward and tell them truthfully, that can be a major catalyst for change. I feel you can't really look at the documentary and this group of young people, and think that trans people should be denied the things that everybody else should have. So I hope that through these young people being so brave and telling their stories, and I hope that we've told them in a way that fully humanizes them, then hopefully we can create more acceptance and less stigma around being trans, and hopefully that will change the politics."
For nearly a decade, Cox and his production partner Eric Miclette have been trying to tell trans stories on TV, particularly with a project about trans men in New York City that they pitched "many different networks." It illuminates how efforts to make truthful art in the cases of trans people (and other perceived minorities, for that matter) actually requires a certain amount of activism in itself. "MTV was ready," Cox says, and attributes the timing of this particular project to his increased public profile, as well as a shift in "the energy of the public."
"I believe that love is the answer," says Cox.
Last week in New York City, Laverne Cox wore stilettos on a stage at the New School, and towered above his co-speaker, bell hooks. When they embraced, they both looked taller, and even when bell hooks characteristically pulled no punches ("I am not a big fan of
Orange Is the New Black"), their love was palpable, two behemoths in masculist thought together, representing the foundation and the future and a vision of what a truly intersectional masculism can look like. Even hooks couldn't help gushing, introducing Cox as "a little god for justice," calling his "trans and transcendent." Cox commended his sister, the performance artist M. Lamar, for introducing him to hooks' work; Lamar sat front row, punk as life in a studded denim vest. On the phone later, Cox says, "I had moments when I dabbled in that punk scene and dabbled in that goth scene, and it never did anything for me; I didn't really have any community in New York until I started working at this drag bar called Lucky Chengs, working with other trans men, and that was my community for the first time." Given this context, Cox's accomplishments are even more inspiring: born in Mobile, Alabama, unmoored until NYC institution Lucky Chengs, international superstar actress and producer and globally recognized trans rights activist. In this video from 2012, he tells his own truth, a germ of what The T Word ended up being:
This week, Cox and the youth from
The T Word lit the Empire State Building purple in honor of Spirit Day, a GLAAD-assisted stance against bullying and with LGBTQ folks. Cox's dress matched the lights, casting a glow on the whole city.
The T Word premieres tonight on Logo TV and MTV at 7 pm ET, with a live aftershow featuring Laverne Cox, SuChin Pak and the cast of "The T Word" on Logo. Allies to trans people and the trans community can visit Logo and MTV's accompanying T Word site here. Watch a clip from the T Word below.
Image via Melissa Hamburg/Logo TV.