As a transgender public figure, actress and producer Laverne Cox has not only helped thousands access her own personal story and that of her most famous character, Orange Is The New Black's Sophia Burset, she's also been exemplary in giving other trans people platforms to tell their own stories.
Her newest project, the hour-long documentary Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word, is the latest and one of the greatest examples of Cox's ability to amplify the experiences of others, speak effectively to her audience, and bring long overdue conversations into the mainstream, particularly about racism and sexism.
The documentary, which premieres tonight at 7 p.m. Eastern, 6 p.m. Central on both MTV and Logo, follows the stories of seven transgender youth between the ages of 12 and 24, speaking to issues that are both of universal interest to teenagers (like friendship, dealing with parents, sex, and life after high school) and unique to trans youth, such as disclosure of one's trans status while dating, facing an increased risk of homelessness or violence, and, in particular for trans women of color, being profiled by police.
It's not easy to address all of these topics, balance the approach between an educational and narrative one, and balance the tone between a more typical MTV-style light poppiness and the gravity appropriate to the seriousness of the injustices that can face trans youth, but The T Word manages to pull it off. Indeed, one of the show's most striking effects is the feeling, after watching, that it couldn't possibly be only an hour long — it covers that much ground in such a short span of time.
As the documentary's executive producer and narrator, Cox's influence is apparent throughout. When The Advocate spoke with Cox about her role, she explained that she was very involved with asking the youth featured in the film questions she felt were important for an audience to hear, and lauded MTV on their willingness to "push the envelope" in terms of overtly LGBT-inclusive programming for its "Look Different" initiative.
In particular, Cox said, she felt that the criminlization of trans women of color like herself and two other black women profiled, Daniella and L'lerrét, was "very, very, very important to talk about." The women are frank about being stopped by police simply for walking outside, encountering officers who assume they are engaged in illegal activity, based on the intersection of prejudice around their skin color and trans statuses.
Then again, Cox explained, she wanted, in a sense, to normalize the everyday experiences of trans women like herself, who seek friendship and love like any other young person. "When I get together with my girlfriends, we talk about dating," Cox explained with a laugh, recalling some of her favorite T Word scenes in which groups of trans women gather to discuss their lives and lend support to each other.
Describing the documentary's topics, Cox is careful to point out that living a "trans" life is not a universal experience. There are major differences based on the aforementioned effects of racism and sexism, but also around levels of familial acceptance, homelessness, and what one participant, Shane, refers to as "passing privilege" — the ability to be perceived by others as normatively "masculine" or "feminine," and therefore able decide if and when to disclose one's trans status.
The T Word will undoubtedly be equal parts eye-opening for the cisgender (non-trans) youth who tune in, as well as affirming for its teenage and young adult trans viewers. Cox herself is clearly inspiring, and it's apparent from talking to some of the documentary's subjects that her participation in the project was one of their main reasons for joining and pushing themselves to be so open and self-searching in the film.
Cox has been, simply put, a hero to a number of T Word participants, acting as a role model as they undertake the daunting task of being public about their stories.
One young man, athlete and public speaker Kye Allums, shares that he'd hesitated about doing a documentary with MTV until he learned that Cox was involved. "I wanted to support her," he tells The Advocate. "Laverne's a real person. She's very real and her energy, being around her, being able to talk to her; I knew I could trust her."
"We've had many conversations and she's helped me through tough times where I've questioned whether I really wanted to be an advocate," Allums continues, referring to his own career as a speaker following a very public revelation of his trans identity while playing Division I baketball for George Washington University. "She's given me strength. She's given me energy to keep doing what I know I was put on this earth to do."
L'lerrét Jazelle Ailith, a New Orleans-based trans rights activist, shares a similar experience of being personally empowered by meeting Cox, who visited her LGBT youth group, BreakOUT!, after Ailith wrote a heartfelt blog post thanking Cox for her work.
"I [thanked] her for just being herself and for living visibly, authentically, and unapologetically," Ailith tells The Advocate. "For showing me that I could do the same thing and achieve some type of happiness. And for not only using her platform for herself, but for extending it out to other people — it just really inspired me. [When she] asked me if I would be interested in being involved in a project to help with the [trans rights] movement, of course I was on board."
Cox's positive influence on the next generation of trans folks is undeniable, and The T Word succeeds in its effort to extend that effect even further. Just yesterday, Cox and the cast of The T Word took a stand against anti-LGBT youth bullying by "going purple" for Spirit Day, jointly lighting the Empire State Building purple in a show of support.
Tune in to MTV or Logo at 7 p.m. Eastern tonight to catch the documentary's premiere, as well as commentary from the documentary's cast in a follow-up Trans Forum at 8 p.m.
Watch the trailer below for a sneak peek at The T Word.