Laverne Cox: The Making of an Icon
BY Matthew Breen
July 10 2014 4:00 AM ET
Laverne Cox arrived at our meeting point, a hotel restaurant in midtown Manhattan, a few minutes behind schedule. She was rolling a small suitcase behind her. Her next appointment, where she’d go directly from our meeting, was for her Time magazine cover shoot, though she couldn’t say as much at the time. She sat down in the booth and explained that she prefers to bring a few items of her own clothing to photo shoots. Just in case. She’s busy and in demand, and being prepared is a running theme in her life.
She’s tall and attractive and that day was dressed in a short, fitted green dress. Cox’s voice is distinct, with a wide range, and as actors do she commands it consciously, but in regular conversation it conveys her state of mind rather directly. She’s charming, informed, passionate, and statuesque. As a speaker she’s prolific; her autumn schedule on her web site shows 28 university engagements. As an actress, she’s a memorable cast member on one of the most acclaimed television experiments of the decade. And she’s become the person most identified with the transgender movement in the United States.
Cox seems practically engineered to be in this position. She’s not an activist or a policy wonk, and yet her experiences and upbringing have aligned with this moment in American culture so precisely that to think of the unique struggles of the trans community, and its successes despite longstanding institutional and cultural barriers, it’s no surprise she’s the first name on many lips. She’s never called herself a leader and even demurs from the term role model, preferring possibility model instead. But she’s here, and she’s talking, and we’re listening like we never have before.
In Cox we’re witnessing the anointing of an icon.
“That’s the wonderful thing about the icon, you continue to grow. And you develop courage, the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” —MAYA ANGELOU
Superheroes, icons, and heads of state all have origin stories. In comic books, in presidential memoirs, and in hazy apocrypha, origin stories outline the formative events that give rise to a person’s driving passions, their deepest convictions.
Were Laverne Cox a blank slate of an actress upon which we could Etch-a-Sketch her past, erasing and rewriting her with each new character she plays, an origin story would just get in the way. But Cox knows that her position in a transgender rights movement cannot rest on a cipher. Where she came from matters—victories, embarrassments, and all. Now that she’s in the midst of writing a memoir, literally and in interviews like this, her origin story is very clearly on her mind.
Cox and her twin brother, a musician who goes by the name M. Lamar, were born in Mobile, Ala. Their mother was a teacher who prioritized education in their household.
“Mobile was just—” she pauses. “I always say, ‘I’m from Mobile, but I was never of Mobile.’ I was never there fully in my head. I watched tons of television as a kid, and I was bookish, too. The library was my favorite hangout.”
Cox remembers reading books on human sexuality, self-help, history, and especially biographies. “I was really into reading about black artists: Leontyne Price—she’s an opera singer, my all-time possibility model—and Arthur Mitchell, who was the founder of Dance Theater of Harlem.” A devoted fan of Solid Gold and Fame, Cox would imitate the choreography in those shows, and she started taking dance classes in third grade.
She was assigned male at birth but never much felt like a boy, and it must have showed. Cox remembers very distinctly one third-grade teacher, a Ms. Ridgeway, who said to her mother, who then repeated it to Cox: “Your son is going to end up in New Orleans wearing a dress if you don’t get him into therapy right away.”
When Cox was bullied by other kids, her mother would yell at her for not fighting back. “She was concerned about what other people would think about her parenting, about her. There was all this fear that I would end up gay or whatever, and there was a lot of homophobia in my hometown. Surprise, surprise.”
Being all boy wasn’t enough for Cox and her brother. They were expected to be paragons of male responsibility, to make up for what she was told was lacking in her community. “In black communities, all the black men are going to jail or they’re gay—this is what I heard growing up.” Cox says she and her brother were groomed to be successful and accomplished, encouraged by her mother and her Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church community in Mobile to be good students and upstanding citizens, to be “new black patriarchs...shining examples of what black men should be,” she says and laughs. “That’s hilarious, especially if you know my brother, because it ain’t happening. He identifies as a practicing homosexual, punk-rock Negro goth, and a free black man, so he’s not really interested in conventional anything.” She laughs now at the idea, but at age 11 the pressure incited Cox to attempt suicide. She downed a bottle of pills — she doesn’t remember what kind — and woke up with a terrible stomachache.
Cox was bullied in junior high school, but used her straight-A grades as a sort of defense, or deferred comeuppance — preparation for the future. “It’s sort of embarrassing to say, but as a bullied kid, [I said], ‘Well, you’re bullying me, but I’m making all As and I’m better than you!’ It’s a childish thing to say, and I was a child, but that was my mentality. ‘You’re bullying me, but I’m going to be rich and famous some day,’” she says, laughing again, adding, “I’m not rich yet.”
In high school at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, Cox flouted gender norms. “I definitely did not identify as male, but I didn’t identify as a woman yet either, not until later,” she says. “I started wearing culottes and bell-bottoms and makeup. I was very androgynous in high school, and continued in college.” Through her gender nonconformity she insisted to others that she was not subject to their notions about her identity. “It was about defining myself on my own terms.” And yet, those terms were not without complications. Cox describes her own deep internalized transphobia; though she had heard of transgender people, she knew none, and remembers portrayals of trans people as grotesque jokes on TV, on All in the Family and The Jeffersons. A transgender identity did not include the option to be successful and accomplished.
Cox enrolled at Indiana University, where she studied dance and performed in a few musicals, then transferred to Marymount Manhattan College, where a guest teacher approached her about her first play, Max Frisch’s Andorra. “I had no lines,” she says. “I was the village idiot, but I stole the show with just grinningand nodding.” Acting quickly supplanted dancing as an interest and in her senior year she landed her first film role, after being discovered. Cox was on the subway wearing box braids with the sides of her head and eyebrows shaved, “tons of makeup and lashes,” and a vintage paisley coat with a fur collar. “Like, I was done on the train. And this woman came up to me and said, ‘You’d be perfect for this movie I’m doing. Can I get your information?’” Cox auditioned and got the role, but says now, “I’m not going to tell you the name of the movie because my old name is on the credits.”
At night, Cox performed in downtown clubs, singing operatic versions of heavy metal songs by Pantera and Iron Maiden. One night Cox took a chance, uncharacteristically, she says, on a beauty pageant at the Pyramid Club in the East Village. (The club night, Goddess, was run by Glorya Wholesome, “who had recently changed her name from Glorya Hole because she was in love,” Cox says.) “I’m not a beauty pageant girl at all, obviously. I don’t know why I said yes. I entered the pageant, and it was the first time I’d gone full femme.” It was the first time Cox wore a swimsuit, and the first time she’d worn breasts. “It was very freeing and very wild — very Miss Congeniality. This beauty pageant that I had pooh-poohed really gave me space to just let go.”
A few years before medical transition, Cox began living full-time as a woman. She hadn’t yet changed her name (Laverne was her middle name pretransition) or started using feminine pronouns, but was wearing makeup and dresses, wearing her hair long, and, she says, “getting tons of street harassment, harassment in the subway.” Her acquaintance with Tina Sparkles — the performer to whom she’d won second place in the Goddess pageant — prompted a turning point. “Watching her and other trans women transition, I thought, This is who I am. And I was terrified.”
Sometime later, when she was in her doctor’s office getting her first hormone shot and was finally able to say aloud, “I’m transgender,” it was a breakthrough. “I never really said that before, and owning that was just a relief,” she says.
“I feel like it was something I’d been running away from my whole life, something I’d been fighting and trying not to be and trying to negotiate, instead of just trying to be who I am. It was just a relief.”
“This is why it’s dangerous to make anybody seem larger than life. Because a young person coming up sees this larger- than-life figure, this outrageously gigantic personality, and has to say, ‘I can never be that. I can never do that.’ The truth is those men and those women were in the right place at the right time and caught hold of something, or something caught hold of them.” — MAYA ANGELOU
It’s no wonder we love origin stories. Their culmination is when our protagonist goes from being a regular person to being something more; to being, as Cox might say, a possibility model.
On VH1’s I Want to Work for Diddy in 2008, Laverne Cox was the first African-American transgender woman to appear on a reality competition show. She’d been working at Coffee Shop, a diner in Union Square, and had only intermittent acting work.
She was movitated to do the show, in part (“If I’m completely honest,” she says) to advance her career despite her brother and others warning her against exploitation. “I had been acting for years, not really getting anywhere,” she says. But she also wanted to see someone like herself on reality television, and she was intrigued by the idea of a hip-hop mogul embracing a trans person, making explicit that she was just as eligible as all the rest of the contestants to vie to work for him. “Diddy had to approve me being on the show. I thought that would be a really be important thing for black people to see.”
That show led to Cox producing and starring in the makeover show TRANSform Me for VH1; she was the first African-American trans woman to produce and star in her own TV show.
She says, “What’s so great about that moment is that it made me realize that when I make decisions that are not just about me but are about doing service, about something larger than myself, that is like me aligning myself with the universe or a higher power’s plan for me.” That notion has become a sort of raison d’être.
“I think a hero is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people.” —MAYA ANGELOU
CeCe McDonald is an African-American trans woman who survived an antitrans attack in 2011, and served 19 months in a men’s prison in Minnesota. McDonald had been convicted of second-degree murder over the death of one of a group of men who had harassed and then attacked her. Cox first heard about McDonald in 2011 on a news report, and took her story very personally.
“I’ve experienced so much street harassment living in New York. There have been so many moments I’ve walked down the street and been called a man, called the f word—,” she says. “I was kicked on the street before my finale for I Want to Work for Diddy... I could easily have been CeCe.”
What had been a segment for a PBS show called In the Life (that show lost funding during the segment’s planning) became the germ of a documentary Cox is producing, Free CeCe, which tells McDonald’s story. It also tells the story of Islan Nettles, a young African-American trans woman who died as a result of a transphobic attack in New York last year, and describes the epidemic of violence surrounding so many women of color.
“Certain people in certain bodies are able to claim self-defense, and other bodies aren’t. When CeCe’s trial was in the pretrial phase, the [George] Zimmerman trial was going on and [there was] all this conversation about ‘stand your ground.’ But ‘stand your ground’ is not for black people. It’s not for black trans women.”
When she first was planning to interview McDonald, Cox hadn’t yet heard of the Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black, on which she now plays Sophia Burset, a transgender inmate in a women’s prison. But she immediately recognized the parallels and the opportunity to speak about McDonald and the all-too-common violence against trans women in interviews and speaking engagements.
Now Cox seems to be everywhere. In January she went on Katie Couric’s talk show, Katie, where she chided Couric for her invasive questions about trans women’s genitals. Actress Ellen Page presented Cox with the Stephen F. Kolzak award at the GLAAD Media Awards in April. Cox delivered the commencement address at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., in May. And when Time magazine offered readers the chance to nominate people to the Time 100 list in May, for a while Cox topped the list, famously surpassing Justin Bieber. When she didn’t appear on the final list, the #whereislavernecox campaign trended nationally. At the end of May, Cox became the first openly transgender person to appear on Time’s cover in its 91-year history.
“I realize this is way bigger than me and about a tipping point in our nation’s history,” Cox wrote on Facebook, “where it is no [longer] acceptable for trans lives to be stigmatized, ridiculed, criminalized, and disregarded.”
“If I’m going to have a public platform, I want to use it not just to elevate myself but to elevate issues that are important to me,” she says now. “I know a lot of people would rather not have me be the face of this thing...but what’s exciting about what’s happening now, culturally, is that there are so many more trans folks coming forward and saying, ‘This is who I am, this is my story, I will not be silent anymore, I will not be in hiding anymore,’ and that’s when a movement really happens, right?”