Laverne Cox is 5'11", maybe 6'4" in Louboutins, but her super-shiny, super-long blonde wig gives her 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 she is larger than life: the rare actress whose talent is commensurate with her activism and vice versa, a groundbreaking figure in pop culture who has been able to use her 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 she 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 her career, and progressing the way trans people are regarded in ways great and small.
But tonight, with the debut of her hourlong MTV/LOGO documentary The T Word, she might have her 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 man from Brooklyn with, say, Zoey, the 12-year-old girl 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.
"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 she 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 he came out to his Division One basketball team, sports journalists doing post-game interviews repeatedly asked him whether he was "attracted to his teammates," as opposed to specifics of his game. And Avery, a 20-year-old from Queens, has to dead an online flirtation after she comes out to the boy as trans via text and his first question is about her privates. Cox, too, has worked to shift this reaction as the default; she and Carmen Carrera had a positive "teachable" effect on Katie Couric when she asked similar questions, and while Cox's friend Janet Mock didn't have as much luck shifting Piers Morgan's particular mindscape, she fought the good fight nonetheless.
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 her production partner Eric Miclette have been trying to tell trans stories on TV, particularly with a project about trans women 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 her 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 her 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 feminist thought together, representing the foundation and the future and a vision of what a truly intersectional feminism can look like. Even hooks couldn't help gushing, introducing Cox as "a little goddess for justice," calling her "trans and transcendent." Cox commended her brother, the performance artist M. Lamar, for introducing her 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 women, 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 actor and producer and globally recognized trans rights activist. In this video from 2012, she tells her 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.