Heroes are often brave. And bravery can come in many forms. For much of Laverne Cox’s life it was heroic just to walk out her front door.
Laverne is a black woman from the Southern USA. She’s an actor, an activist, and an advocate for transgendered people. She’s also trans. Laverne is a woman — always has been. But she was labeled male at birth due to conventional assumptions that people can be only one of two genders: male or female.
Laverne longs to live in a world where her trans identity is not the only thing people notice. Because — as she told talk-show host Katie Couric in 2014 — trans people get objectified when folks can’t see past that one characteristic to take in the whole person and hear their story. Particularly when that story includes being the target of violence.
Laverne is no stranger to violence. Growing up she was bullied as a kid because she didn’t act the way society dictated an assumed male should act. She was called “sissy” and the “f- word” and was chased home from school practically every day. “There was always a kid or groups of kids who wanted to beat me up.”
Many transgender people experience verbal taunts, sexual harassment or assault, and other forms of physical violence. They are shunned and vilified by conventional society. Suicide and attempted suicide rates, as a result, are soaring in the transgender community. This includes Laverne. In the sixth grade, when she started having feelings about other boys, she felt so guilty she tried to take her own life.
But Laverne is also lucky. She has a loving mother and supportive twin brother. She also has talent. Loads of it. Her mother recognized this and encouraged Laverne’s passion for dance early on. Laverne also learned from her mom, a teacher, that education was a path freedom.
“Performing was this wonderful release for me as a kid,” she says. “...the thing that sort of transported me from Mobile, Alabama, where I was being bullied... where no one really understood me, to a space of possibility and dreams and my imagination.”
Dance got Laverne through school and into college and eventually to New York City where she shifted her focus to acting. But the bullying didn’t stop. “[E]very day that I left the house I had to arm myself… emotionally. Because I knew…I was probably going to be harassed… that the second I walked into the subway I wouldn’t feel safe… I would be pointed at and laughed at, and treated as if I were not human.”
But she still left the house. She pursued acting auditions, while juggling multiple jobs and dodging eviction notices. She secured small acting roles here and there; appeared on reality television show, I Wanna Work for Diddy; and in 2012, she landed the role of Sophia Burset in the Netflix smash hit, Orange Is the New Black.
OITNB catapulted Lavern to stardom and paved the way for many firsts:
first openly trans person on the cover of both Time and Cosmopolitan;
first openly transgender actor nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in the acting category (she subsequently earned a second nomination);
first openly transgender woman to win a Daytime Emmy Award as an executive producer, for her work on Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word.