Laverne Cox addresses the attendees the GLAAD Media Awards at the Hilton San Francisco on May 11, 2013 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by John Medina/WireImage, via Flickr .)
In her groundbreaking role on Netflix ’s Orange Is the New Black, Laverne Cox portrays Sophia Burset, a nuanced and empathetic transgender character in prison for credit card fraud. For those of you who still haven’t seen the show—shame on you, since it’s all available on Netflix—I won’t spoil the fun. But Burset’s backstory is more complicated than you might think. Her predicament in prison, as well as her relationship with her wife and son on the outside, both offer a few unexpected plot twists.
Cox signs her emails with “Stay in the love.” I asked her why. About a decade ago, one of her colleagues in acting class asked: If your only option was doing dinner theater in Podunk, Idaho, would you do it? “If the answer is no, you should not be an actor, and that’s true,” said Cox. “So, I started signing emails to my other actor friends who were struggling with ‘stay in the love.’ It started out being written to my colleagues and friends to remind them to stay in the love.”
Despite the outpouring of mainstream praise for Orange Is the New Black, commentary has not been universally positive. Critics have called attention to racist tropes , pointing out that the show’s protagonist, Piper Chapman (a fictionalized Piper Kerman, author of a memoir on which the show is based) is a white woman relaying the stories of incarcerated women of color. And the show often forgoes a strong critique of the prison-industrial system, referring instead to the “bad choices” landing women behind bars.
Nevertheless, Cox’s specific performance has a depth and realism that shines through. As one of the first transgender actors to play a transgender character in a regular series, Cox recognizes the spotlight that’s shining on her. Sophia Burset is not portrayed as a victim of her circumstances; she empowers fellow inmates with real talk or a sympathetic ear. Cox spoke with me recently about the role and the critical issues facing transgender people; and what follows is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.
First, congratulations on this role. Have you received a positive reaction from the transgender community?
Thank you. I have, I really have! You never know how people will respond or what they will say. It’s been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve been focusing on positive stuff. I don’t read comments anymore on interviews. If there are negative things, I’m shielding myself from that.
What role does pop culture play in opening minds? Is your character a new threshold for the portrayal of transgender people?
It’s great to receive blog posts and tweets from people saying they had negative ideas about transgender people, but because of this character, their views have changed. Just seeing that once is a moving thing, but I’ve seen it several times! It’s wonderful and powerful. It’s my hope that as minds begin to change because of this character—that we begin to see other trans characters played by trans actors on television and in films. There were no major trans characters in any films released by the big studios in 2012. Obviously, there were independent films—Musical Chairs is one, I just won Best Supporting Actress for that role at the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival. How do we tell stories that reflect the full tapestry of the American experience in terms of different races, gender identities and sexual orientations?
What’s the biggest misconception that the public has about transgender people who are imprisoned?
Honestly, a lot of it is that the general population doesn’t really even think about trans people, right? They don’t think about us. There’s also this thing, with trans people in general—that we’re not who we say we are, or with trans women, saying that we’re not really women.
Can audiences expect to learn more about Sophia’s story and go into more depth in season two?
I don’t know! [laughs] I mean, I’m sure we will. I haven’t been told what the brilliant writers have in mind. Jenji [Kohan]—it’s a joy to work with a person of her caliber. I trust that they’ll have engaging storylines for us to work with.
Who are your social justice heroes?
Gosh, there are so many people that I look to! I love Cornel West. I know he’s been getting a lot of flack lately for his comments about the president. But he’s been talking about poor people and working people—which is not popular—and it’s been inspiring me a lot. I look to elders like Sylvia Rivera  and Marsha P. Johnson, as well, in terms of Stonewall. Thinking about what it means for trans people to really love and support each other. I was talking to my friend Janet Mock and she said to me—I hope she doesn’t mind me sharing it—us trans women supporting each other is a revolutionary act. She’s been a wonderful confidante and a sister.
What some nonprofits that you support in terms of the transgender community?
I’ve been lucky to be affiliated with a few organizations over the years. I’ve worked with the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund—they worked with Coy Mathis in Colorado and that’s a huge issue for them. I’ve been working with the Anti-Violence Project. Violence against transgender people is a huge , huge issue and the Anti-Violence Project is doing intersectional work looking at the reasons why violence happens. I’m also a supporter of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which has done a lot of advocacy work for trans people in prisons with their Prisoner Advisory Committee. They’re doing a lot of fantastic work as well.
Germany recently passed a law  allowing the choice of a third gender when registering births. Are these reforms a foundation for transgender equality?
Rather than equality, it’s about justice. What does justice look like for trans and gender non-conforming people? I know that for some trans folks, a lot of them may not want to put that they’re transgender on a form. But then sometimes it does become important to claim that identity. It’s about giving folks the freedom to self-identify. How do we have gender freedom for everyone? Gender oppression is an issue for everyone. It’s about creating systems and policies that accommodate the lived experience of human beings. It’s about accommodating the totality of gender in terms of giving people multiple options in identifying themselves. The LGBT Community Center here in New York, for example, gives those options with forms they use—cisgender male, cisgender female, genderqueer. There’s not just one option or two options; there are multiple options.
Chelsea Manning recently announced that she is a transgender woman. What’s the most frustrating thing in terms of how journalists write about the transgender community?
Chelsea put out a statement about using the name Chelsea and [being referred to with] female pronouns. I think that’s something that should be respected. If we’re talking about how justice is what love looks like out in public, how do we look at people as being human beings? How can I humanize a person? What’s frustrating about the Savannah Guthrie interview [on Today] was her asking, “Does she want to have gender reassignment surgery?” The question immediately went to surgery. That is so frustrating. Chelsea is not asking for surgery—she wants to have hormone treatments.
What are some of the key issues facing transgender people that the American public should be aware of?
The repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell happened but trans people still can’t serve openly in the military. The issue of what is cruel and unusual punishment in terms of [transgender] people not having access to medication in prison. The relationship between military prisons and all prisons in terms of having a uniform standard of healthcare for all inmates, and specifically healthcare for trans people. Those are the conversations that should happen now.
Read Salamishah Tillet's review  of "Orange Is the New Black."