The Netflix sensation, Orange is the New Black, has turned the world’s first transgender reality star into a television drama queen, and as she tells Jane Casey, she’s using her newfound global fame to turn the spotlight on trans issues.
In 2007, Candis Cayne became the first ever trans actor to land a recurring role in an American primetime drama series. When ABC’s Dirty, Sexy, Money shot up in the ratings, for the first time a worldwide audience was seeing a trans character, played by a trans actor on their television screens every week. It was this watershed development that Orange Is The New Black star, Laverne Cox, calls the cornerstone for her current status as the world’s most watched transgender television star.
“I really believe I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Candis Cayne,” she says. “I had been trying to have a substantial career as an actor for a long time and I only began to believe it was possible six years ago because of Candis.”
However, despite Cayne’s pivotal role in the industry, Cox soon realised that acting roles for transgender people were few and far in between. Besides appearing on reality shows like I Want To Work For Diddy, and producing and starring in her own reality series, TRANSform Me, she became deeply frustrated with lack of trans representation in mainstream media. “We hear about trans folk that are victims of violence or, you know, criminals or something like that, but we rarely get to see the reality, the humanity and the diversity of the trans experience,” she says. “When we see ourselves up on the screen and we see our stories, we feel less alone, we feel less invisible – it validates our experience. I think it also teaches the world that there are different people and that there are different lessons that we can learn from diversity. Being around people who are different from us teaches us wonderful lessons – if we choose to listen to those lessons. I’m hopeful that Orange is the New Black will change the game in those terms.”
Inspired by Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange Is The New Black: My Year In A Women’s Prison, the Netflix original series has been critically acclaimed for delving deep into the lives of the female inmates at the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary , and in doing so addressing sensitive issues such as homophobia, suicide, corruption in the prison system and substance abuse.
Cox plays Sophia Burset, a feisty trans hairdresser at the prison, who faces plenty of transphobia from her fellow inmates. Speaking to me on the phone from New York, on a day off from shooting OITNB season two, the articulate Cox is soft-spoken and wise, with a kind of Oprah-like air about her, so far away from her Litchfield prison persona, it’s hard to reconcile the two.
Although she says there are many differences between herself and Sophia, she admits that she’s also brought a lot of her own experiences to the role. “I relate to Sophia’s feelings of guilt,” she says. “She has sacrificed everything. She’s paid an awful price for trying to be her authentic self. “A piece of discrimination that Sophia experienced in prison is being taken off her hormones. I’ve unfortunately had some moments in my adult life where I’ve been denied health care because I’m trans – and that was really difficult for me.”
Cox, like many LGBT people, was a victim of bullying in her school years and says she strongly considered ending her life at points during her adolescence. Growing up in Alabama, she would routinely have to sprint from the school bus to her house to avoid being physically attacked by classmates. Even her third grade teacher called her mother at one point and told her: “Your son will end up in New Orleans wearing a dress if we don’t get him into therapy right away”. However, at her core is a strong woman who worked to overcome the slings and arrows of her younger years. She started with her own anti-trans prejudice. “I’ve worked on a lot on my own stuff,” she says. “On my own internalised transphobia, my own internalised racism and shame. I am finally happy with who I am.” But she didn’t get here alone. “Early on in my transition, support groups were really, really important for me – just to meet other trans women who were doing other things. When I transitioned, I didn’t necessarily believe that an acting career was possible – and there certainly weren’t any mainstream actors in my support group. But, there were trans women who were working on Wall Street, who were in real estate, who were computer technologists. It inspired me and made me think, ‘I can be trans and do all this stuff’.”
Although Cox believes that media representation of trans people is taking steps in the right direction, she is all too aware of the prejudice faced by trans people in their day-to-day lives. “Our unemployment rate is four times that of the national average. In terms of the numbers of LGBT people who are murdered, the highest is among trans women. Our people, trans men and women, are dying on the streets and we need support, we need help, we need a focus in terms of the movement on our issues.” Now that she’s starring in the hottest drama on global television, Cox understands the position she’s suddenly been given, even if she’s still a little overwhelmed by the attention. “Just having this opportunity to speak to the media about these issues is amazing to me,” she tells me. “I’m so grateful, but I’m also reminded of how many other girls like me that don’t get opportunities like this.”
All 13 episodes from season one of Orange Is The New Black are available to stream on Netflix .