Laverne Cox: The Icon of the Trans Community

In the recent past, the trans community has finally gained more representation in the media. The media has become representative of trans people by featuring trans actors and actresses in film more often, and by being more accepting of trans celebrities who come out. The more recognition trans people receive, the more trans people can relate and look up to celebrities and characters, something that cis people have taken for granted all this time. When Laverne Cox, a trans woman of color, starred in the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black, her popularity as an advocate of trans rights began to bloom. Her inspirational role in the show, her intersectional status, and her huge efforts to move society forward in terms of acceptance and understanding have made her an excellent, deserving icon of the trans community.

Laverne Cox’s role in Orange is the New Black serves as a huge support for those who identify as trans. In the show, Cox plays Sophia Burset, a black trans woman inmate at a woman’s prison called Litchfield Penitentiary. Through the depiction of her transition period and the problems she faces within the prison, the show gives a strong sense of the hardships that trans people have to face and that cis people never have to worry about. For instance, the show takes time to demonstrate Burset’s transition period and how it was a difficult period of time to overcome. Laverne Cox’s twin, M. Lamar, plays the part of Burset pre-transition. During these scenes, the viewer sees the kind of turmoil Burset is facing. At this point in time, she is male assigned, living as a man. She is married and she has a child. The viewer sees Burset’s internal struggles through scenes in which she pulls back her jawline and cheekbone areas in the mirror to look more feminine (“Lesbian Request Denied”). She looks appreciative at her “new” face, like she can almost reach the beauty she has been longing to have. However, this beauty is just out of reach. When her face falls back to how it is originally structured, the sadness fills her face. She does not actually look the way that she feels. It is clear that she does not feel comfortable or happy in her anatomically male body. She longs to break free from the body she is trapped in.

Along with the internal turmoil regarding appearance, Burset also faces hardship regarding her loved ones after she announces her transition. She has trouble trying to get her family to accept her new identity as a woman. Burset’s wife in the beginning of the transition is supportive; she is even depicted showing Burset how to dress in a fashionable, feminine way by letting Burset try on her clothing (“Lesbian Request Denied”). This is an example of how her transition starts out rather smoothly, with support from one of the people she loves the most. The woman she loves the most in her life is showing acceptance for something that many other people would have a hard time understanding. However, her emotions regarding the transition hit a wall when she voices her wishes to take it to the “final stage.” When Burset tells her wife that she wants to have sexual reassignment surgery, her wife begs her not to do it (“Lesbian Request Denied”). This is one of the most profound instances where Burset feels extremely conflicted in her transition. There is obviously a clear line that Burset’s wife does not want to cross. At the climax of her transition, and at the peak of her happiness, Burset is finally hit with the differences in what she wants and what her family wants. Another family member that Burset feels conflict with is her son. Her son feels very uncomfortable; the father he has known all his life as a male role model wants to transition into being a woman. Because he is so young, he has a hard time understanding the fluidity of gender, especially because it is an unfamiliar issue to him, as it is to many children. When Burset is finally able to obtain the money for her surgery by committing credit card fraud, her son is the one that rats her out and lands her in jail in the first place (“Lesbian Request Denied”). This introduces the conflict of feeling betrayed by her beloved son, and also understanding that her son feels betrayed as well. It is a difficult conflict to face, because as a parent, she loves her son unconditionally, but is hit with the fact that this is not reciprocated at this time. As Burset does her time in Litchfield, her son gradually develops understanding and trust, but at this moment, Burset feels extremely hurt.

Burset’s personal and familial issues in the series give an excellent representation of the same struggles that many transitioning people have to go through. Before recently, trans people did not have the same privilege as cis people in terms of celebrity representation. Laverne Cox provides a character in popular media that trans people can relate to and be inspired by. Not only does the she demonstrate the struggles of trans people in general, but also of those with intersectional identities. Cox plays a black trans woman who is not wealthy enough to afford sexual reassignment surgery. Other people in the trans community may not face all the issues that Burset has to face; they might be white, or they might be wealthy enough to afford surgery to complete their transition. Not only can those trans people with privilege relate to her struggles as a trans woman, but trans women of color can relate to her completely as well. The fact that Cox plays a role that more people can relate to rather than just those with a little more privilege than the rest makes her role as Sofia Buset extremely impactful on the entirety of the trans community.

After Sophia Burset’s transition period, the show also displays the struggles she faces while inside Litchfield. On top of the ongoing internal stress surrounding the fact that Burset’s son sent her to prison, Burset also faces day-to-day issues. Even though Burset is lucky to be in a women’s prison rather than a men’s prison, she still faces discrimination by the prison officials. For example, she is denied her right to follow the means necessary to keep her physical femininity. Burset goes to the commissary to obtain her regular hormones that she has been receiving for the entirety of her stay at the prison. However, when the prison needs to make financial cutbacks, Burset discovers that her hormones are one of the first things to go (“Lesbian Request Denied”). She attempts to fight for her right to keep taking her hormones and eventually wins them back, but the fact that this was an issue in the first place is an example of how she still faces struggles regarding things that cis women can take for granted. Not only do her hormones allow her to keep her feminine bodily features, but they also need to be taken in a certain balanced way to eliminate the risk of getting sick. When the drugs are taken from her, not only is her physical identity at risk, but so is her basic health. This issue in particular within the show demonstrates the inequality and intolerance of trans women in institutions like women’s prisons. When there are federally imposed injustices against a group of people, trans women in this case, it is clear that trans people have institutionalized inequalities in comparison to cis people. Scenes like this one that highlight the institutionalized injustices faced by trans women everyday are central to why Burset is such a fundamental character in calling for social justice. Cox’s phenomenal job in playing the role of Burset and the popularity of the show overall have brought about these issues to the public, which serves as a huge step forward for the trans community in the media.

Orange is the New Black definitely shows the negative aspects of trans life, like the amount of insecurity and inequality that Burset faces inside and outside the prison. This does an effective job of highlighting the hardships that people in the trans community have to face for the public to understand. But the show also highlights the amount of power and determination trans people have. While it demonstrates the turmoil in Burset’s life, it also shows how she is one of the leaders among the inmates. She can even be seen as a role model. She is a powerful, independent woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. When she is denied her hormones by the prison officials, she bravely, and humorously, swallows a bobble head on the guard’s desk in order to end up in the hospital where she will rightfully get her hormones back (“Lesbian Request Denied”). While this is an amusing moment in the show, it also shows that she will go at any length to preserve her identity and confidence as a woman. Another example of her role model status is when she explains female anatomy to her fellow inmates. There is a scene in the show in which none of the women understand female genitalia due to their poor educational situations. Because Burset went through the transition and has done vast research on the way the female body works, she gets up in front of them with diagrams so she can educate them about their own bodies (“Lesbian Request Denied”). This is yet another example of how trans women have a substantial amount of knowledge and understanding of something that cis women take for granted. Burset’s role model status within the prison sheds a positive light on the amount of power a trans woman can have. She has a respectable position within the social standing of the prison, something that is unexpected given the circumstances in the world outside Litchfield. Her high social standing within the prison provides a positive outlook for trans people watching the show.

Another aspect of how Laverne Cox’s role as Sophia Burset is beneficial for the trans community is that the role of a trans woman is played by a real trans woman. The show directors felt no need to cast a cis woman as Sophia Burset in order to have an actor that “passes” more as a female. There was no involvement of cis privilege in the casting of Burset’s role in the show. The casting was done in a way that was as real as possible. Evidently, the television industry is moving forward in that it is not afraid to cast a real trans woman as a main character in a popular television show. It is also extremely significant that Cox is a trans woman of color. Most people would expect the first substantially popular trans woman on television to be white, given the history of racialized celebrity status within show business. The fact that she is a black trans woman at the forefront of the trans advocacy movement also puts forth the huge issues that those with intersectional identities face. Usually, the media is very selective in what issues are to be mass-presented to the public. If the character were to be a white trans woman, the show would definitely cover trans issues, but at a large cost. The urgency of the issues that trans people of color face every day would be put on the backburner yet again, waiting even more to get some attention. The fact that Laverne Cox is a trans woman of color, coupled by the fact that she is one of the first trans women at the front of fame, gives an equal chance to trans woman of color right from the start. The amount of fame and support that Cox has received in the past few years has set the foundation of the trans movement and has put intersectionality at the front of all these issues. It also gives people of color in general a real shot at equality.

Besides her role in Orange is the New Black, Laverne Cox has also done an incredible amount of activism for the trans community. Cox has commented several times on Orange is the New Black from an outside perspective. According to Julie Zelinger, the show is an opportunity for both women and members of other minority groups within the entertainment industry (Zeilinger). She writes that Cox has said that “‘we don’t see enough multidimensional portrayals of trans women and women in jail who are of different races, ages, body types’… ‘we don’t see enough multidimensional portrayals of women in general, that show the diversity of womanhood’” (Zeilinger). Often times, only a certain race, gender identity, and body type are represented in the media. This leaves out the majority of the population of women in society, making most women feel insecure if they do not fit this standard. It also creates different stigmas against the different groups of women that are not part of this standard. Cox’s statements here are significant in that she is voicing the importance of the diversity of women, and that all types of women should be represented in the media. For her to say this in front of her huge following, including trans people and trans allies, is so impactful that it opens a door to acceptance of all types of people.

Along with statements about the representation of all types of women in the media, Laverne Cox has made statements about the representation of all types of trans women in the media. The media attention that trans people have gotten in the past were misrepresentative of the entire trans community. According to Defebaugh from V Magazine, Cox has said that “before Sophia…representations of the trans folks were comic relief…We’ve been victims, we’ve ben mostly talked about in terms of our transition and being trans’” (Defebaugh). This type of representation is not fair in that, yes, it finally gives trans people some attention in film, but it is the wrong kind of attention. The image of trans people portrayed as sex workers and as victims only holds true to a percentage of the trans community. Cox has noted that Sophia “‘is complicated and nuanced, so that we understand this is a full human being and that she’s not just one thing’” (Defebaugh). Orange is the New Black is one of the first impactful forms of film that emphasizes humanizing a trans woman, rather than objectifying her. Cox has also discussed how her intersectional identity in real life has defined her life in the past and the present, but also that she does not have to follow the expectations that people have of those with the same intersectional identities that she has. According to Defebaugh, Cox faced many difficulties growing up. To explain her past, Cox has said that she is “‘a black transgendered woman from a working-class background, raised by a single mother’” (Defebaugh). Despite the fact that her intersectional status placed her at a disadvantage in comparison to others, she emphasizes the fact that she is successful despite this. She has voiced that she is lucky to be at the forefront of both the celebrity world and the activism world, and that “‘despite all [the] systematic structures [of gender] against us, someone like [her] is living [her] dreams anyway’” (Defebaugh). She emphasizes that despite all the hardships she has in her life, she has made her life into something amazing. Her words are inspiring to everyone, especially to the trans community.

The amount of inspiration Laverne Cox has provided for us has led to an enormous fan base and a huge amount of respectability. She has used the amount of fame and acclaim she has earned in an effective way. In order to bring the public’s attention to the intersectional injustices of this world, she has been working on creating FREE Cece, a documentary covering the case of Cece Mcdonald.. What many people realize is the disproportionality of violence against trans people of color. The public fails to realize the inequality here because of the lack of reporting crimes and the lack of media coverage that these attacks receive. According to Hammond, the “National Transgender Discrimination Survey, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force” have researched and covered the statistics regarding violence against trans people of color (Hammond). One significant finding is that even though only “8 to 11% of the total reports of hate violence against the LGBTQ community…we’re seeing them show up in between 65 and 85 percent of the people who died by homicide” (Hammond). The difference between what actually is happening and what is only seen on the surface is absurd. Through FREE Cece, Cox is trying to bring light to this issue to stop the ignorance that is allowing for these types of hate crimes to keep happening.

The case off Cece McDonald, a black trans woman like Laverne Cox, has been brought to light. McDonald has been brought to fame because of the injustices she has faced. One night while walking to the store with some friends, McDonald was attacked by a couple of white bikers on the street. After her attacker threw racial, homophobic, and transphobic slurs at her, he ran directly at her, and McDonald had no choice but to defend herself by holding out a knife in front of herself while he ran at her. Despite the fact that McDonald was only defending herself in a situation that she had not initiated in any way, she ended up serving “19 months of a 41 month sentence in a men’s prison in Minnesota” (Defebough). Clearly, the case was examined in her attacker’s favor, and to make things worse, she could not even serve time in a prison of her own gender identity. Since McDonald’s intersectional identity played a huge role in her case, Cox wanted to bring it to light. The story resonates with her. When she heard “about Cece McDonald being a mother figure for a lot of trans youth and [refusing] to be a victim,” she not only wanted to help Cece continue to be an idol in the trans community, but she also wanted to bring forth a current instance of intersectional injustices (Nunn).

Laverne Cox is truly an inspiration to everyone in this society. Through her role as Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black, her advocacy for the show, and her efforts in exposing the issues of the community of trans women of color, Cox has made huge strides for the trans community. It is exciting to see that a trans woman of color has been able to make herself so successful to the point of becoming the icon of the trans community. The fact that Cox, someone who has multidimensional aspects to her identity that puts her under others, is so well-known and well-loved makes me hopeful that issues regarding intersectional identities will finally get the amount of attention they deserve.

Works Cited

Cox, Laverne. “Laverne Cox on ‘FREE CECE,’ Kids and Uniting LGBTs.” Interview by Jerry Nunn.Windy City Times. Windy City Media Group, 16 July 2014. Web.

Defebaugh, William. “Rebels: Laverne Cox — Nominated by Natasha Lyonne.” V Magazine (2014): n. pag. Web.

Kohan, Jenji, and Sian Heder. “Lesbian Request Denied.” Orange Is the New Black. Dir. Jodie Foster. Netflix Original Series. 11 July 2013. Television.

Mammond, Gretchen Rachel. “Murders of Trans Women of Color Are Largely Ignored.” Windy City Times [Chicago] 18 Feb. 2015: n. pag. Print.

Zeilinger, Julie. “Laverne Cox, ‘Orange Is The New Black’ Star, On The Necessity Of Diverse Female Characters.” The Huffington Post (2013): n. pag. Web.