Being a feminist and being a supporter of transgender rights aren’t mutually exclusive conditions, says actress and activist Laverne Cox. In fact, she says, both groups have a vested interest in dismantling patriarchy.
Cox, one of the stars of Netflix’s hit drama “Orange is the New Black,” says the wider LGBTQ movement also needs to embrace feminism and feminist critiques of society.
“So often, we see the relationship between discrimination and patriarchy,” Cox says, during a conference call with a group of LGBTQ journalists. “We need to be asking ourselves, ‘How do we begin to divest ourselves of patriarchy in our country as a whole?’ Because when we dismantle the patriarchy, then violence no longer becomes the way for us to solve our problems.”
If those don’t sound like the typical things that Hollywood stars say during press junkets, it’s because Cox isn’t a typical Hollywood star. The Alabama-born actress, educated at New York’s Marymount Manhattan College, is using her video fame to shine a spotlight on the difficulties faced by transgender and gender-queer people — especially youth.
Cox is hosting a new documentary, “Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word,” this Friday (Oct. 17) at 7 p.m. EDT on MTV and Logo. It profiles seven young people ages 12 to 24, from different walks of life.
All, like Cox, now live as a different gender than they were assigned at birth.
In “The T Word,” a college student at Tulane University describes being harassed by New Orleans police because they assume a young, African-American trans woman must be a sex worker. A young trans man recalls his mother warning him that “no one is going to want to date you.” A young transgender girl describes getting acceptance from her middle-school friends — but being ostracized by certain teachers.
“This is a labor of love,” Cox says. “I believe this group of seven young people is so amazing and courageous. In this world, it’s still a big deal to come forward publicly and say you’re trans.”
Although adults like Cox have become increasingly empowered to tell their stories, children, teens and young adults can still face obstacles, ranging from peer-group bullies to officially sanctioned discrimination. In recent years, transgender children have become political scapegoats for culture warriors who want to block them from using school restrooms or participate in sports.
Cox hopes the documentary is “a critical intervention in terms of how we talk about trans young people in this country, and really humanize them.
“At the end of the day, it’s hard to look at any of these young people and say they should be denied any opportunities,” Cox says.
It’s also a rallying call, she says, for other transgender women and men of color to speak out and tell their stories. “I tell people all the time, if you are in an LGBT organization and there are no trans people of color on the board, you are part of the problem,” Cox says. “At the end of the day, we need people of color, and particularly trans people of color, to be making decisions about where our movement is going.”
Cox is mindful of the platform she has gained as a star of one of the most critically acclaimed, and popular, of the new generation of Internet-only TV series. “I’m interested in elevating the voices of all trans people, so that hopefully we can move toward a culture that’s more inclusive in terms of all people, and all marginalized communities,” she says.
There have been other transgender and transexual celebrities, but few have achieved mainstream success on their own terms until recently. The Internet is the reason that Cox believes that trans stories are finally being told sympathetically and with nuance.
Besides enabling the distribution of “Orange” outside of usual TV channels and networks, the Internet has enabled transgender people to finally find others and connect, Cox says.
That, in turn, has moved transgender stories into the media mainstream — in June, Cox was featured on the cover of Time magazine for a story entitled, “The Transgender Tipping Point.”
“There’s something culturally going on right now with trans folks,” she says. “The Internet has exploded, and given the trans community a platform to say, ‘This is who we are, and this is what we want.'”
“The T Word” includes a little bit of what Cox calls “Trans 101,” defining terms and shifting gender identities. More importantly, she says, it’s a plea to the public to realize that there are people being affected by the words and deeds of those who would demonize gender variance in order to score political points.
“Just because we have public policy protecting gender expression, doesn’t mean there’s not some a–hole who decides they want to murder a trans person,” Cox says. “There’s a public policy aspect and then there’s the hearts and minds aspect.”
Even within LGBTQ circles, there are those who think trans men and women don’t belong in the gay and lesbian movement, she notes. “People live at the intersection of multiple identities,” Cox says. “At the end of the day, I hope people see us as who we are, and not as who they want us to be. We should be able to exist on our own terms.”