DAME talks with the "Orange Is the New Black" star about the feminist writers who rocked her world, and the pressures of being the trans movement's most visible spokeswoman.
In many ways, Orange is the New Black actress, Laverne Cox is the perfect face for the transgender movement. As the cover girl of this week’s Time magazine (the first transperson ever to grace the cover), it becomes increasingly clear why she is a “sought-after celebrity,” as the magazine described her. Beautiful and telegenic, intelligent, with a razor-sharp wit, Cox can speak eloquently about being bullied as a youth and rising above it to become who she was meant to be; she can school the uninformed on the complex issues about being trans in a way that’s patient and clear, without ever being condescending. In her interview with Katie Couric, she deflected embarrassing, intrusive questions about her body parts with grace and ease.
If the trans community could create a perfect ambassador for its cause, it would be hard to top Cox. For many Americans, her character, Sophia Burset on Netflix’s OITNB —which returns this Friday, June 6, for its second season—is the first transwoman they’ve ever met either in real life or on TV. In the first season, they learned about the things that many transwomen’s struggle with via Sophia—how she needs access to hormones and without them her physical transition is in jeopardy; how her status as a woman in the world is constantly challenged and threatened; and how she risks losing the people she loved the most (her wife and son) in order to become herself.
DAME spoke with Laverne about the pressures of being the spokesperson for transwomen. We also talked about correct gender pronouns, life before transition, and how transwomen are becoming the most outspoken feminists at a time when feminism is apparently a dirty word with young female celebrities.
Hi Laverne! You are now probably the most famous transwoman in the world.
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Oh my God.
It’s really weird to think that. There has to be a more famous transwoman in the world. I’m sure there are.
I absolutely considered myself a feminist before I transitioned. When I was in college, I was very interested in women’s studies. bell hooks was like my feminist godmother. Her book Black Look changed the way I thought about race and gender. I was in a sort of androgynous place, figuring out who I was. I’ve always been interested in feminist politics, particularly because of my mother. Growing up in Alabama, which was sort of ground zero for a lot of civil-rights struggles that we had in this country, I got politicized around race as well.
I think it’s the lived experience of being a woman and what it means to be a woman in public space and how men relate to me. It’s funny, because I feel like men relate to me in similar ways that they did before I transitioned, because I was always really feminine and I was in this androgynous place so I almost feel like I didn’t have full access to patriarchy or to male privilege. Feminism really gave us the critique of essentialized womanhood, right? In the beginning of the second wave of feminism, it was mostly a straight white woman thing. And there were a lot of lesbian feminists and a lot of black women who were, like bell hooks famously said, “Ain’t I a woman?” And so feminism gave us this critique of the idea that womanhood is this disessential thing—that one is not born a woman but rather becomes one as Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex.
We’re talking about separatist feminists—like they don’t believe that transwomen are women. It’s a very retrograde kind of feminism where there is an essentialized idea of womanhood. I think anti-essentialist feminists have had this conversation. But the reality is that transwomen are being excluded from a lot of women’s spaces throughout the country because of that. I think it’s really just, “Who is a woman? And are we just our bodies? Are we just our ovaries or lack thereof?” And womanhood is so much more complicated than that. And everyone’s gender is so much more complicated than that. And assuming that everyone has this universal experience around privilege too, is very problematic. You know, I was really feminine. I wore makeup and dresses before I transitioned. I probably have more privilege now since I’ve transitioned because I’m like more clearly delineated in some sort of more identifiable gender space than I was before I transitioned. It really, really discredits the real lived experiences of a lot of transwomen and goes to the heart of really what trans folks are fighting: the stigma that we’re not who we say we are. Transwomen are women.
It’s an interesting question. I don’t know. No one’s asked me that before. I mean my gut response is “No.” My gut response is that she’s not really thought about that. She is just trying to live her life and she’s just trying to be true to who she is and maybe repair the damage that she’s done with her family and keep the love of her wife and get the love of her son back. So, I don’t think that Sophia is a feminist. I think she’s someone who is empowered, though.
It’s hard to say for sure. People are connecting with her as a human being and they’re seeing a transwoman character as a human being, played by an actual transwoman. And so when we begin to connect with people as human beings, then it becomes really difficult to discriminate against them, and to say that they don’t deserve life and that they are not human beings.
I don’t like making blanket statements like that but my womanhood is something that I’ve had to claim. I think transwomen, and transpeople in general, show everyone that you can define what it means to be a man or woman on your own terms. A lot of what feminism is about is moving outside of roles and moving outside of expectations of who and what you’re supposed to be to live a more authentic life.
Yes, I feel pressure. I think the biggest thing is taking away the stigma away from being trans. And the stigma leads to criminalization. The stigma leads to violence. And that transwomen are women and just using the correct pronouns to refer to us and respecting who we say we are. I’ve become keenly aware that when we’re misgendered with the use of the wrong pronouns that misgendering leads directly to violence against us.
Last year, I was at this vigil for Islan Nettles, this 21-year-old transwoman of color who was murdered in New York City. Some of her family members and community members stood up on stage and—after the young girl had been brutally beaten on the streets of New York—and used male pronouns to refer to her. There were such grimaces from people in the audience and such pain attached to that misgendering.
I’m just speculating that “You’re a man, you’re a dude” may have been the last thing she heard before she was murdered. And so it’s so important to just respect people for who they are and if you’re not sure of what gender pronoun to use, ask. I’ve been saying this a lot lately: Cornel West reminds us that justice is what love looks like out in public. And I think if we have love for transgender people and love for people who are disenfranchised—that love will manifest itself in public policy and how we treat people and giving them housing, health care, employment. Transpeople need a lot of love out in public, right now.
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