The Laverne Cox Gala on July 29 at Just For Laughs Festival

An Audience with Laverne Cox

Richard Burnett
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Laverne Cox
  • Laverne Cox

Emmy-nominated actress and Emmy-winning producer Laverne Cox catapulted to fame as Sophia Burset in the critically-hailed Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black. Laverne then raised eyebrows with her portrayal of the iconic Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the Fox remake of Rocky Horror Picture Show and, when she starred in the short lived CBS legal drama Doubt, she became the first transgender actor to play a regular trans-character on network television.

Her groundbreaking professional work, coupled with her trans activism, landed Cox on the cover of the June 9, 2014, issue of Time magazine for the landmark story “The Transgender Tipping Point” – as historic as Vanity Fair’s August 1993 lesbian-chic cover that pictured Cindy Crawford shaving kd lang in a barber’s chair, and Ellen DeGeneres declaring, “Yep, I’m Gay” on the cover of the April 14, 1997, issue of Time. The culture is changing, and Cox is part of a new wave of transgender role models. This month she returns to Montreal to host The Laverne Cox Gala at the Just For Laughs Festival on July 29. We recently sat down for a candid Q&A.

 

Let’s begin with Orange Is the New Black. How did that show change your life?

Well, you probably wouldn’t be talking to me! The show really introduced me to the world in a way I had not been introduced before. I mean, gosh, it got me the cover of Time, that was a first for trans people, and I was nominated for an Emmy (for “Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series”), which was another first for trans people. People know who I am now, so that show changed everything. I think the reason is because people were able to connect with and relate to this wonderful character (Sophia Burset) on a human level, and I was able to take that and go into a media space and claim space I did not have an opportunity to do before the show.


How surreal is it to see yourself staring back at you from the cover of a magazine?

It’s happened a few times now, and I love it! I love being on the cover of magazines. It feels like a certain kind of validation, but it’s bigger than me. I am a transgender woman of colour, and as a black transgender woman on the cover of Time, Entertainment Weekly, Variety or whatever, that is a very powerful message to the communities that I belong to.


Has dating become more difficult for you since Orange Is the New Black?

Dating has not been easier for me. In some ways because I’m so-called “famous” it is somewhat more difficult. But dating while trans is really hard anyway.

I assume it has been especially difficult for you over the years, even dangerous.

Trans women are murdered more than any other groups of folks in the LGBTQ community. Often the violence that trans women experience is from their partner. There are a lot of straight-identified men who seek out transgender women to date or have sex with, knowing that we are trans, and their own internalized shame can sometimes cause them to be violent towards us.

How much do you disclose when you go out on a date with someone?

If I meet a guy in a club or on the street, sometimes I would tell them right away. I would give them my number, and when they would call or text me, I would tell them on the phone. I would be sure he knew. I had an experience years ago where I thought a guy knew (I was a trans) and he didn’t know, and since then I always tell (my date). Even if I disclose it on my online dating profile that I am transgender, men often do not read the profile, they just look at the picture. So I always tell them, “Did you read that I am transgender?” I make it casual, not a big deal. I want them to know because I don’t want us to waste my time or theirs. And I don’t want to be rejected after I’ve invested my time.

You have visited Montreal before …

It was a long time ago, I love the city, it’s beautiful. I tried speaking French but they knew from my accent that I was American. I love Montreal. And I’m really excited about hosting my gala. I am thrilled that Just For Laughs – which I watch in airplanes when I’m flying around the world – invited me! I think laughter heals, and our world is really troubled right now and we need more laughter.


How cool is it to have a Madame Tussauds wax mannequin of yourself?

Very! We did a sitting for about three hours, they measured every part of my body! They put dots on your face, it’s all very precise. And, it’s funny, I asked them if they could make me thinner and they said, “No, because when you stand next to it you won’t look the same.” So I said okay, and lost a little weight! (Laughs) It is surreal and wild and I love that my wax figure also travels, it was on display at DC Pride (in June).

Do you think the queer community could be more supportive of trans civil rights?

Absolutely. I don’t know much about the LGBTQ community in Canada, but LGBTQ organizations in the United States have become more inclusive the last few years, more critical of racism and classism as well. But there still needs to be more work. Trans people and people of colour need to be at the table, but not just as a token. We want our perspectives and points of view bought into too. Historically our stories have focused on gay and lesbian narratives. But what does love look like for trans people? I often quote Dr. Cornel West who said, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” So what does love look like in our LGBTQ activism, in a truly intersectional way?

About growing up, interviewer David Frost once asked James Baldwin, "You were black, homosexual and poor. Didn’t you think you had everything going against you?" To which Baldwin replied, "To the contrary, I thought I’d hit the jackpot." Has Laverne Cox hit the jackpot?

I certainly believe I have hit the jackpot. With all of these identity categories, especially in the United States, if you’re black, if you’re transgender, if you’re a woman, there is all kinds of discrimination. I think I hit the jackpot when I was able to stand in the truth of all of these experiences, when I was able to take full ownership. Being able to own all that I am makes my testimony all that more powerful.

I think the jackpot comes when you’re an artist. I think of James Baldwin and the incredible body of work he wrote, and the perspective that he had, it really was the jackpot. He was one of America’s greatest thinkers, and that was informed by the jackpot of intersecting identities that he embodied. So, yes, Laverne Cox has hit the jackpot, though I don’t always feel that way. There are still days when I have a rough time.


 

How amazingly supportive are your mother Gloria and your twin brother M. Lamar?

You need somebody in your life to tell you the truth, no matter what. And my brother is the person who tells me the truth, no matter what. When I studied classical ballet, after my brother saw me dance and do a monologue afterwards, he said, “You’re an actor, this is what you should be doing.” This was years before I fully believed I was an actor. He has been a huge influence, as is my mother who always made sure I had all that I needed for school. I am privileged to have gotten an education. My mother also supported me in all my artistic endeavors.They are both crucial in my life.

You sound like you’re in a pretty good place these days, Laverne.

There are still struggles. I still have to work really hard because I still have demons, the shame gremlins that come up every single day. There are many things to be grateful for, but there still are many challenges. But today is a good day.

The Just For Laughs Festival runs from July 12 to 31. Laverne Cox hosts The Laverne Cox Gala on July 29 at Salle Wilfred-Pelletier. For more information and tickets, visit www.hahaha.com. Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.