Last Night, Lavern Cox was given GLAAD’s Steven F. Kolzac Award for openly LGBT media professionals who have made a significant difference in promoting equality. This comes as no surprise for those who have been following Cox’s career and her tireless efforts in advocating equality and diversity. Lavern Cox gained huge success from her supporting role in Orange Is The New Black, and continues to use her voice to combat oppressive stereotypes. Recently Cox has given many interviews where she has discussed the issue of passing as a gender, being typecast in certain roles, and how the negative effects of policing gender extends beyond the transgendered community.
Hollywood’s emerging mainstream voice for transgender women of color says she’s often heard passing comments in the street about how she is “really a man.” Lavern Cox says this question of passing for a woman also suggests that gender is binary and there is a level of femininity required in order for a person to be a real woman. In her talk, Ain’t I A Woman, she discussed her own experiences recalling a time she was bullied as a child because she “acted like a girl,” saying that type of sweeping generalization is just another way for people to police gender because “we all know girls act all kinds of ways.” These oppressive stereotypes can be harmful to people struggling with their identities and Cox is determined to use her voice to combat them.
Lavern Cox is not only striving for increased visibility of transgendered women in mainstream media; she is also fighting for more truthful representation in a sphere that has a tendency to represent minorities as a series of clichés. In a recent interview she discussed how she has been type cast in the past recounting that she has played a prostitute seven times in her short career. While Cox acknowledges, “trans women do sex work” she firmly believes that representation of the transgender community should be more diverse and include representations of trans women who are doctors, lawyers, nurses, mothers, sisters. She ads “convicts” to the end of that list referring to her character on Orange Is The New Black. Cox celebrates her character on the HBO hit by saying Sophia is much more than a convict and the writers are not afraid to explore all angles of her personality while depicting her in a compassionate light.
Cox also opened up to Buzzfeed about her stint on Puff Daddy’s reality tv show I Want to Work for Diddy. Producers of the show, which featured 13 people competing to be Puff Daddy’s assistant, encouraged Cox to play role of angry black woman, another stereotype that Cox was not comfortable with. She told interviewers she remembers being “really conscious of not wanting to fight with another black woman on camera.” Although she went on to produce and star in her own reality tv show she now sees the potential damage that the “queer make over show” can cause. She reflects thoughtfully saying she now understands the criticism her show received from (mostly) transgendered women who said Cox’s show was suggesting that all trans women were hyper-feminine and that “trans people exist for the entertainment of cis people.”
Cox has addressed the freak factor in past interviews, and the tendency for trans women to become underground muses, pointing to Andy Warhol’s exploitation of Candy Darling, a trans woman whom Warhol identified as a man in an interview. Cox is determined to do away with the treatment of trans women as a sideshow, something she says still happens in the New York City club scene. Cox proved just how serious she is about fighting the objectification of trans women by shutting down the conversation about her genitals during an interview with Katie Couric. When Couric veered into an inappropriate line of questioning about private parts, Cox poignantly reminded Couric that a focus on the trans body takes the focus off experiences of oppression and discrimination, and essentially reduces an individual to their sex organs.
Lavern Cox is certainly a powerful and emerging voice for trans women of color everywhere, but she should also be lauded as someone who is constantly challenging us to shed archaic ideals of gender and sexuality. As the first trans actress to enjoy this level of mainstream success, she is using her celebrity status and historically marginalized voice to combat oppressive stereotypes, reminding us that human beings are not caricatures of race or gender.
Commentary by Sandra Pugliese