Laverne Cox: “When We Understand the Story, We Can Begin to Write a Different Ending”
“One of my favorite Brené Brown quotes is, ‘When we deny our stories, those stories define us. But when we can own our stories, we can write a brave new ending.’”
Laverne Cox can find an eloquent quote from a number of people who have inspired her with astounding dexterity. During an hour-long conversation about her experience as one of the first prominently visible trans women in Hollywood during T-Mobile’s latest Talking With Trailblazers event, she offered up insightful quotes from professor and author Brené Brown, non-binary poet Alok Menon, legendary television host Oprah Winfrey and Feminist activist Gloria Steinem, just to name a few.
But Cox, an award-winning actress, producer and equal rights advocate, has a voice of her own that speaks volumes. Overflowing with the experiences that have shaped her and now guide her to break barriers for the transgender community, her words stick with you long after.
“As things have gotten better, and it’s important to acknowledge that things have gotten better, there are people who are still afraid to be themselves,” said Cox. “And they have reason to be. It’s not delusional to think that it is not safe for you as a trans person. That’s not delusional. And that is something that we have to work really hard to reduce.”
Cox has become an indelible figure of transgender representation in mainstream media after her groundbreaking role as Sophia Burset in the critically acclaimed Netflix original series Orange is The New Black. The role led to Cox becoming the first openly transgender actress to be nominated for a Primetime acting Emmy and appear on the covers of Time Magazine, Cosmopolitan and Essence. She was named one of Glamour magazine’s 2014 Women of the Year and holds two SAG Awards. Even when discussing her glamorous Hollywood lifestyle, her insistence that being comfortable with the skin you’re in is always her message.
“Sometimes when I’m on a red carpet and I look fabulous because I have a great team, and the lighting is hit just right, I don’t always feel good, because the shoes might hurt, or I might be trying to hold my stomach in for dear life,” she joked. “So I don’t always feel beautiful when I might look at my most beautiful. I love just being chill and being seen and loved by a person who loves me. That makes me feel my most beautiful.”
Some 2,500 employees logged in to hear Cox speak during the virtual event in honor of LGBTQ+ Pride month, hosted by T-Mobile for Business EVP Mike Katz. T-Mobile has been heavily involved in activities meant to celebrate LGBTQ+ community members and allies this June, including sponsoring Pride parades across the country, supporting LGBTQ+ youth by teaming up with and donating to GLSEN and The Human Rights Campaign Foundation and supporting LGBTQ+ excellence in tech by sponsoring Pride Summit 2021 with LesbiansWhoTech.
For Cox, the topics of this Talking with Trailblazers, a series that invites diverse leaders to talk about issues that matter right now, ranged from being authentic to yourself, raising LGBTQ+ voices, how we can all be even better allies to the LGBTQ+ community, and the current challenges of violence against the transgender community and new legislation threatening rights to things such as gender affirming health care.
“As trans people are more visible, and we’re more visible than we’ve ever been before, this is the backlash to that visibility,” explained Cox. “Often when marginalized groups come forward and assert ourselves, there’s backlash. There is the backlash in spades right now.”
Here are some further takeaways from this fearless trailblazer.
The evolution of allyship.
“I think that a lot of folks are terrified to say the wrong things. So, they don’t say anything at all. And that is certainly not being a good ally. And I’ve been leaning into the word ‘accomplice’ rather than ‘ally.’ For me, accomplice suggests not only what you’re doing when trans folks or Black folks or LGBTQI+ folks are in the room, but what are you doing when we’re not in the room? If someone is being mis-gendered behind their backs, are you intervening? And I don’t like to say calling people out, but sort of inviting them in and asking questions if they mis-gender someone. Talking about the humanity of trans people when we’re not there as well as when we are there. I think that is a beautiful way to think about how we create safe space and give people an opportunity to speak their truth. “And, I think for me, story is such a powerful tool. I’m sure there are employees in the company who have transitioned. If they’re comfortable sharing their stories, doing a video where they’ve shared their stories, hopefully of being treated well when they came out or disclosed to their coworkers. To let everyone else know that it’s okay, if that’s what they need to do. I think just letting folks know that the environment will be welcoming and supportive when they do disclose or come out. I think that is crucially important.”
The power of policy.
“This legislative session there have been over a hundred pieces of legislation targeting transgender children, either transgender children playing sports, or having access to gender affirming health care. About eight states now have sports bans against trans girls, specifically playing sports on the teams with which they identify in terms of their gender. And that that’s abhorrent. But I think even more disturbing for me are bills that criminalize transgender children receiving gender-affirming care. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, every reputable healthcare organization says that gender affirming care for trans people is life-saving. It reduces suicidality by 40 percent when they have this access. That's major.
“I think so much of it is not just the legislation, it’s the narrative around the legislation that is dehumanizing to trans people and these conversations that continue to stigmatize trans folks. And we know that it emboldens folks to be more violent against trans folks. That dehumanizing language leads to dehumanizing behavior and violence. 2020 was the deadliest year for trans people. Over 44 trans people were murdered. That’s only in the United States. 27 trans people were murdered so far in 2021.”
The importance of knowing our collective and individual histories, in order to move forward.
“I think it’s important for us to understand our histories, so that we don’t repeat the things that are problematic. And when we can understand the story, own the story, then we can begin to write a different ending. And we can write that brave new ending for trans folks in the media. And so I do believe that things have gotten better for trans representation on television and I think we have a better understanding of what is more dehumanizing in terms of representation of trans folks. We understand what is stigmatizing and objectifying when we have conversations with and about trans people and what is more humanizing.
“There’s just so much stigma and misinformation that needs to be debunked. And we need to write new narratives and tell different stories. And most of that, again, is about humanizing trans people. There are many trans stories. We can hear trans people that we can get in front of people to tell their stories on their own terms and humanizing ways. And we can change the tide of all this discrimination and violence. But in the face of the challenges, trans people have been ourselves for centuries. Many of us have found the courage to be ourselves. And so we have to listen to trans people and we have to believe trans people, and give us space.”