‘Hello, New York calling!’ We’ve just been put through to one of our favourite women on television right now and I’m just bursting with questions. The dazzling Laverne Cox who plays in-prisoned hairdresser Sophia Burset in the hit Netflix series Orange Is The New Black is on the phone.
Asking how she felt to be the object of everyones desires, through much laughter I’m informed in her delicate Southern Belle accent ‘Well, I’m still single’.
Yet behind the laughter is a deeper message where the reality of her situation was quickly offered.
‘I just did the Thomas Roberts Show this morning and I said, I’m not supposed to be here. Black trans women from a working class background in America aren’t supposed to be promoting hit TV shows on national television.’
In an industry which has become strongly focused on ticking boxes it would seem that Laverne ticks a lot and yet Laverne is far from a ticked box.
‘I didn’t have any expectations. I hoped that people would like the show [Orange Is The New Black]. I was like, ok, Netflix have a lot of folks. A lot of people will see this show and it may lead to some more acting work.
‘I loved the part and was thinking this is great, people can get to see what I can do as an actress.’
Laverne Cox hails from Mobile Alabama, deep in the Bible belt of the United States, lodged between Georgia and Mississippi. Her first television appearance was on Law & Order in 2008, but it wasn’t until 2010 that Laverne’s true television credentials would be proved, when she became the first African American transgender woman to produce and star in her own TV show TRANSform Me on VH1
Laverne’s current project Orange Is The Next Black is fast becoming a landmark show for Netflix, I asked why Laverne thought the show had been so popular?
‘There are stories we don’t get to hear a lot in our culture. We don’t hear from women who are incarcerated, especially diverse women of colour.
‘In America we have 5% of the world’s population and a large proportion of it are in prison. It represents what’s wrong with our culture.
‘Most of the time it’s because the system has failed them as people, they are not humanised.
‘We’re not programmed to think of them as human beings and our show makes these women profoundly human.’
Laverne is one of the most regarded if not the most visible activist for the transgender community, which being a famous face must bring about a lot of extra pressures.
‘I would love to just have one day without having to talk about transgender but the reality is that so many trans people are impaled in their lives. Such as that story in Jamaica about the trans kid Dwayne Jones who was brutally murdered’
‘I would love to not talk about it, but the problem is people aren’t talking about trans issues, about transphobia so somebody’s got to talk about it and that talk has to lead to action.’
n action group here at home Trans Media Watch were also keen to put a question to Laverne asking what her perception was on how trans people are represented on TV and if she thinks it is starting to change.
‘The reality is we don’t get enough trans people on television, enough transgender stories told and so I think we have a long way to go before we have more of those representatives like Sophia, but I would like to think we are moving in the right direction.’
I wondered how the transgender community has reacted to Laverne since she’s become so much more visible now,
‘There has been a lot of love and support, the biggest was when trans kids write to say that I’ve inspired them to go for their dreams.’
I asked if there were any role models in her life,
‘My idol was Leontyne Price the African-American opera singer who was the first international black opera sensation and she’s a huge inspiration for me.’
As September is our Coming Out month we wondered if coming out was little by little for Laverne or a big blaze of glory?
‘It’s weird the words coming out. The only person I ever came out to was my mother. I thought I was gay and joined an LGBT organisation on campus in university.
‘I then realised I was trans. The interesting thing for trans people that’s different for gays or lesbians, who often have to come out to different people in many parts of their lives, I don’t have to as people generally know or suspect and if not they google me.
‘As a trans women it was a really slow process and was really about accepting myself, starting my medical transition and then changing my name.
‘It was all very gradual and all very much about accepting myself.’
Not everyone in this world is switched on to the many differences in life so I wondered how Laverne coped when people realised she was trans. Did she see the change in their eyes or the thoughts of what should or shouldn’t I ask?
‘For most part if people are gonna have a problem with me that’s pretty obvious because they’re going to steer clear of me. Which is the best thing about being out and proud.
‘I don’t draw bad energy to me. When I’m myself then people are cool with me.’
I asked whether it was easy to come or to accept the realisation that you’re transgender, Laverne has a very simple formula;
‘It depends where you live, how much money you have, on race, your support networks’.
Although we had focused on a lot of serious questions I had just one more to ask. In Orange is the new Black, Sophia had amazing hair in prison. Does she think she’d keep up the look if she was locked up?
‘Oh God, I don’t think I’d personally care that much’ she laughed.
So what would be the worse fear about going to prison?
‘All of it’ was the quick answer. ‘Often trans people don’t end up in women’s prisons so that leads us to become targets of sexual violence, so I would be terrified of that’.
It seems even the light hearted questions have this harsh reality of real life behind them and the work style to be done for trans recognition.
I couldn’t leave it there. If you could smuggle one thing into prison and be allowed to keep it, what would you take. ‘Moisturiser’
We both started laughing.
If you want to read more about Trans issues or are looking for support then do check out:http://www.transmediawatch.org
The editor and chief of THEGAYUK. All in a previous life wrote and produced songs on multi-platinum records.