Laverne Cox has been one of the most visible trans people in the world for the better part of a decade. After landing a role on Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” in 2013 and being the first trans person on the cover of “Time” to illustrate what the magazine called “the transgender tipping point” in 2014, Cox put a face to a long derided community that was long overdue such consideration.
Today, Cox is both more hopeful and more concerned than ever about the future of trans liberation. On the one hand, onscreen trans representation has never been more visible or more nuanced. Cox herself was recently announced as E!’s new leading red carpet correspondent, ensuring that her perspective will shape every major, glitzy Hollywood event in years to come. On the other hand, however, trans people are facing unprecedented legal threats to their humanity as anti-trans bills hit states across the country, targeting trans youth in particular without any basis in scientific fact.
Cox is deeply concerned and affected by the coordinated effort to undermine trans rights through these bills, which would ban everything from allowing trans girls to participate in girls’ sports to criminalizing gender-affirming health care outright.
“What they’re trying to do is to dehumanize these children, which is so heartbreaking,” Cox says. “It’s really heartbreaking when you see the way they’re talking, the fervor with which they’re going after these children. In the face of that, we have to insist on the humanity of everyone. Insist on the humanity of trans people, and particularly the humanity of trans children.”
To Cox, these attacks represent a greater, crucial misunderstanding. “Underlying all this is so much of the work we still have to do about trans people,” she insists. “People still don’t fully believe that trans women are women, trans men are men, trans girls are girls, trans boys are boys and nonbinary people are real. So we still have to understand that trans people are who we say we are.”
Variety recently talked with Cox about the anti-trans bills, being tokenized throughout her career, and the unique pressures of becoming a spokesperson for an entire community.
Anti-trans sentiment is not new, but what strikes you as new about what’s happening across the country now?
I think what feels different is how well how coordinated it all is. It’s no accident that 35 states have introduced over 100 bills targeting trans kids and gender affirming health care for trans youth. They’ve been so organized.
A few years ago, they were all about bathrooms, right? There was a slew of bills as legislators all over the country attacked trans people in the bathroom. We were able to fight back against that with the lived experience and humanity of trans people. And with all the fearmongering they were doing about bathroom, people realized that it wasn’t about bathrooms. It was about trying to make trans people not exist.
But with the children question they’ve gained so much momentum. People get so scared about their children with such a lack of information. What we know scientifically too is that before puberty, there’s not really major differences between the strength of boys and girls. It’s really what happens during puberty. And then, simultaneously, they’re saying trans girls can’t play sports and also trying to deny those trans girls and boys access to the gender affirming care that would actually halt puberty. So it’s like, make it make sense! It makes no sense.
Those folks who say they’re allies of trans people who don’t have all the information, I say with love, let’s get the information. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard those people say, “Well, but it isn’t fair, trans girls shouldn’t be playing sports.” So I think that all those people who say they love trans folks and want to be allies, they just need to have more information. And I’m going to love them. I’m going to always proceed with love.
There are still so many misconceptions about what this health care entails. It seems like so many people assume it’s cosmetic when that doesn’t begin to touch what “gender-affirming care” actually means.
I don’t like to talk about the details of medical transition, I think that objectifies trans people. But I think we need to do a better job in educating people. At the end of the day, it should just be that what people do with their bodies is their business. And if they are a child, it’s just no other parent’s place to tell another how to parent. If it was another issue, we would be like, “Excuse me, this is my child, this is my life, this is their health care, so stay out of it.” That’s what we really should be doing. It’s just fearmongering. It’s deep, that with all the things going on in the world, this has become the priority. That also says a lot, right? Restricting voting and making sure that trans children can’t play sports is their legislative agenda.
Every reputable health organization in the United States and globally has said that gender affirming care is life-saving for trans youth. That’s the science. Those decisions should always be made between a parent their doctor, and the child itself. The government should not have anything to do with what anybody is doing with their body.
“Disclosure,” the 2020 Netflix documentary about trans representation that you executive produced, talks about how the inevitable reaction to increased visibility is increased resistance and hostility. Is that something you see manifesting today?
Absolutely. I think that is exactly what we’re seeing. I think a lot of conservatives were very frustrated when marriage equality became the law of the land, and when that decision came down they were like, “OK, what can we do to fearmonger? What can we do to divide people on cultural issues?” The conservative party doesn’t have an economic message for working class people, so they are weaponizing cultural wars. They’re talking about Dr. Seuss and transgender children playing sports when there’s still a global pandemic and people have lost their jobs. Eviction moratoriums are gonna expire any minute now, people need material access to material resources. And instead of having messaging around that they’re trying to use trans people and cultural wars to gin up sort of this sort of outrage.
It’s just cynical. In Arkansas, the ban on trans health care for children is going to become law in July, and all the trans youth in Arkansas, who have been getting gender affirming health care will no longer be able to do it legally. These are real lives. We are real people. We really exist.
What has having to be a representative for the trans community been like for you? What’s important for cisgender people to understand about that kind of pressure?
I feel the pressure all the time. I’m 48 years old, and I feel the pressure and responsibility of it. It’s very, very difficult. And when I have made a mistake or haven’t been precise with my language, or I’ve had a blind spot, it feels really heavy that real people out there could be affected by something I failed to do. And to be a child and have that responsibility, I can’t even imagine. I’m so inspired by the trans young people out there who are leaders, who are teaching the world.
At this point in your career, after everything you’ve done, and been through, what material effects have you seen from the increase in representation for trans people? Do you think that it’s improved?
Representation has limits. I’ve been so blessed in my career, but I certainly am aware that I’ve been tokenized. Sometimes corporations will say, “Oh, we have a Black trans person, we brought Laverne Cox in,” so they check off a few diversity boxes. But checking all these boxes to maintain the same oppressive systems that are there in place doesn’t necessarily change the material conditions of working class trans people. We are interested in real liberation. If we’re interested in real justice, this system needs to also change.
What has been so beautiful for me about over the many years I’ve had a public platform at this point is seeing how visibility has inspired particularly trans people to be themselves and to take up the space. That is the most powerful part of representation. Film and television representation is hugely important so that people can see themselves and have a template for success and possibility.
So I think both are true. Representation is powerful and it’s necessary for inspiring people. That’s very, very important. But then when we talk about politics and material conditions of people’s lives, we need systemic change. Representation is not enough.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)