Her work in LGBT activism, her tireless effort in starting a productive conversation about issues facing the transgender community and her role as Sophia in Netflix’s breakout hit Orange Is the New Black have thrust her to the forefront of a new movement aiming to switch up the way we’ve historically seen gender and sexuality. She’s inspiring change in the most unlikely places, and she doesn’t plan on quitting anytime soon.
Fresh out of the GLAAD event that awarded her with the Stephen F. Kolzak award for her efforts in eliminating homophobia, and ahead of the undoubtedly busy summer before her, we sat down with Cox to talk about her continued activism, her take on trans progression in America, and what it means to be a true LGBT leader.
You’ve just received the Stephen F. Kolzak award— how do you feel to be joining the ranks of important advocates you’ve admired before now?
I was so deeply honored for me and for trans women of color everywhere who far too often have been told their lives and voices don’t matter. Your lives matter and your stories are valuable.
Your appearance with Carmen Carrera on Katie in January became controversial after you were both asked some pretty inappropriate questions. Couric later called the discussion it spawned a “teachable moment.” Do you think America is receptive to learning about transgender issues? Are the masses making any strides forward?
I think some are extremely open but they just don’t know anyone trans and don’t know how to have conversations with and about trans people. And I also think that often trans identities make people uncomfortable because they aren’t fully comfortable with themselves and don’t want to have some of their fundamental ideas about identity challenged. So it’s about knowing how to have the right conversations and being willing and open to have some of our fundamental ideas challenged so that we can truly have love and empathy for each other.
The discussion continued to gain national attention with Janet Mock’s appearances on Piers Morgan Live the following month. After seeing the public’s reaction to all three appearances, do you think trans issues are being discussed in a productive way?
Productive discussions are certainly happening and as we go forward having conversations about trans issues and issues of identity and difference in general with love and empathy and a willing to interrogate our own positions of privilege and our blind spots. But we have to do it with love and empathy least the conversations will devolve into what we see far too often in various culture wars that are far too often not productive at all.
Your character on Orange Is the New Black is also a trans woman. Do you think there’s a certain benefit to casting trans women in trans roles, as opposed to cisgender men or women, as was the case in Dallas Buyers Club?
I have heard from so many trans folks saying that my character in Orange has given them a way to talk about themselves with their friends and family. Folks have transitioned because of this character that they km find themselves do relating to. Folks who aren’t trans find themselves relating to this character and the trans woman playing her. I believe that when we connect with people as people all of our misconceptions about people who are different from us can melt away. Those are the benefits for the audience. As an actor I want to be able to play a variety of characters as i think most actors want to and I would never suggest an actor shouldn’t have that opportunity because I want it.
Can you offer any hints about what we can expect from Sophia in the coming season?
No. [Laughs] I did get to do some things as an actor I have never gotten to do before and that’s exciting for me. I think the audience will get different shades of Sophia that they haven’t yet seen.
You’ll also be serving as the keynote speaker for San Diego Pride’s Spirit of Stonewall rally. What do you hope to inspire in young trans people through your career and advocacy work?
I want everyone to be inspired to be more of themselves and to ask themselves what they can do to make the world safer for themselves and others to live authentically. I want everyone to also think about how race, class, gender, sexuality and ability intersect to make the world less safe for far too many and to begin to imagine how we as individuals can undo those unsafe systems.
Below, watch a recently out Ellen Page award Laverne Cox with the Stephen F. Kolzak award: