“I’m just a vessel”: Laverne Cox on new triumphs, and “OITNB’s” second season

With new season of "Orange Is the New Black" starting tonight, show's star talks justice, progress and what's next

Topics: laverne cox, orange is the new black, CeCe McDonald, Trans rights, Criminal Justice System, Incarceration, trans women of color, justice for cece, free cece doc, violence against trans people, Netflix, Editor's Picks, , , ,

"I’m just a vessel": Laverne Cox on new triumphs, and "OITNB's" second season

Laverne Cox says she’s getting used to being tired. When not filming as Sophia Burset on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” or working on the documentary she’s co-producing with Jac Gares on CeCe McDonald, the actress and activist has been touring the country pretty much nonstop. In the last year alone, she’s spoken at 47 universities, talked about trans justice on outlets ranging from “Democracy Now” to “Katie,” done about a million glossy profiles and made history as the first trans woman to be featured on the cover of Time magazine.

“A nice, full year,” she told me with a laugh when we sat down to chat a few weeks ago.

Season 2 of “Orange” launches Friday, but I spoke to Cox as she prepared for a panel conversation with McDonald about our criminal justice system and the radical possibilities emerging as trans activists continue to drive and shape the narrative about LGBTQ justice. Cox reflected on the year that was, the pressure and possibilities that come with being the first trans woman that most Americans are ever introduced to, and what her work on “Free CeCe” has taught her — about her activism, human resilience and the lifesaving power of humor and optimism.

When we last spoke, you were still raising the funds to finish “Free CeCe.” You’re now capturing the next chapter of CeCe’s life. CeCe has personally done so much to raise awareness about our broken criminal justice system, and that’s something you were able to document through her incarceration in a men’s prison in Minnesota. CeCe has been released, but she’s still a trans woman of color with a felony record — this is the second part of this story. Her struggle isn’t over. These are issues that “Orange” confronts in its first season, and I wonder if this work with CeCe has informed how you view the show and your role? 

I can’t say that Sophia Burset, my character on “Orange,” is privileged because she’s in a women’s prison. CeCe reminds us — reminds me — that women’s prison or men’s prison, no one is safe in prison. But Sophia’s circumstances are very different than CeCe’s. She’s in a minimum-security place, and of course Litchfield is fictional. [Laughs] I mean, that’s the biggest piece — it’s fictional.

But after meeting CeCe, I was really amazed at how upbeat and positive she is in the face of everything that she’s been through. And it’s really interesting thinking about our show and the moments of comic relief that we have and how really necessary that is in terms of the brutal reality of being in prison and the injustice of that. The other piece is this idea of claiming who you are, your sense of humanity in the face of all this inhumanity. So, for me, in Season 2, I was like, “Well, it doesn’t have to be all serious and all bad.” We do find these light moments, you know? Just as a way of survival. Just as a way to cope.

This has been an enormous couple of years for you, and I think for so many people, you are their first introduction to the trans community and the issues of trans justice and fighting for justice in the face of our massive system of incarceration. You are also a “possibility model” for trans young people around the world. It’s incredible that you’re able to be that catalyst for so many people, but it also seems like it could be challenging to hold so much for others.

In this moment now, I can’t fully connect to all of that. I’m exhausted. [Laughs] But I can connect to that when I get to talk to people, particularly students. I get to hear from young people about how my presence — not only on the show, but my presence in pop culture and the media — has given them space to claim who they are. In terms of coming out as trans, starting transition, talking to their friends or family about who they are.

I’ve heard this many times now, but the first time someone said it to me I was at Vanderbilt. It was my very first college speaking gig, which I believe was last October. A young trans man said, “Thank you so much for your work on ‘Orange Is the New Black.’ Now, when I tell my friends who I am, and I say that I’m trans, they’re like, ‘Oh! Like Sophia in ‘Orange Is the New Black!’ And then they would just move on, there’s no issue. There’s no like, ‘Well, what does that mean?’ or ‘Who are you?’ or ‘You shouldn’t be this!’ It just is.” And I’ve heard a lot of stories like that. People getting the courage to transition because of my character and have these conversations with their family members. That’s really powerful, and to be a vessel for that … it’s important for me to remember that none of this is really about me, right? I’m just a vessel through which this inevitable message is being transmitted. Justice, I’d like to think, is inevitable. Eventually, folks who have been wronged will be righted.

There’s so much more work to do, but this also feels like something of a tipping point. Or the start of a major shift. Where do you hope to see us a few years from now? 

Oh gosh.

Just a nice easy question with a really simple answer to wrap up with. 

There’s just so much. I mean, let’s be real. We don’t have federal policy protecting trans people from getting fired from their jobs. New York state doesn’t even have protections against that. We see discrimination in public accommodations, in schools. A girl in South Carolina was recently suspended for using the girl’s bathroom. She’s a girl but she’s trans.

Policies like “manifesting prostitution” in Phoenix, Arizona. There are so many policies, right? And then there’s so many people who just don’t know who trans people are or think that we are trying to deceive them or misrepresenting ourselves. And those folks are perpetrating harassment and violence, so we have to change hearts and minds, and we have to change public policy.

And I hope that there’s more of that to report in a year. Let’s talk in a year, and we’ll see.

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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