The world has been waiting for Laverne Cox.
Her powerful and profoundly human portrayal of Sophia Burset on "Orange Is the New Black" may be what she is best known for, but Cox's off-screen work as a trans activist contains the same depth, love and humor that critics have celebrated in her acting -- and is reaching just as wide an audience.
In a now famous interview with Katie Couric, Cox deftly and gracefully turned a series of invasive questions about her anatomy into an opportunity to call out the dehumanizing consequences of the media's obsession with trans bodies, surgery and transition. "The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people," she told Couric. "And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. ... If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things."
For the last year, Cox has been using her platform to help tell the story of CeCe McDonald, a trans woman of color who was incarcerated for 19 months in a men's prison facility in St. Cloud, Minn., after stabbing a man -- she testified that she was defending herself against a violent trans-phobic attack. Cox and documentary filmmaker Jac Gares followed the case as McDonald and a dedicated support team worked for her release, and have continued to film McDonald following her January release, as she continues to advocate for others in the prison system.
Salon spoke with Cox and Gares about their documentary on McDonald, their vision for justice, and why revolution looks a lot like love. (Interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)
How were you both introduced to CeCe and her story, and how did the idea for the documentary come about?
Jac Gares: I was a series producer for a series called "In the Life" and knew that Laverne was a producer; I also knew that I wanted to work with her. So I called Laverne in and said, "What would you create?" She was really keen on CeCe's story and the culture of violence around trans women of color. So we developed this as a pitch for a segment on "In the Life," and Laverne started working on it. But "In the Life" lost its board support and went into dissolution. Production shut down and I had to call Laverne and tell her the segment wasn't going to get made. But Laverne said to me, "It'll happen."
The idea for the documentary stayed with me, and after I saw Laverne at the GLAAD awards talking about CeCe I called her to say, "Are you game to do this with an independent producer? I think there's enough there for a feature."
Laverne, what was your initial reaction to the case? What made you want to bring this project to the table?
Laverne Cox: I read about everything a week after it happened, and the news report was … what they usually are. They misgendered her. CeCe said that the media demonized her, and it very much did.
I had a weird sense about the case, and thought this was awful but didn't know the details of the story. When I first became aware of it, I had heard that some black trans woman had murdered someone. That's what I heard. And then, several months later, I came across a story going into the details of her defending herself, how this was a racist attack, that this was a trans-phobic attack. Then I was like, "Wait, whoa." I started finding out more about her story. Basically, CeCe was walking down the street with a group of her friends when she heard racist and trans-phobic slurs. A fight happened, and someone ended up dead.
I thought about how many times I've walked down the street as a trans woman of color and heard anti-trans slurs. I've heard racist slurs. I was kicked on the street once. I think it's so personal for me because I could very easily be CeCe. I could easily be a trans woman who was fighting for her life on the street. It was just really real for me, and it still is.
The story just feels really, really close.
I imagine that when you both started thinking about telling this story, CeCe's release was not a foregone conclusion.
Gares: When Laverne and I were developing the segment, we were just watching and going through all the details and noting the complexities of the case. We have a lot of the back story as it happened, how it came out, the reactions that the community had. That's part of the documentary -- we really want to go back and really show the complexities of what injustices CeCe faced at the moment of the attack, the moment of the arrest, once she entered the criminal justice system, once she entered the prison.
At every level, we want to expose the obstacles that are placed in front of trans people that others may not be aware of. Basically, it's a larger story. CeCe is a survivor of this attack, but she's also a leader and an advocate. As a filmmaker, I'm particularly interested to see how CeCe will continue to develop over the course of this year of filming. We got a taste of it this week, there was an interview we did with her at a court watch. She was four days out of prison and sitting in a courtroom to monitor someone who was being brought up for charges who was a trans woman of color. She is very active. It's going to be very interesting to see how that develops.
Laverne, you and CeCe have time and again refused easy categorizations about how you define justice, both in her specific struggle and the experience of being a trans person of color in this country. I wonder about the evolution of your politics. Had the experiences of people who are incarcerated always been part of your activism, or is that something that came together after learning about women like CeCe, or even your experience playing Sophia on "Orange Is the New Black"?
Cox: It certainly has evolved over the past couple of years as I've interacted with the community more. I didn't fully understand the depth -- I understood what I was going through, but I did not understand the depth of what so many other trans women were going through. It's really been about connecting with folks, and hearing more trans stories. My intersectional approach has really evolved. Conversations I've had with different amazing trans women have really helped me have a more intersectional approach to the advocacy that I do.
In terms of being on "Orange Is the New Black," it makes sense to really look at the relationship between people of color, trans people of color and the criminal justice system. The ways that trans bodies and black bodies are criminalized in this culture, and what we can begin to do about that.
It's really just been about interacting with the community and listening, really trying to look at the correlations between violence and injustice. Who it's happening to. Disproportionately, it's happening to trans people of color, trans women of color specifically. My question is why is that? Why is that? There's the convergence of misogyny and white supremacy, classism, policies like stop-and-frisk, cis normativity; there are all of these systemic forces that impact the lives of so many trans women.
I know you've resisted the "role model" designation in the past, and have opted instead for "possibility model." Right now, to me, it seems like the possibilities for trans people -- in terms of visibility and the conversations that are happening -- seem more expansive than they may have felt even a few years ago. I wonder if you both think this is a transformational moment?
Gares: I hope we are, I believe we are. Just the fact that Laverne's interview with Katie Couric could go viral with such a relevant message of substance gives me hope. I hope this documentary can add to that, and be of this moment that we are entering or have entered. I believe Laverne is at the helm of it, and I'm honored and proud to be working with her.
Cox: I'm honored and proud to be working with you, too! Jac just gets it. She has a sensitivity and an empathy and she understands the complexity of the issues we're addressing in just a really nuanced way. She's a great filmmaker.
It's my hope that we are in a moment of transformation. In all of the aftermath of the Katie Couric interview -- and really the response from the community. It all feels like a shift. Often, for trans folks, [the media] is not having the right conversation, so if we're not having the right conversation then we can't have the right policies to back up that conversation. It's exciting that we're beginning to change the conversation. It's really about more and more trans people having a voice, and pushing against how certain people may want to tell our stories. It's really about us having a voice to tell our own stories, and having access, having resources to tell our own stories so we can advocate for ourselves in the way we feel is best.
Gares: And not to have just representations that hyper-sexualize or marginalize … we want to show authentic lives.
One of the things we plan to bring out is the support committee, and what a resource that was for CeCe during the trial and within the prison system. And now, seeing how she still has that support now that she's out … it's that kind of love and support and dedication that shows what a community looks like. I want to show that to the world.
Cox: CeCe's support committee is a template for how we begin to really do advocacy in this country, for trans women of color specifically but really for anyone. There was a tremendous sense of love that went into the advocacy for CeCe that everyone involved had for her -- and that she had for herself and for everyone.
She just emits and radiates love. I believe that is the way to create the conditions of justice for trans people -- it's through love.
Has the experience of making this documentary, and your relationships with CeCe, changed anything about how you view the work you both do?
Cox: Getting to hang out with CeCe, really to just know her as a woman, has given me such a sense of hope and possibility. She inspires me, she really does. She is an amazing woman. I think, too, of the fierce advocacy that her support team did on her behalf and what she did on her own behalf -- that love. Loving trans people is a revolutionary act.
I feel like that revolution happened in Minnesota. That is what the revolution should look like.
Gares: When we interviewed CeCe inside the prison, we asked her how she was, and she said she felt blessed. That has always stayed with me, the fact that she could keep that positivity and radiate that love … it's infectious. It's so important. It's so timely. The world is finally able to hear it, and I feel blessed to be doing this work.