‘There’s a Bigger Lesson’: Laverne Cox Talks About the Future of Trans Visibility—Onscreen and Off

Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris ( (Getty Images)

Laverne Cox is looking beyond being “first.” Now nominated for her third Emmy since 2014 for Orange Is the New Black, which just aired its final season, the actress and activist, indisputably a pioneer in her field, spoke to W magazine about the honor. In particular, Cox spoke about the unique challenges of being a barrier breaker and what it means to not just hold the door open, but remove it altogether for those who come next. In fact, while she is grateful for being a multiple Emmy nominee, Cox is already questioning what comes next and what her presence represents, as she discussed with W.

“I’m grateful to the Academy but is there a bigger reason why I would get a nomination for a third time? Because I think that there’s always a bigger reason for things happening,” she says.

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Cox points out the growing presence of LGBTQ—and specifically, trans—talent on-screen; FX’s Pose has been a watershed moment for primetime television, about which Cox, the first trans person to be nominated for an acting Emmy, says, “There’s so much incredible trans talent on television right now in general, so part of me was thinking maybe it’s my job to encourage academy voters to consider that talent as well.”

Particularly poignant are Cox’s reflections on what it means to be a pioneer, which she refers back to Sidney Poitier’s history-making Oscar win, 55 years ago.

There’s a documentary on him and he was talking about when he won an Oscar in 1964 for Lilies of the Field. He said he would feel like we’ve overcome if he’s not the only one. The next black actor to win a lead acting Oscar was Denzel Washington for Training Day in 2002...That was a long time. Is it going to be a long time between a trans person being nominated for an Emmy and a trans person winning one? And how do we begin to get other trans folks nominated?

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For her part, Cox is trying to increase both the visibility and viability of trans talent in Hollywood via an as-yet-unfinished documentary called Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, exploring how trans representation has played out over the past hundred years. And much like the makeup of the Pose cast and production staff, Cox is working to have trans lives represented on and behind the scenes.

“My director Sam Feder has a model where we have a mostly transgender crew, and in the case where we couldn’t find someone transgender to fill a role, we have a nontrans person train a trans person,” she says. “The idea is that we build up trans folks so that they can work behind the camera as well as in front of the camera. That has been very inspiring to me, thinking about what kinds of sets I want to create in terms of diversity. Who do we hire?”

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Who do we hire? As I write this, the U.S. Department of Labor is attempting to make it legal for their religious contractors to discriminate against employees on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and sexual orientation. So while we’re seeing a long-overdue uptick in the number of trans actors, characters, crew members and narratives within Hollywood, there nevertheless remain very real obstacles in garnering basic human rights for the population at large, as Cox alludes to.

“There’s a bigger lesson, bigger calls to action,” she says. “I’ve been thinking a lot about what the bigger reason might be and I wish I had an answer.”

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About the author

Maiysha Kai

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.