Laverne Cox by Paris Lees
Illustration by Fernando Monroy
Paris Lees is an award-winning writer, presenter and equality campaigner – described as “the voice of a generation by i-D magazine”. She’s modelled for Diesel and Wrangler, had her own show on BBC Three and written everywhere from the Times to VICE. She’s also the first openly transgender person to appear on Question Time and regularly appears on Newsnight and Channel 4 News - providing a rare working class perspective. Her memoir, published by Penguin, is due next summer.
Actor, writer and activist. Laverne Cox is not just a queer icon – she’s iconic, full stop. And a true trailblazer. In 2014 she became the first trans person to appear on the cover of Time magazine – let alone a trans woman of colour. Her cover celebrated the “tipping point” in the fight for trans rights in the United States and, indeed, added a fair bit of momentum to it.
She knows how to take control of a conversation with dignity and charm. Take her appearance on Katie Couric’s show in 2014, alongside fellow trans woman Carmen Carrera. Couric insisted on asking Carerra whether she’d had genital surgery. Carrera reacted how I think I and many other trans women would too: recoiling and saying she didn’t want to answer. Cue Laverne:
“The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. 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.”
And that, folks, is how you begin to change an oppressive media narrative.
When transphobes accused trans women of having ‘male privilege’ earlier this year my gut reaction was “Fuck off”. But Laverne always manages to get the message across in way that is likely to be heard by as many people as possible:
“I was a very feminine child though I was assigned male at birth. My gender was constantly policed. I was told I acted like a girl and was bullied and shamed for that. My femininity did not make me feel privileged”
Don’t underestimate the work that goes in to being such an effective communicator. As Laverne told me back in 2013: “I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can construct a message so that people can hear it.”
I often see activists communicating in a way that – while totally understandable – alienates onlookers. I’ve probably been guilty of it myself. That’s why we’re activists. We’re upset about the way things are and would like to make them better. Laverne would have every right to scream about the “state of emergency” she describes for trans people. But she understands that, while anger may be righteous, there’s a way to express it that is more likely to get you what you want. Being right is great, but results are better, and Laverne knows it. Her success is a lesson for us all.
Trans people face horrific violence and the situation is particularly bad for trans women of colour in the US. When Cece MacDonald was locked up for killing someone in self-defence, Laverne used her platform to support Cece through the documentary Free Cece, which shed light on the culture of violence that kills so many trans women of colour. I only know about that, and who Cece is, because of Laverne, and other impressive activists like the author Janet Mock. Laverne’s commitment to raise up her sisters, who may not have been lucky enough to fulfill their dreams as she has, is laudable. She’s given a voice to a deliberately silenced community. Laverne matters because Cece and every other black trans woman in America matters too.
Laverne was in the vanguard of moving trans out of academia and its LGBT niche and taking it mainstream in the States, especially in showbiz. I first came across Laverne back in 2012 when she was writing for the Huff Post. She felt new, refusing to play the victim or feel the need to explain herself, being proud and demanding equal treatment. Now she’s modelling for Beyoncé’s IVY Park label. I saw her poster in Topshop yesterday.
Before that she had been working away in mainstream media, taking whatever roles came her way and creating TRANSform Me for VH1 – making her the first African-American trans woman to produce and star in her own television show. It was this solid background in acting and producing that enabled her to get the roles that gave her the profile she enjoys today: Playing a trans prisoner in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, starring in Fox’s reboot of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and, perhaps most excitingly, taking on the role of a lawyer for CBS Doubt.
Talk about the American Dream. Laverne grew up working class in Mobile, Alabama – the setting for much of the civil rights movement – raised by a single mother. They didn’t have a lot of money but her mom was a teacher who passed on her work ethic and lust for life. Her mother told her that: “Because I’m black, because I’m trans, I totally have to be better than everybody else (which is a lot of pressure to put on myself) and I have to be exceptional.
She is. She has the qualities to ensure she goes down as a great woman of history. She’s kind. Iconic. Groundbreaking. A spectacular orator. And her influence on culture and public awareness of the discrimination trans people is huge. She’s the sort of person you think of and say: “I’m glad she exists”. She’s a force for good in an increasingly cruel world. And she’s not done yet.
Seeing Laverne doing well means so much to me because it means children born today won’t recognize the world we grew up in. This is a world where trans people win awards and appear on the cover of magazines and on TV shows. I can’t tell you how happy it made me, a few months ago, getting my nails done in a beauty salon, to look up at the TV and see Laverne presenting an award at the Teen Choice Awards. If this is how Laverne makes a white trans woman in London like me feel, I can only imagine the joy she must bring to young trans women of colour, from all walks of life, all around the world.
Fernando Monroy is a Mexican illustrator currently studying in México city. His work references pop culture, reflecting the work of photographers, designers and fashion. Out Magazine named him one of twenty young queer artists to watch.