As part of our support for the media coverage around Chaz Bono’s casting on “Dancing with the Stars” and an increasing amount of transgender-specific coverage in general, GLAAD is excited to profile prominent transgender advocates and members of the community in the next few weeks. This week, we talked to actress Laverne Cox about her experience as a transgender woman of color in the entertainment industry.
Laverne Cox didn’t always dream of landing the vast array of television and movie roles that are currently credited to her name. “I started out as a dancer,” she tells GLAAD. “I was pretty much dancing as soon as I started to walk.” She started studying dance at only eight years old and eventually received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Dance. She recalls that music and performance helped her get through the bullying she faced throughout her childhood, and she hopes that she can serve as a similar inspiration for youth today. “I have always dreamed I might, through my creative work, make things better for those who follow me.”
Laverne’s biggest idol growing up was the internationally renowned opera singer Leontyne Price, whose unique vocal talents and dedication to her community opened the way for black opera singers after her. Laverne is following in her footsteps. She made television history as the first African American transgender woman to appear on an American reality show when she was a finalist on VH1’s “I Want to Work for Diddy.” Her popularity subsequently led her to co-create, co-produce, and star in her own show called “Transform Me,” making her the first African American trans woman to produce and star in her own television show.
Laverne has been hard at work recently on several different films that will likely be released in the next year. She’ll be playing trans women in some of the films, such as “Musical Chairs,” which tells the story of a paraplegic trans woman involved in wheelchair ballroom dancing. In another film she just completed, called “The Exhibitionists,” she plays a British pop singer whose career is on the decline. “It was a truly amazing group of actors who blew me away every day on set.”
These achievements have made Laverne a huge supporter of Chaz Bono’s highly anticipated appearance on a mainstream reality television show. “I cried watching Chaz Bono on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ last night,” she admits, remembering that three years ago, there hadn’t been any trans people on reality competition shows until she began shooting “I Want to Work for Diddy.” “I felt so much pressure,” she says of that experience. Although the number of trans people on television have increased since then, she says, it’s important to include more trans people in scripted television with storylines that go beyond those that always focus on transitioning.
As a transgender woman of color, Laverne has overcome many obstacles to get where she is today. “We are taught to hate ourselves as LGBT people in this world. Many of us are walking around with so much internalized homophobia and transphobia.” She believes that LGBT youth of color must learn to love themselves before they can come together as a community. Although school interactions can be difficult, she is passionate about reminding youth to value their education. “My education wasn’t just about a degree, but developing critical thinking skills and a thirst for knowledge; to continue to push myself, and study not only my craft as an actress, but a multitude of other things for the rest of my life.”
In addition to her entertainment work, she often speaks on panels and in television specials about transgender issues, and is a passionate advocate. “I want to see a world where our lives are not in danger simply because we are trans…I want society at large to think differently about what it means to be a man or a woman. I clearly want a lot of things and we as trans folks are way overdue.”
Laverne is looking forward to the future for transgender people in the media. “I was so excited about Chaz last night…The depth and diversity of our lives have yet to be fully explored in film and particularly on television. But it’s gotten so much better. I understand that the change that needs to happen will take time. Believe me, I am working on it.”
GLAAD thanks Laverne for taking the time to talk to us and applauds her work to break barriers for transgender people, people of color, and others who continue to face injustice. We will continue profiling inspiring transgender figures in the coming weeks.