Orange Is the New Black, Netflix’s original series that debuted on July 11, is no prison TV show by way of Victoria’s Secret. Created by Jenji Kohan (the mind behind Weeds), the dramedy portrays with nuance its diverse cast of characters—prisoners, lesbians of color, poor people, and even WASPs. And, most shockingly, a transgender woman of color—played by a transgender woman of color.
For the first time in TV history, a transgender character is at the forefront of a show and being portrayed by a black transgender woman. (Transgender is an umbrella term that also includes transsexuals.) Laverne Cox plays Sophia Burset, a former firefighter sent to prison for using credit cards stolen from the wreckage of fires she helped put out. In prison, she acts as a hairdresser, friend, and political conscience for the other prisoners, while also trying to ensure access to her female hormones and repairing her relationship with her wife and son. There has only ever been one other recurring, substantive transgender TV role held by a transgender actor: Dirty Sexy Money’s Carmelita, played by Candis Cayne, who is a staple in small transgender roles, including turns on Nip/Tuck, Drop Dead Diva, Necessary Roughness, and CSI: NY.
“Sophia’s the role I’ve dreamed about, prepared for, trained for,” says Cox, who has been acting for more than a decade in shows like Law & Order and Bored to Death and in independent films like The Exhibitionists.