On LGBTQ Spirit Day in October, Laverne Cox stood on the stage of The Physicians Auditorium and asked the same question of Sojourner Truth, bell hooks, and several before her: “Ain’t I A Woman?” But this time, this speech was not an argument for women’s or black suffrage – it was a statement of gender, from a proud African American transgendered woman. In this interview, I sat down with the actress from the Netflix phenomenon “Orange is the New Black” to talk acronyms, TV, OITNB and LGBTQ.
Q: How is your tour going, and why a college tour?
A: This is just my second [stop], but the first one went really well and I met some amazing people and I’m really excited to connect with students all across the country…College for me is where I developed my critical consciousness around race, class and gender, and for me, getting to connect with college students in these formative years is really exciting.
Q: What was growing up in the Deep South like for you?
A: It was good and bad. I live in New York City now and I would not have wanted to grow up there. I feel like the values that I got in the South — going to Church every Sunday and from my mom — are values I take with me and I’m really grateful that I had that experience. It was rough because of bullying but I think LGBTQ kids get bullied everywhere, so it’s not something specific to the South. So I am really grateful for my experience and I think everything that has happened to me has made me who I am today so I’m happy for all of it — the good, the bad and the ugly.
Q: Who acts as your support group in both your personal and professional life?
A: My mother definitely. My brother really is my moral compass. I run stuff by him, “Should I do this? Should I not do this, should I say this?”…He’s so interested in my well- being but also in the cause of social justice so he’s been the one really encouraging me. About five years ago when I got the opportunity to have a public platform in a show called “I Wanna Work For Diddy,” I was [thinking] “Well, I’m very political…should I speak out about the things I believe in?” And he said you absolutely should…As a black transgender woman trying to make it in the mainstream, should I say certain things? I have just been saying the truth.
Q: How does it feel to be the first African American transgendered woman to appear on an American reality show?
A: What was really powerful for me about that moment was all the messages I got particularly from black trans women who said they’d never seen a professional black trans woman on television before — that we’d always been portrayed as victims or sex workers. And it was very empowering for them, and I think for me beyond getting the opportunity to live my dream and do what I love, if my work can touch people and inspire them that’s a really great reason to do something.
Q: Tell me a little about your beginnings on the Netflix hit series, “Orange is the New Black.”
A: It felt beshert. Beshert is Yiddish for meant to be. It felt beshert because at the time I had been prepping to interview a trans woman named Cece McDonald who is in prison in Minnesota for defending herself against a racist and transphobic attack. I was prepping to interview her for this show “In The Life” and then they lost their funding and never happened. I was sort of already in this prison mindset and doing a lot of research about prison. My acting coach says there really are no mistakes and I do believe in this thing that what we put out into the universe comes back to us. So I auditioned, it was just one audition and I did two scenes and they put me on tape and a few weeks later I found out I got the part.
Q: You have said in a different interview that you think people can related to the deeply flawed characters on “Orange is the New Black.” Can you expand on that?
A: For whatever reason these characters are in prison and they’ve made some kind of mistake, presumably, and they’re imperfect people. I think all of us as human beings are imperfect and that is when I relate to a character, because there is something flawed about them. Then I’m like, this relates to the flaws I have inside of me. And Jenji Kohan, who created our show, said that she is also very interested in flawed characters, she’s not interested in people who are perfect because that’s boring. I think the more flawed someone is, the more human and relatable they are.
Q: You’ve also said that “Orange is the New Black” can act as a platform for all kinds of women. What women are you talking about?
A: I think what’s exciting about our show and makes it even more relatable is that it’s so rare to see diverse women on television – women of different races, generations and body types all in one place – that’s super rare! I talked to my friend Selenis, who is an actress on the show, we were saying that we hope it changes the industry’s standard. I think Hollywood’s idea is that you have to have only super skinny white women on television and if you don’t that the show won’t be successful and people won’t tune in. I think our show proves that people will tune in for diverse audiences, and I hope it changed our industry a bit.
Q: In what ways do you think this coming together on Spirit Day at CofC is beneficial for the LGBTQI community?
A: Bullying has been such a huge part of my story and I feel has been a huge part of my story as a trans woman and I think that it is crucial that everybody gets together – gay, straight, trans, cisgender – and say that it is not acceptable anymore to make fun of, ridicule or to demean LGBTQI people. It is not acceptable anymore. We want to celebrate and love this community and that this community deserves love, particularly the trans community. For me, this day is about coming together in love, and this day is about saying that certain behavior is no longer acceptable, and that we won’t stand for it.
Q: Do you have any advice for current CofC students experiencing bullying?
A: Well I understand that CofC has created some policies to make the students safer, so what I’m excited about is that students will have some recourse, particularly on this campus if they are experiencing some harassment. I would say to ask for help and don’t be ashamed of it. I think a lot of times for me, I had a lot of shame around being bullied and harassed for years and I didn’t want to talk about it. It’s okay to talk about it to the right people and get help.