The Transgender Tipping Point

by lizzfowler on March 30, 2015 - 8:34pm

(Trigger warning for use of offensive slurs- Not used with intent to offend, but better to warn!)

Chances are if you're 30 and under with a Netflix account, you've seen or heard of the original series Orange is the New Black. It's funny, fresh and offers quite a lot more representation of the LGBTQ community and people of colour than most white-washed sitcoms on television even today. Specifically, the representation of transgender character, Sophia, is a huge step forward for the trans community. Sophia is presented as human first and transgender second, and she portrays some real trans issues without the entire show focusing on the fact that her assigned sex at birth does not match her gender. Sophia is played by Laverne Cox, who is breaking down barriers every day as she lives her life as a transgender woman of colour in the media.

Laverne Cox was born in Mobile, Alabama to a single mother. She lived her whole life as a rather feminine person, even when she identified as male. She and her twin brother lived under heavy influence of the church, believing that they had to live as society's idea of the 'strong, black male'. Laverne grew up to fulfill her destiny of womanhood while her brother lives as proud gay man, so it's wonderful to see that they grew up to confident with who they are regardless of the influence they lived under. In elementary school, Laverne was frequently bullied for her femininity. She really focused on her grades and tried her best to stay out of trouble during those years, but as she hit puberty and started to have feelings for boys instead of girls, she felt that she was betraying her faith and her family and attempted suicide at the age of eleven. This is an unfortunate truth, but on average in North America, 41% of transgender individuals report having attempted suicide in their lifetime.

During high school, Laverne began to experiment with androgyny, wearing makeup and traditionally 'female' clothing to fit how she was feeling inside. She began to really get into acting, singing and dancing and it was dream of hers to be famous one day. She felt that she wanted to be successful, but says that she never thought that she could achieve her goals as a woman. She felt that her gender identity was something to be ashamed of.

After moving to New York once her schooling was done, Laverne began spending time with drag queens and transgender women, who she had rarely encountered in Alabama. It was during this time that she was able to put a term to how she was feeling, and she had an inner-realization that she herself was transgender. When her acting career got started up, she took a few small roles, and unfortunately, many of them were type-cast, and she played quite a few transgender prostitutes. (When asked recently if she would ever play a prostitute again, she said that it would depend on the prostitute.) Once her acting career got started, she felt that she might be able to get more roles or be 'taken more seriously' if she were to present herself as a cisgender man as opposed to an androgynous individual or a trans woman. She spent some time auditioning as and living her life in male drag, and things didn't feel quite right for her.

When she decided to transition and got her first hormone shot, she says that it was relieving. She may have to deal with the problems that come with being a woman, a transgender person, and a black person, but she would not have to hide who she was anymore.

Today, Laverne is a transgender icon. She speaks at conferences, and in interviews she always tries to educate about the trans community. In an interview with Katie Couric, she and transgender model Carmen Carrera were asked invasive questions about their personal biology. Lavern is known for having "flawlessly" shut down Katie Couric's unnecessary questioning. Laverne has said time and time again in interviews that she believes that cisgender people have a fixation about trans people’s biology. In society, we like to be positive about what a woman is and what a man is, so it is natural that there is a bit of curiosity, especially now that trans people are more and more represented in the media. However, to constantly fixate on what genitals a person has is not only rude and invasive, but it condescends and dehumanizes them. It focuses too much on their bodies and not enough on their minds. It is objectifying.

Recently, Laverne was on the cover of TIME magazine. This may not seem like that big of an accomplishment for a celebrity, as many of them have graced TIME once or twice, but for Laverne and for the trans community it is a huge deal. Her cover presents her not as a "woman who used to be a man" or a "tr***y" as trans people, specifically women, are often portrayed in the media, she was presented as an activist, as a woman, as a strong human being who is intellectually and physically strong. On the cover of TIME, she was presented as a human first and a trans woman second, and this is such a big step in society accepting trans people as actual humans and not outliers.

Laverne Cox may not be a genius like Einstein was or as kind-hearted as Mother Theresa, but what she is doing today will surely shape the future of society. Because of celebrities and icons like her, more and more people are starting to learn what being transgender means from an unbiased point of view, people are learning that trans folks are human beings and not just "men in dresses". Laverne Cox is not fond of the term "role model", she prefers "possibility model", and to say that she is one of the greatest possibility models relevant in today's society is an understatement.