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We Are What We Love: An Interview With Laverne Cox

The Orange is the New Black star and all-around superwoman on being yourself.

Collage by Minna, using a photo by George Pimentel/Sandy Caetano, WireImage/Getty for TIFF.

Collage by Minna, using a photo by George Pimentel/Sandy Caetano, WireImage/Getty for TIFF.

Laverne Cox has got it going on, in the sense that she’s really rad and really, really busy. She’s currently filming the third season of Orange Is the New Black while also finishing up her memoir (out in 2015), and co-producing the documentary FREE CeCe. The movie tells the story of CeCe McDonald, a trans woman of color who was sentenced to 41 months in a Minnesota men’s prison for defending herself against a life-threatening hate crime in 2012 and freed earlier this year.

In June, Cox became the first transgender woman ever to grace the cover of Time magazine, which anointed her “the public face for the transgender movement.” Last week, she made history yet again when she became the first transgender artist to be nominated for an Emmy. As I found out when I met her at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, Cox doesn’t think of herself as a role model. She’s just fighting the good fight, working hard (and looking good doing it), and hoping the patriarchy catches up.

KELLI KORDUCKI: You’re very vocal about the need to challenge the patriarchy and binary ideas of gender. What strategies have you found effective in that fight?

LAVERNE COX: It’s about what we teach our children, what we internalize, and how we challenge those things in our daily lives. For folks who might be in some sort of patriarchially privileged space, it’s about being critical of that and interrogating it and not just blindly embracing that privilege. For people who are not, it’s about being critical of and pushing back against patriarchy in our lives in a personal sense. It’s always about changing people’s hearts and minds—and then we need to look at public policy.

What drew you to CeCe’s story and this project?

I say it in the trailer for the film that I could’ve very easily been CeCe. There have been many times that I’ve been walking down the street in New York City and gotten catcalled when people realized I was trans. I was kicked on the street once. I’ve been called a man. I’ve been called a “he-she.” I’ve been called everything but a child of God, actually. It’s been a part of my life. So whenever I hear of a trans person experiencing violence, it’s very close to me. It’s palpable, and it’s real. What was also deep to me, when I read about CeCe’s story, was how everyone talked about what a light she was to people around her. She was kind of a mother figure for a lot of trans youth in Minneapolis. Meeting her, I was like, I get it. She’s this remarkable young woman who refuses to be a victim. I got goosebumps just thinking about that. I love her.

She’s quite young, too. What advice would you give to trans or genderqueer kids who are trying to present their true selves to the world?

Define yourself in your own terms. In terms of gender, race, anything. We are not what other people say we are. We are who we know ourselves to be, and we are what we love. That’s OK. You’re not alone in who you are. There are people out there who will love and support you. It’s about doing the work and believing and finding those people—if they’re not in your local community, there’s somebody online that you can talk to for support.

How are you balancing being an artist with being an activist?

I’m not! There’s no balance in my life at all right now. I’ve had some conversations with my agent and my brother, who’s a huge advisor of mine. There are some projects coming up that will hopefully help me to do that. But balance is something I’m working on. When it happens, I’ll let you know! ♦

Kelli Korducki has written for NPR, The New Inquiry, Hazlitt, and many other places, and is on Twitter @kelkord. She has strong feelings about hot dogs.

20 Comments

  • beansprout July 17th, 2014 3:28 PM

    Gosh, I love Laverne so much! I was thrilled to see this article on Rookie today, and I only wish it could have been looonger :( But I totally understand, Laverne does have a pretty tight schedule what with being literal goddess queen of everything badass lady of my heart culmination of all that is perfect in this world etc.

  • anaisabel13 July 17th, 2014 3:54 PM

    Laverne does amazing amazing work as an actress on Orange is the New Black and as an activist in the transgender community – it’s so incredible to see her in Rookie!

    http://anexerciseofmyfaculties.blogspot.com

  • ZZ July 17th, 2014 4:00 PM

    Good article! But tragic typo: “role mole”.

  • Lucy July 17th, 2014 5:17 PM

    WOOOO HOOOO!!!!!

  • Miamaria July 17th, 2014 5:18 PM

    I really, really admire her. She’s such a role model to every single person on this planet!! I wish I could take a course dedicated only to her.. sigh

    http://thepunkfashionista.blogspot.com

  • Guadalupe July 17th, 2014 7:21 PM

    Having grown up in a catholic family and school, it’s still quite difficult for me to be completely comfortable with the whole range of diversity in the world. Though I’ve always thought everybody deserves to have the same rights just for being a HUMAN BEING and so should be always treated with respect, it was not until recently I stopped thinking of homosexual/transgender people as some sort of “derivation” of the regular, “normal”, person. In this process of trying to redefine my principles and open up to other realities, it is really really constructive for me to come across articles like this. I think what you’re doing with Rookie effectively achieves to “changing hearts and minds of people”, at least by arising questions and pushing us to re-evaluate (confirming or changing) the way we understand the world. It would have been so awesome for this magazine to exist when I was a teen! :) Love, Guadi.

    • Jenoris July 18th, 2014 2:32 AM

      Guadalupe I know exactly how you feel! I was raised in a very strict Christian household and was bombarded with “traditional” teachings about “family values” and whatnot from the time I was a kid. I remember feeling weird about having to constantly satisfy this family member or that by reaffirming that I’m not attracted to women not by simply saying so, but by regurgitating a lot of the homophobic remarks and teachings I was brought up to believe. About 4 years ago, when I was 16, I began the process of unlearning all of these problematic “schools of thought” if you will and I was lucky enough to have two friends, one of who is a gay male feminist ally, and another who is a genderqueer feminist who were so very patient and kind and educational towards me when they had no obligation to be (because let’s be honest, educating people on this stuff can be really emotionally, physically, and mentally draining). I think now, at 20, I’m well rid of most of it but sometimes I still find it hard to vocalize that I find this way of thinking of that to be harmful and oppressive because I was taught that it was the way of things and that arguing them would be an invitation to interrogation from family and church members.

      WOW WHAT A RAMBLE. But anyway just know that you’re not alone in trying to unlearn all this stuff and trying to figure out the world and the beauty of its diverse people without any prejudices attached.

  • Abbey xoxo July 17th, 2014 7:37 PM

    Love her, both for her work as an activist AND for her performance in Orange is the New Black! I feel like she uses a lot of her media attention to raise awareness regarding the transgender community, which I think is lovely!

    http://thespiannotthesbian.weebly.com/

  • kimchi July 17th, 2014 10:02 PM

    I’m really late to the party and only started watching Orange is the New Black a few weeks ago, wow dat show is good! I loved this article, it is basically the perfect testimony of the power of being true to yourself. I can’t imagine what it would be like to experience prison, to go through it as a woman surrounded by men would be terrifying. I love articles like these.

    http://glitterous-clitoris.blogspot.com.au/

  • Anna-wa July 18th, 2014 12:02 AM

    I love Laverne, and I know she’s not trying to be a role model, but I still look up to her as one because I think she’s very strong and speaks up for the important things she believes in and has the qualities I wish I had.

  • Jenoris July 18th, 2014 2:24 AM

    Not even ashamed to admit it, the trailer for Free CeCe made me cry. I love how open, honest, and real Laverne is. I love how she’s always grateful for her success but also deeply aware of what an opportunity it is for her as a trans woman of color vs. the fate that other trans WoC tend to meet in their careers. I’m so proud of her and what she’s been able to accomplish in the year since OITNB first hit the scene. Here’s to a thousand more years of her reign and a thousand miles more for messages of equality and visibility to spread.

    http://paper-bottles.blogspot.com

  • erinxo July 18th, 2014 4:02 AM

    Binaries are for the narrow-minded and unintelligent of society. You can try to define yourself and make yourself fit or you can just be yourself. As someone who has tried the former, I recommend the latter.

  • flocha July 18th, 2014 6:04 AM

    That traitor brought me so close to tears oh my god. Laverne cox is so so incredible, every single interview of hers I watch/read she says so many insightful and inspiring things.

    http://whimsicalprocrastination.blogspot.co.uk

  • Vlada July 18th, 2014 2:05 PM

    Laverne love of my life, beautiful actress, role model, activist, love of my life (again)!!!!!!!!!!!!
    This interview is perfection rookiemag THNKS

    PS: This is my blog btw http://speakingofvlada.blogspot.com.es/

  • Epa July 18th, 2014 7:50 PM

    As someone who is in the process of transitioning its super awesome to have people to look up to! (Because I’d say there aren’t as many “trans role models”)

    I recently (well 2 months ago) came out to my family and friends. It was just before graduation because I wanted to start from a clean table when I’d go to a new school next fall. And it’s all because of people like her that I had the strength to come out and be myself!

    Needless to say, I was stoked to see this :D

  • Sophii July 20th, 2014 4:31 PM

    The trailer made me cry so much. I can’t wait for the documentary to be released. Laverne is literally a queen. It’s phenomonal what she’s managed to do and the things she says in this interview are so powerful.

    http://prettypassionsfinefashions.blogspot.co.uk

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