Actress Laverne Cox entered the television annals on July 10 when she became the first openly-transgender woman to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award. Cox is nominated for an Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series Emmy for her role as Sophia Burset – a transgender woman who’s incarcerated in a woman’s correctional institution – on Orange is the New Black. In a heteronormative world where trans* women are incarcerated at higher rates, have higher rates of suicide, homelessness and intimate partner violence, Cox’s feat is incredible, and may shift our cultural understanding of what it means to be transgender.
When she learned of the nomination, Cox told People Magazine that she felt “pretty awesome.” “I don’t feel coherent,” she said. “I’m just like a giddy, effervescent creature of the universe who is blessed and highly favored.”
Beyond Cox’s historic role on a hit series, her willingness to advocate for the trans* community, and more specifically, transgender women of color, makes her a possibility model, a term she coined as an alternative to role model.
In an article for the Guardian US, writer Jos Truitt, elaborated on the significance of Cox as a possibility model because of her continuous focus on issues impacting trans* women of color.
“Cox has made a point at nearly every turn to refocus people’s attention from her to the extreme discrimination and violence leveled at the trans community – and the ways trans women of color are uniquely targeted,” Truitt writes. “When she made history as the first out trans woman on the cover of Time Magazine, the accompanying article focused less on her acting career and more on issues like bullying. When she was named a grand marshal of New York’s Pride parade, she chose to ride the parade route with the mother of Islan Nettles, a trans woman of color who was murdered. She is making a documentary about CeCe McDonald, a black trans woman who was sentenced to prison for defending herself against a violent transmisogynist and racist attack.”
Cox brought Truitt’s statement to life in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I’ve been thinking a lot about this,” she said. “I was on the cover of Time magazine in June and, that same month, four trans women of color were murdered in the United States. So just because I got an Emmy nomination doesn’t mean the lives of trans people aren’t in peril every day.”
Regardless of her successes, Cox makes her victories matter by refocusing her attention toward systemic injustices.
In recent months, we’ve had an explosion of other possibility models pushed into our consciousness. There’s Janet Mock whose memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, is a New York Times bestseller. We’re being exposed to the injustices transgender individuals face, including higher rates of homelessness, suicide and job discrimination, especially after the world witnessed the incarceration of trans woman CeCe McDonald in a men’s correctional institution.
Cox, alongside these women, represents a silver of hope. As Sarah Kate Ellis, GLAAD’s President and chief executive, explained: “Today, countless transgender youth will hear the message that they can be who they are and still achieve their dreams – nothing is out of reach,” Ellis said. “Laverne’s success on a hit series is a clear indication that audiences are ready for more trans characters on television.”
One of the issues transgender individuals are often disgruntled with is the lack of contextual characterizations of their lives in media; for instance, most transgender characters in movies are portrayed by cisgender actors and actresses (e.g. Jared Leto in “Dallas Buyer’s Club”), which functions as its own form of erasure. Also, most transgender characters on television and in film are written from the perspective of cisgender media makers, which doesn’t value their “outsider-within” perspective. Furthermore, writing transgender characters from the lens of a cisgender individual can cause these characters to reinforce tropes instead of resisting them, since the filmmaker/television writer/producer can be blind to their own privileges as it relates to gender.
Seeing the humanization of Cox’s character on Orange is the New Black – as well as being recognized for it – can usher in a moment where trans* characters are nuanced and represented by those who’ve had similar life experiences. Unlike Leto’s character, Cox’s Burset complicates trans* life in a way that we’re unaccustomed to seeing in media. Her success can insure we have other characters that are equally as complex.
Whether or not Cox wins the Emmy, her nomination is telling. Transgender women of color’s lives are still in peril and we have still work to do around accepting and protecting the most vulnerable among us, but Cox’s possibility can be the gateway we need to begin humanizing trans* individuals in media.