Exclusive: Laverne Cox on The Trans Issues We're All Ignoring

Photo: Matt Baron/BEImages.
When we sat down with Laverne Cox a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, we expected to uncover secrets about season three of Orange is the New Black. But what we quickly learned is that it's Cox who steers the conversation — passionately.

After she spilled a bit about the upcoming OITNB season, we learned that Cox has been using her hiatus to executive produce a documentary about the woman who inspired Cox's OITNB character, Sophia. Ahead, the conversation that veered off course in the best way possible.

First things first, what can we expect from season three?
"There are a lot of surprises. I was surprised where they went with Sophia. It all felt very truthful, though. There’s a lot that I can’t wait to see after having read it that doesn’t just involve Sophia. There are some backstories that I really want to see that I’m really excited about. I feel like they were a long time coming. So we get to know a few characters more this season, which is amazing.

"Where Sophia goes…I didn’t see it coming. Wow. I’m really curious how viewers are going to respond. I wonder if people are still going to like Sophia after this season. I had these moments when I’m like, ‘You ain’t right, girl.’ It is always my job to empathize with my characters, and to see the world through why they are doing what they’re doing. But then, there are moments with Sophia where she is not always reasonable. At the same time, I understand where she is coming from. There’s a profound sense of powerlessness a lot of people have in prison. Obviously, you’re confined, you’re in a cage, basically. So she feels that, and I think she acts out of her powerlessness. The way she acts out is going to be really interesting. It’s very complicated."
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
When researching your role, did you meet any trans women in prison?
"I’ve met people who have been incarcerated. I’m executive-producing a documentary now called Free CeCe, about CeCe McDonald, who is an African-American transgender woman who spent 19 months of a 41-month prison sentence in a men’s prison for defending herself against a racist and transphobic attack that happened on June 5, 2011. We started shooting in the fall of 2013, and CeCe was still in prison then, in St. Cloud, Minnesota. That was the first time I had ever been in a prison, visiting her to interview her. She was released that next January. So she’s been out of prison for over a year, and we’ve been following her — in Minnesota and traveling the country, speaking and trying to survive as a person with a felony conviction."

When can we expect to see Free Cece?
"Probably in the beginning of 2016, that’s what we’re aiming for. We just started editing; it’s very exciting."

How similar are CeCe's and Sophia's stories?
"CeCe’s story is only similar to Sophia’s because they’re both black trans women who were incarcerated, but CeCe was incarcerated in a men’s prison. What’s really interesting to me is that in women’s prisons, women are allowed to have weaves and hair products, but in men’s prisons, trans women are not. CeCe talked so eloquently and painfully about how men’s prison worked tirelessly to strip her of her womanhood...Her being taken off her hormones, actually, does mirror Sophia’s story. There are other things, too."

How did CeCe inspire your portrayal of Sophia in OITNB?
"Particularly, the first season, whenever I would go to set, I thought about CeCe, and I thought about other trans women who are incarcerated all over the country. Ideally, as an actor, when you are in a place where you are channeling something, the character takes over, and you are just sort of observing the character. That is, ideally, where I’d like to be. I don’t always get there, let’s face it, but there were definitely some moments when I felt like I was able to channel and be a vessel for these other women's stories."

The transgender community has made huge strides for equality, but what are the biggest issues today?
"A lot of us are dealing with violence; particularly trans women of color. Violence is really pervasive, and it’s something I hear a lot about. It’s so disproportionate. In the first eight weeks of 2015, seven transgender women were murdered. Almost one a week. They were all trans women of color, and it’s not getting the media attention I think it should be getting. Our lives are endangered simply for being who we are.

"Then, being employed as a transgender person is very difficult. Getting access to healthcare, getting your name changed so you can have documentation to reflect who you are. Particularly, trans people who aren’t in big cities where the services are done for free. I spoke at the national AIDS conference last year, and all of the research on HIV on trans folks is insufficient because we’re not generally counted at all. The CDC still counts trans women as men who have sex with men, so when you do that, you’re totally mis-gendering and mis-recognizing who transgender people are, and you’re not getting the real research about how HIV is being transmitted. Apparently, we’re a very high-risk group for HIV, and our partners are not gay-identified men, they’re straight-identified men. Because of the system’s inability to acknowledge our existence fully, there are whole pieces of data in terms of research that are missing.

"Let alone resources: Homelessness is pervasive. The T Word is a documentary special I did for MTV that won a daytime Emmy. We looked at police profiling of transgender women in New Orleans. We look at homelessness of trans folks through particular characters on the show. So these are major, major issues. And the criminalizing of trans folks leads to us being disproportionately incarcerated."

Free CeCe is currently in production and is slated for a 2016 release. To help fund the project, head here.

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