Laverne Cox is the kind of person who, upon meeting you, immediately finds something to compliment. The first time I talk to her, at the GLAAD Awards, it’s my hair. For this interview, at the Library at the NoMad Hotel, an old-timey bar near her home in Midtown, Manhattan, it’s my rings. Taking off her huge sunglasses, she looks me up and down, nods in approval, and smiles. “Real cute,” she says, gesturing to my jewelry while I blush fiercely. Her kindness is constant: From her activism to her one-on-one interactions, she’s trying to make other people feel good.
Cox has been back in New York for less than 24 hours after a weeklong trip to Paris—her first time there—and her eyes light up while describing how no one knew who she was. “I can’t go three blocks in New York without getting recognized anymore,” she says. “In Paris I actually went to Zara and tried on clothes. I felt so normal.”
One of the most noteworthy souvenirs from her trip was a beautiful Fendi tote, which seems to represent so much more than just a new purse. On her walk here, for example, a man called out, “That’s a dude!” She responded with a swift “fuck you,” she says, re-enacting the way she tossed her head back and flashed her Fendi like a shield. Despite her dismissal of the comment, it’s clear she’s distressed: Later, she rests her head on the bag with tears running down her face while describing how upset her twin brother gets when people are hateful toward her. This luxury gift she’s bought herself—after worrying about paying rent for much of her adulthood—symbolizes her success, femininity, and self-preservation.
The 31-year-old’s rise to fame started just two years ago with the debut of Orange Is the New Black. The popularity of the Netflix women’s prison dramedy, one of a handful of really good mainstream shows with well-written LGBTQ characters, marked a huge cultural shift. Here was a show with a ton of queer people that the media (and not just the lesbian blogs I read) was talking about and obsessing over.
On the show, Cox plays Sophia Burset, a black trans woman, with humor and sensitivity. Because of this, she’s become one of OITNB’s biggest breakout stars—and she’s used her newfound notoriety to shake up how much of America treats trans people. She was the first openly trans person on the cover of Time and was the first black trans person to produce and star in a TV show (VH1’s TRANSform Me). This month, she plays Deathy alongside Lily Tomlin in Grandma, a poignant story of women—gay, straight, and trans—across three generations.
Her many inspiring projects aside, it’s Cox’s commitment to being visible and vocal that’s turned her into an activist icon. Through simple things like hashtagging her selfies with #TransIsBeautiful, she’s helping make the world a safer place for other trans people.
“OK, let’s do this,” says Cox, slinging the Fendi on the couch between us, adjusting her sweater leggings, and leaning forward, her eyes twinkling with a friendly intensity.
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