On October 17, Laverne Cox premiered her new documentary, Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word, on MTV and LOGO. In the hour-long film, seven young adults – Ari, Zoey, Kye, Avery, Shane, L’lerret and Daniella – discuss their experiences as transgender persons. They speak with moving strength and openness, while Cox, as narrator, weaves together their stories, providing context and statistics.
For its viewers, The T Word demonstrates the gulf between popular culture and the daily realities for transgender people, especially trans women. The media success and popularity of Laverne Cox – and that of other famous trans women, such as Janet Mock and Carmen Carrera – can paint a misleading picture of social acceptance, especially when viewed against the ongoing epidemic of violence against trans women on the streets. According to the annual report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), in 2013, 72 percent of hate crime homicide victims in the U.S. were transgender women and 67 percent of victims were trans women of color. While Cox was winning acclaim as Sophia on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, appearing on the cover of Time Magazine, and making history as the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy Award, about a dozen trans women were being murdered in the United States each year.
Cox created The T Word to raise awareness of these realities, and she hopes that the documentary will reach and educate the general public. Particularly, she hopes that it will shift media attention away from the objectification of trans bodies – such as inquiries as to what is between a trans person’s legs, or where he or she is in the transition process – and toward a more holistic understanding of the lived experiences of trans persons.
Nor is this the first time Cox has drawn attention to the stark contrast between newfound media acceptance of trans folks and their lived realities. It is a disjunction of which she is well aware and one that she emphasizes often during her interviews and speaking events. For example, during an interview with Katie Couric in early 2014, in which Couric invasively questioned the genitalia of Cox and Carrera, Cox stated eloquently, “The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans women. If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.” In this manner, Cox constantly uses her celebrity to redirect the discourse surrounding trans bodies, choosing to focus on the experiences, struggles and desires of ordinary trans persons, rather than the transition status of particular celebrities.
The T Word delivers such a message, concluding with a segment on violence against trans persons. During this segment, Daniella tells of surviving rape: the trauma of that experience, the discrimination she faced from emergency response workers at the hospital, and the fear she now feels walking down the street. Cox narrates, “Daniella was lucky to escape with her life, but sadly, stories like hers are all too common.” Cox then recounts the stories of several other victims of transphobic violence: Islan Nettles, who was beaten to death across the street from a police station in New York City; CeCe McDonald, who was made to serve 19 months in prison for killing her assailant in self-defense; Jewelyes Gutierrez, who faced criminal charges for defending herself during a confrontation with bullies at her high school; and Chrissy Polis, who was attacked in a McDonald’s parking lot in a video that went viral online. The documentary suggests, then, that police officers and the legal system may be complicit in the oppression of trans persons. Cox notes that a transgender woman is killed every 41 days in the United States, while a statistic on the screen reports that 50 percent of all anti-LGBT homicides are committed against transgender women.
The film is a commendable advocacy effort, like so much of Cox’s activism. Interestingly, though, The T Word was likely made possible by Cox’s fame; her superstar persona has undoubtedly drawn media coverage, monetary backing and network support to the documentary. What’s more, Cox appears throughout the film – and her presence is inevitably not only that of a trans woman but also of a media icon. The T Word thus presents an opportunity to consider the interplay between fame and social activism.
So do Cox’s other advocacy efforts – her interviews with magazines and talk show hosts, her speaking tour at colleges and universities, her social media presence, her upcoming documentary on CeCe McDonald. Her transgender advocacy work predated her fame; however, this work is now enabled by her success to an extent that was likely previously unimaginable. Her celebrity affords her the ability to attract attention and reach audiences – her statements are published in magazines, her thoughts disseminated in tweets to nearly 300,000 followers and her documentaries picked up by mainstream networks like MTV. However, she is likely no more qualified as a transgender advocate now than she was before she became a beloved actress. The irony may be that as she moves farther from the desperate circumstances of many trans women – at least in terms of class – she simultaneously gains a greater platform to advocate for them. Indeed, this is the case for nearly every celebrity who advocates for a social justice cause. Of course, these celebrities are hardly to blame for their fame, and the fact that they have chosen to use their success as a platform for good is admirable. Still, there is an inherent tension between celebrity and advocacy, between their success and the daily struggles of those who are not famous.
On the other hand, celebrities can provide important media representation, especially for marginalized communities. This in turn can increase public acceptance. Furthermore, celebrities’ platforms allow them to advocate in highly impactful ways. This has certainly been the case for Laverne Cox, who has emerged as a respected and effective leader of the transgender movement – a role that is undoubtedly needed. In 2011, The National Center for Transgender Equality published a survey of transgender individuals, the findings of which include that 78 percent of students in grades K-12 reported being harassed by other students, 90 percent of respondents reported experiencing discrimination on the job, 41 percent reported having attempted suicide, 19 percent reported experiencing homelessness, and 22 percent reported being harassed by police. These are disturbing realities, and Cox seems determined to address them. Her drive and her savvy nature have quickly brought her to the forefront of the transgender movement.