Laverne Cox is the most famous transgender actress in America. That’s the best job she can imagine. It might also be the hardest.
It means she got invited to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this year, where Michelle Obama summoned her for a big hug, but she also spent most of the night fielding endless press questions about Caitlyn Jenner, who had come out as transgender on 20/20 the night before. It means Cox made history as the first transgender actress to earn an Emmy nomination for her role on Orange Is the New Black, but she had to play a prostitute seven times before she got there. It means she gets Christmas cards from Beyoncé and takes selfies with Jane Fonda, yet still has to compete for the few transgender roles that exist, as if she were a Hollywood outsider. It means she’s the public face for transgender America. And she’s grateful for that. “I just wonder,” she says, “am I allowed to be a human being?”
To be fair, Cox isn’t just a human being. She’s an icon. Walking into the NoMad bar in New York dressed in black, wearing oversize sunglasses and swinging a Gucci handbag behind her, she’s nearly seven feet tall in heels, her hair swept into an elegant updo. People turn their heads as she sashays by. She speaks and moves with the grace of a movie star from a bygone era, and yet she’s never anything less than real. Slipping behind a table, she orders small plates that honor her low-glycemic diet. Most actresses would just order a double cheeseburger and never take one bite. Not Cox. “What a waste of a cheeseburger,” she says, rolling her eyes.
Cox doesn’t hide the fact that it takes a lot of hard work to be Laverne Cox. As a role model in the transgender community, she can’t afford a single tabloid scandal or embarrassing paparazzi shot, and considering the questions she has fielded, it’s hard to believe she’s never given the wrong answer. When CBS This Morning host Gayle King insisted that Cox was “born a boy,” Cox patiently corrected her, noting that she was “assigned” a male gender at birth. When Katie Couric asked about her genitalia, Cox calmly explained that the preoccupation with surgery objectifies transgender people. Now that she’s promoting Orange Is the New Black ’s third season, she’s being forced to answer more questions about Jenner, who made her debut as Caitlyn in Vanity Fair the week before the show’s premiere.
Watching the media frenzy over Jenner, you can’t help but wonder what Cox thinks. There was considerable talk about Jenner’s surgery. There were objectifying comments about Caitlyn’s body. And much of the coverage seemed to undo the progress that Cox has been fighting so hard to achieve.
She wrote a thoughtful response on Tumblr, reminding people that Jenner should be praised for her courage, not her looks. “This is why I’m so grateful that I had the luxury of transitioning in private,” she says. “Because when you transition in the public eye, the transition becomes the story. I’m always disturbed when I see conversations about trans people that focus on surgery. But I believe Caitlyn will transcend this moment.”