When Laverne Cox first burst onto the pop culture scene through her role as Sophia Burset on the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black — becoming the first trans woman of color to have a leading role in a mainstream TV series — the timing was perfect, thanks to a rise in transgender visibility that Cox soon became a major part of. But, as she tells designer Zac Posen (also a board member of Yahoo Lifestyle’s parent company, Oath, a division of Verizon) in the premiere episode of Yahoo Lifestyle’s new “Loud and Clear” video series (above), her heralded arrival had been a long time coming.
“I think that a lot of the reason I was bullied is because there was a light that I had as a kid that the other kids saw, and they were afraid of it,” says Cox, who grew up in Alabama. And she says it was those early attacks from others that threw at Cox the biggest challenge in life: “Getting out of my own way.”
She had to overcome the many doubts she had about herself, she continues, that came from “internalizing a lot of the bullies who said I could never do this or that, and then being really, really hard on myself, and in the process dimming the light that I’ve always had.”
Luckily, Cox had a supportive family, including a mom who encouraged the budding actor and dancer to perform. “I did talent shows all over the Southeast. That was good for me,” she says. “I was an usher and I sang in the choir, so church was good for that, and my mom was a teacher, so I understood that education was the path to freedom.”
Specifically, it was learning and honing the art of dance, at least for Cox, who received scholarships to study at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, Indiana University, Marymount Manhattan College, and finally, the Joffrey Ballet School in Chicago, which took the rising start to New York City.
“I think dancers are the hardest-working people in show business,” Cox says. Still, it’s ultimately acting that has stolen her heart.
“I love acting. I love performing, so that’s really what got me through,” says Cox, who did an HBO pilot and a couple of reality shows before getting her OITNB big break. “It’s this process of discovery that comes from a super-vulnerable, deeply intimate place that is just healing. It doesn’t always feel good, but the process … feels like the highest form of living.”
She first found inspiration to be an openly transgender actress when she saw Candis Cayne do just that in 2007 on the groundbreaking ABC drama Dirty Sexy Money. Now Cox has become a role model in her own right, though she says that status brought an added pressure to her career at first.
“I felt this tremendous responsibility,” she says of her increased exposure, including being on the cover of Time magazine in 2014. “And I still do, but I just know now that I can’t do everything.” And that’s because there’s just so much to be done.
“It’s amazing that in various parts of the country, young people are still struggling who are LGBTQ+. And I think it’s because we still, culturally, have this very rigid idea of what women should be,” she says. “And because of that, young people are being bullied, particularly LGBTQ youth. There’s unprecedented visibility for trans folks now, but we’re being attacked more than ever before.” (She’s correct that incidents of violence have gone up along with trans visibility: According to a Human Rights Campaign report, 2017 was one of the deadliest years on record for transgender people in the U.S., with at least 25 trans people killed — the highest number of such fatalities in at least a decade.)
Still, Cox remains a steady force of hope and positivity, noting that she only wishes she could have known of her powers when she was growing up and could have told herself: “You’re not crazy for thinking you’re a girl. You are a girl. Everything you’re going through now, everything is for a reason. And you’re going to get through it. And you’re going to be the person that you’ve always dreamt you’re going to be.”
So for now, she’s sending that message to others, saying: “Anything is possible.”
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