Lee: The social advocacy of Laverne Cox

BY ASHLEY LEE | MAY 08, 2014 5:00 AM

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Transgender actress and public speaker Laverne Cox — best known for her role on Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” on which she plays Sophia Burset, a transgender woman in prison for credit-card fraud — has become one of the country’s leading advocates for transgender issues, but that didn’t stop Time magazine from snubbing her.

Last week, the actress was voted by fans to appear in Time magazine’s annual list of the world’s most influential people. Unfortunately, the publication opted not to include her.

Cox, as one of the few mainstream voices speaking about transgender and racial issues, was wrongly excluded. Her contribution to transgender activism deserved to be recognized, particularly in light of her next move: She’s producing a documentary on MTV titled “Trans Teen: The Documentary,” due in the fall, that will highlight the struggles faced by young people who identify as transgender.

Her presence on the screen and in her activism outside of “Orange” alone has not only allowed for the voices of individuals who identify as transgender to be amplified but for people to recognize and appreciate the intersections of social identities. As a black transgender woman, her experiences are unique and, sadly, trivialized.

Often in social discourse, race, gender, and sexual orientation (among others) can be treated as separate issues. But we have to recognize how they affect one another. The groups we identify with, and the intersectionality of those groups, influence how we are perceived and treated individually. This further affects our proximity to different forms of privilege — white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, class, theist, and able-bodied.

Unfortunately, in the realm of LGBT activism, transgender rights and protections are not given as much attention compared with the rights and voices of cisgender lesbians, gays, and bisexuals.

A according to the National Coalition of Antiviolence Programs’ 2012 Hate Violence Report, transgender people were 3.32 times as likely to be on the receiving end of police violence and 2.30 times as likely to undergo discrimination when seeking help or assistance, compared with cisgender people.

Moreover, an LA Times article cited researchers from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, which contended that the risk of suicide attempts were even more troubling for transgender people who had encountered discrimination or violence.

This is why Cox’s advocacy is so important. Not only can it can generate dialogue surrounding transgender rights in spaces that may have not greatly considered it before, but the show can also encourage more substantial initiatives to ensure the safety and well being of transgender individuals.

It will cause people to think critically about transphobic attitudes and behaviors and how they affect interpersonal relationships and discriminatory policies that have exacerbated systemic inequalities across racial and gender lines.

Hopefully, Cox’s work will also refine conversations in spaces that have traditionally excluded or minimized transgender voices. Such voices and initiatives in the realm of the LGBT collective, even the transgender community alone, tend to be through the perspectives of white individuals, further marginalizing the needs and interests of LGBT people of color.

According to the 2012 National Coalition of Antiviolence Programs report, 73 percent of all anti-LGBT homicides were people of color. More specifically, 58 percent of homicide victims were black and 15 percent Latino, compared with 11.5 percent of white victims.

As stated by the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 29 percent of Latino/a and 38 percent of black transgender people reported being victims of housing discrimination.

Cox’s advocacy work is not only a call for careful consideration of these issues, but to become more aware, supportive, and understanding of the experiences and intersections within the transgender community.

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