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Actor and Activist Laverne Cox: ‘We Need to Change Power’

5 minute read

For most of America’s cinematic history, transgender characters were depicted as villains, victims or the butt of jokes. In Disclosure, a Netflix documentary streaming now, actor-activist Laverne Cox and other trans trailblazers explore Hollywood’s problematic past and shifting present.

The film, directed by Sam Feder, was also executive produced by Cox. TIME spoke with the star about the documentary, as well as recent demonstrations in support of Black trans lives and how America needs to be shaken up from the writers’ room to the board room.

How are the lives of trans people still shaped by these harmful depictions in film and TV?

The thing that has been perpetuated in film—and is also being perpetuated in public policy right now—is that the sex we’re assigned at birth is the crux of things. The underlying representation is that we’re not really who we say we are. That is what is getting us killed. That is what is getting legislation created to target us. So that’s what we have to undo—this disavowal of the womanhood of trans women and the manhood of trans men and the validity of non-binary identities.

How can depictions translate into real-life problems?

When you have references like Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs, a serial killer who skinned women to wear their flesh, or spectacles like The Jerry Springer Show—where trans folks disclose to their romantic partners that they’re trans, and fights ensue—people are taught to have a violent reaction to us, or that our presence is something to be laughed at.

How far has the entertainment industry come since those examples?

Film still has a long way to go. But television has been a beautiful place of growth. The difference is that trans people are writing more and directing more, and trans actors are being listened to more, as experts in our own stories. So we are getting more nuanced stories, more human stories, different stories. There are shows like Pose that have multiple trans characters and that gives us an opportunity to have the show be about more than just being trans. Because if you have multiple trans people, then there are nuances within that. That show is about survival. It’s about family. It’s about love. It’s about so many things.

Where does Hollywood need to go from here?

One of the things we’re most proud of with Disclosure is we wanted to have an all trans crew, and in the case where we couldn’t find a trans person to fill a role on the crew, we had a non-trans person train a trans person. We need more of that kind of mentorship, to cultivate talent so we can work in multiple areas of the business and, ideally, be elevated to positions of power.

There have recently been demonstrations to highlight violence against Black trans women, related to the Black Lives Matter movement. How do you feel about that?

It feels overdue. That is the result of years of activism. And tens of thousands of people coming out to support Black trans lives mattering—I wept when I saw the footage. We got here with a lot of pushback, a lot of not being happy with being erased, and that’s what we must continue to do, to push for more representation and policy changes. Hearts and minds need to change too. Our work is multi-layered, it’s interpersonal, it’s internalized, it’s ideological and it’s institutional.

A recent Supreme Court decision found that transgender Americans are protected in employment by bans on sex discrimination. What are your thoughts on the ruling?

I think it’s incumbent upon us to remember that the Civil Rights Act was made law in 1964 and since then Black people have been murdered and discriminated against in employment, right? Just because we have policies in place, it doesn’t mean discrimination goes away. Just because we have a court case and a decision which is landmark—it is monumental—it does not mean that people are not planning, strategizing right now, to take those rights away.

If you had one hope for where we’re going to go from this time of protest, what would it be?

I hope that the nature of power can be changed, in a way that changes the material conditions of those who are most marginalized in this country. To do that is going to require everyone to vote and for us to change money in politics. We have to change the way power works, who has it. And not just by putting Black faces in high places, to quote Cornel West. It’s not just about bringing new faces in to the same tired system and the same rooms with the same rules that oppress folks. We need to change the rooms. We need to change power.


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