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10 Teachable Moments From Laverne Cox's Incredibly Inspiring Talk At WorldPride

By Regan Reid | /Bent June 26, 2014 at 10:38AM

Laverne Cox had a lot to say last night in Toronto.
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On how Candis Cayne changed her life:

“In 2007, Candis Cayne became the first trans woman to have a recurring role on a prime time television show. It was a show called Dirty Sexy Money. And when that moment happened, I said to myself—I had been acting for years and not really getting anywhere—I said, 'This is the moment.'” She mailed out hundreds of postcards, found herself an agent, and was attending casting calls when she eventually met a casting director who thought she should audition for VH1's I Want to Work for Diddy, a 2008 reality TV show that had contestants competing to become celebrity's assistant. After her third audition, she was hired. “I remember saying to them, point blank, 'I think I might want to do this, but I do not want to be exploited. I do not want you to sensationalize my identity on this show.'” Cruz, a fellow actor, was clearly impressed with this. “So you're telling me that, on your first big opportunity in the entertainment industry, you told the producers what you wanted?” he asked. Yes, she did. “It wasn't like I just wanted to be on TV just to be on TV, just to be exploited and treated like crap. I thought that this could be an historic moment, particularly for the black community to have this hip-hop mogul embrace this trans woman on national television. This is a moment for history, this is a moment for representation. I do not want to be exploited in this moment.” Though she wasn't chosen to work for Diddy, she was approached by VH1 to do her own show. With her then-producing partners, she pitched a “sort of trans Queer Eye” makeover show. She told her partners that she thought the network would go for it because it wasn't about the trans women conducting the makeovers, it was really all about cisgender people “and they want it to be all about them.” And they did go for it. TRANSform Me was born and Cox became the first trans woman of colour to produce and star in her own TV show.

On what she learned from TRANSform Me:

“At the end of the day, what I was really interested in was getting trans people in the homes of people in Middle America. That's what I really wanted,” she explained. But the show was highly criticized by the trans community and wasn't successful with mainstream audiences. For Cox, it was clearly a learning experience. “I thought that all of these big lofty ideas about gender and intersections of race, that it was too much for the mainstream. I thought that, so I dumbed myself down. I think that I did myself a disservice, I did the community a disservice.” To this Cruz quickly responded, “You did not do a disservice to yourself. You held yourself very well. You had great dignity throughout all of that. You did no disservice to the community. You allowed people to see trans women as people who are part of the community. That alone was a reason to do it.”

On trans people being cast as sex workers

Several clips from Cox's pre-Orange career were shown, including footage from a 2011 film, Carla, which has yet to be released. In the film, Cox plays Cinnamon—her seventh and final role as a sex worker. Cruz, who played a trans sex worker in Ally McBeal, asked Cox why sex workers have become such stock characters—there are other stories to be told, he said. “To be real about it, most folks, particularly straight men, come to know trans women through the sex industry,” she said. “Disproportionately, because of the unemployment rates, folks don't want to hire trans folk to do work outside the sex industry, because of homelessness, because of trans folks being turned out of their homes as teenagers, they're almost sort of trafficked into sex work. When you're homeless and can't eat, what are you going to do to survive?” She also argued that many (but not all) trans women find a sense of empowerment in the sex industry. Through their work they can fund transitions, be self-employed and have a sense of self-determination. She added: “When I talk about sex work I think it's really important to note that for trans folks, we live in a world that tells us that our lives don't matter, that we're unattractive, that we're disgusting and gross. And then there's an industry that says here's several hundred dollars, here's thousands of dollars, for your body.” 

On Orange is the New Black (briefly, since the show has, rightly so, already been discussed exhaustively):

In 2011, Cox had done six or seven indie films, but in 2012, after months of auditioning with no call-backs, she was thinking about quitting acting. She thought maybe she'd go to grad school—she even bought the GRE materials from her friend (at a discounted rate). But after vacationing with her mom and these books, she decided grad school wasn't for her and recommitted herself to auditioning. When she got the Orange audition, she did scenes from episodes one and three and was cast from the tape. “I was excited to be working. I knew it was recurring. I never had a recurring role on a television show. That was actually one of my goals for 2012. So that felt amazing.”