YEOJA Mag - Laverne Cox - Written by Rae Tilly, Illustration by Katia Engell

Laverne Cox

Icon of the Month

We love celebrating all things queer here at YEOJA Mag. However, celebrating only the queer community in our series ‘Queer Icon of the Month’ felt limiting.

What about all the incredible individuals past and present from the LGBTQ+ community at large? Because of this, we are amending our series to include not only queer role models but those from the trans, non-binary, and intersex communities as well. Kickstarting this change is none other than the queen herself, Laverne Cox. Welcome to YEOJA Mag’s Icon of the Month.

Last month, we featured Ellen DeGeneres who notably had a series of firsts (and wins) for the gay community in media. Cox, who also works in Hollywood, has celebrated her own fair share of firsts for the trans community.

Not only is Cox the first black transgender woman to have a leading role on a major US television show, but is also the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for her role as Sophia Burset on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. Cox has also graced the covers of both Time magazine and Cosmopolitan South Africa.

Born in Mobile, Alabama, Cox and her identical twin brother M Lamar were raised by a single mother and grandmother. (Fun fact: M Lamar portrayed Sophia, pre-transitioning, in ‘Orange Is the New Black.’) Cox herself experienced a torrent of discrimination and harassment throughout her life; her childhood was fraught with bullying. In an interview with abc NEWS, Cox explained:

“I was bullied and I internalized a lot of shame about who I was as a child,” Cox said. “Bullied because I didn’t act the way someone assigned male at birth was supposed to act. And so I was called sissy, I was called the F-word. I was chased home from school practically every day. There was always a kid or groups of kids who wanted to beat me up.”

YEOJA Mag - Laverne Cox - Written by Rae Tilly, Illustration by Katia Engell
Illustration: Katia Engell

This lead Cox to attempt suicide at an early age: “The suicide attempt happened when I was in sixth grade and I was having all these feelings about other boys. And I didn’t want to live.”

Cox found an emotional outlet through art  namely, dance:

“Performing was this wonderful release for me as a kid […] Having music in my head and movement in my body was the thing that sort of transported me from Mobile, Alabama, where I was being bullied […] where no one really understood me, to a space of possibility and dreams and my imagination.”

Cox trained in classical ballet for years before switching gears after college to focus fully on acting. She found work, taking on a few acting roles here and there, including her appearance on the reality TV show, I Wanna Work for Diddy. Her big break, however, came in 2012 when she was cast in Orange is the New Black.

Through her role as Sophia — a trans woman imprisoned for credit card fraud to finance her gender confirmation surgery — Cox has been able to help a new generation of transgender individuals by giving the community visibility on-screen. Speaking to abc NEWS, Cox noted:

“So many trans folks have said that they see themselves reflected in this character,” Cox said. “Having your story told validates your experience. It’s like, ‘I’m not alone anymore, and maybe I’ll be OK.”

YEOJA Mag - Laverne Cox - Written by Rae Tilly, Illustration by Katia Engell
Illustration: Katia Engell

Cox also works hard off-screen to support the LGBT community through advocacy work, and numerous talks; her most notable being a response to misogyny, transphobia and racism while discussing the intersection of being a transgender woman of colour.

When it comes to representation for disenfranchised communities, visibility is the first step in validating not only one’s existence but granting one the legitimate right to exist exactly as one is. For this reason, Cox’s portrayal of a Sophia in mainstream media coupled with her work off-camera cannot be understated and should not be underestimated.

Original artwork created by Katia Engell for YEOJA Mag. For more LGBT+ articles, click here. For more Icons of the Month, click here.