“When you put love out in the world it travels, and it can touch people and reach people in ways that we never even expected.”
Laverne Cox and I are speaking on a Friday afternoon during LGBT Pride Month. Roughly 36 hours later, 49 members of that community will be killed at a gay club in Orlando.
The outrage, confusion, grief, and fear felt in the days that followed, and the almost unprecedented gatherings of LGBT people and their allies around the world mourning their losses and showing their strength, power, and support give an immediacy and intense poignancy to Cox’s words.
In the aftermath of hate, these people are putting their love out in the world. If nothing else has come from this tragedy, at least that love has traveled.
The Orange Is the New Black star and trans activist—her #TransIsBeautiful hashtag seeded an entire movement for acceptance—is calling The Daily Beast from Washington, D.C., where she is surrounded by love rooted in a happier occasion.
She was there to unveil an art installation created as part of Marriott Rewards’ #LoveTravels campaign, a crowd-sourced tapestry of 1,500 pieces of art culled from over 3,500 submissions from 100 countries that are dedicated to transgender lives and leaders.
“We still live in a world that tells trans people we aren’t who we say we are,” Cox says. “There are laws that are trying to criminalize and stigmatize us. And here is this wall of love for trans people that is just so people.”
Throughout our conversation, we speak a lot about how art and community can be healing, particularly for a community that is so often marginalized or meant to feel less than. Though Cox, nor any of us, could ever have predicted the tragedy that would rattle that community the next day, it’s an eerily prophetic sentiment—one that is echoed in a statement from the actress in the wake of the massacre in Orlando.
“Deeply moved that in the face of tragedy Orlando and Americans everywhere are coming together to give blood, love, and support,” Cox tweeted to her 535,000 followers. “This is who we are.”
On her timeline, the statement was amongst retweets of the most powerful reactions to the shooting, including President’s Obama statement that, “The place where they were attacked was more than a nightclub. It was a place of solidarity where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for civil rights.” Cox has also shared other people’s heartbreak. “#PulseNightClub was one of the first clubs where me and many of my friends felt comfortable to be ourselves. My heart hangs heavy,” read one message she retweeted.
It’s not hard to understand why that last one touched Cox so deeply.
Back in D.C., and, again, a day before the Orlando shooting, Cox is talking about why walking into a room and seeing, gathered in one place, all those art pieces designed with the pure intention of expressing love for the trans community was so powerful.
“Loving myself is something that I work on every day. But it’s still hard,” she says. “There’s something in my core, even though I’ve done a lot of work to have my core catch up. I know there are trans folks out there struggling with loving themselves. Struggling with feeling like they’re worthy of their dreams. To walk into room that’s celebrating is just healing.”
Today, Laverne is one of the most visible and trailblazing trans people in the public eye. For her role on Orange Is the New Black, she became the first openly transgender performer to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy. She famously appeared on the cover of Time magazine for a story titled “The Transgender Tipping Point.”
This fall, she’s leading a live TV musical version of Rocky Horror Picture Show as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the role originated by Tim Curry. And when the CBS drama Doubt premieres next year she will be the first transgender series regular on a broadcast TV series.
But the success followed a hard-fought internal battle.
As she’s recounted in the past, Cox attempted suicide she was 11. She started feeling an attraction to boys, but was conflicted because her church told her it was a sin. She swallowed a bottle of pills from the bathroom medicine cabinet, but still woke up after she went to sleep.
Over the years, she would become aware of her true gender, an experience as a child that led to, as she’s said in past interviews, “profoundly shaming moments.”
But art was her saving grace.
“For me, art is healing,” she says. “It saved me from another suicide attempt. Before I even knew I was trans I knew I was an artist. Having expression for my pain, for my joy—being able to express myself that creatively is healing.”
Because it’s Pride Month, she’s particularly reflective of that journey.
She remembers her first Pride event, soon after she moved to New York City to study dance at Marymount Manhattan College. She remembers going to Christopher Street for the parade, right by the bar Duplex, which is still there, and—a girl from Alabama who never felt safe to be herself—feeling that energy. “Just the enormity of it,” she says.
Fast-forward to 2014, and Cox is the grand marshal of the same Pride Parade, and rounding the corner to Christopher Street all those years later.
“All those memories came back to me of the very first time I was in New York City for pride and what that meant,” she says. “For me as a black trans woman and grand marshal I couldn’t help but think of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, who were at the Stonewall Inn in 1959 and who resisted the police those three nights. Being a part of that legacy felt really special to me.”
I ask her a question that, given the horror that would transpire over the next weekend, has become even more amplified: Given what is happening to the community, does Pride Month seem especially important and essential this year?
What have become known as “Bathroom Bills” that were passed in North Carolina and proposed in a slew of other states, which require transgender people to use bathrooms determined by their biological gender at birth, follow a spate of laws that have passed revolving anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people. Trans suicide and anti-trans violence is still an epidemic.
And Donald Trump—a name that is met with a pointed, “Mhmmm…” from Cox—is the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.
“Absolutely,” Cox says, of this year’s Pride. “It feels right on time. All of these laws have been passed really are about stigmatizing and pretending we don’t exist. They’re saying our lives don’t matter.”
Even on the simplest level, it turns out. In addition to supporting #LoveTravels, Cox is in D.C. to campaign for the LGBT Data Inclusion Act, which calls for gender identity and sexual orientation data collection by the federal government.
“We literally don’t count LGBT people in the United States,” she says. “We don’t have an accurate count of how many LGBT people there are in the United States. They are left out of vital policy discussions when policies are being made. So many policy decisions are made based on demographic information, but we don’t have that information on LGBT people.”
She pauses to drive the point home: “When you’re not counted, you don’t count.”
In the meantime, Cox’s fourth season portraying Sophia Burset on Orange Is the New Black premieres on Netflix this Friday. Sophia is actually missing—as in not seen—from a large chunk of the beginning of the season, which actually makes her presence bigger and more powerful.
When we last saw the character, she was sent, unjustly, to solitary confinement. In a slow burn throughout the beginning of Season 4, Sophia’s fellow prisoners and her family begin to rally for her rights as a trans prisoner and for her release from solitary.
Then in the fall she’ll have what she calls her full-circle moment, singing and dancing on screen in Fox’s Rocky Horror Picture Show. “Growing up being a dancer, being a performer saved my life,” she says. “Art can save lives.”
Adding another bit of albeit odd poignance, a teaser for the production was just released featuring Cox—in fierce, confident costume—planting a big, juicy kiss on the screen. In a campy way, sure, but still: love.
“It’s hard to love myself. It really is,” she says, as we wrap up our conversation. “There are so many corporations out there that are telling us that we’re not enough. That we have to buy this product to feel like we’re enough. But we can just love ourselves based on who we are.”
She pauses one last time: “That’s the good good.”