Laverne Cox continues to fight for the acceptance of trans women both through her trailblazing acting career and her outspoken social media presence. She had big wins in both of those arenas this month.
First, she made history by becoming the first openly trans woman to land a role on a major network television show that was not specifically written as a trans character. Sometime within the next year, she’ll (hopefully, if it gets a series order) pop up on TV playing Amanda Jones, a “larger-than-life ex-con finishing out her prison sentence doing menial tasks for the police department” on the ABC buddy-cop sitcom The Trustee. Cox, of course, made a name for herself by playing a transgender inmate on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. That role (as Sophia Burset) was important because it was a complex, sympathetic, non-caricature portrayal of a trans woman—and because it was a vast improvement on past trans roles in television and movies that have been occupied by men. For her work, Cox received a Primetime Emmy nomination.
Her new role is a big deal because it exemplifies that Hollywood is no longer letting Cox’s gender transition define the roles she’s offered. It’s the kind of normalization and acceptance that so many trans people fight for every day and will potentially go a long way in pushing the boundaries of how society understands trans people.
A few days after her landmark role was announced, Cox laid the smackdown on feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, after the writer made some inflammatory statements about trans women. Adichie, who’s best known for her award-winning novel Americanah and her featured spot on Beyoncé’s “Flawless,”, sparked Twitter outrage when she said in an interview that trans women will always be set apart from cisgender women because they didn’t grow up being treated as girls.
“I think the whole problem of gender in the world is about our experiences,” she said in an interview with U.K.’s Channel 4 News. “It’s not about how we wear our hair or whether we have a vagina or a penis. It’s about the way the world treats us, and I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”
Several people immediately reacted on Twitter, taking issue with Adichie’s argument. One problem is the fact that defining womanhood through a particular kind of oppression is counterproductive to furthering women’s rights. It’s also overly simplistic, and misses the fact that the experience of womanhood is extremely varied from culture to culture, generation to generation, and individual to individual. Of course, trans women have a unique experience of womanhood; so do black women, so do Middle Eastern women, so do women who came of child-bearing age before *Roe v. Wade. *
Cox responded with a tweet thread brilliantly encapsulating the problem with Adichie’s statement—one that not only she espouses, by the way. “I was talking to my twin brother today about whether he believes I had male privilege growing up,” Cox wrote. “I was a very feminine child though I was assigned male at birth. My gender was constantly policed. I was told I acted like a girl and was bullied and shamed for that.”
She went on to explain that the “binary narrative” that trans women grow up with male privilege erases their individual experience, overlooks the fact that many never truly feel male and are oppressed, harassed and cat-called just as much as (or more than) young cis women.
“So though I was assigned male at birth I would contend that I did not enjoy male privilege prior to my transition,” she continued. “The irony of my life is prior to transition I was called a girl and after I am often called a man.”
Modern feminists, let alone society at large, still have a long way to go in embracing trans women, as we recently saw with the Women’s March and the Day Without a Woman strike. But Cox continues to blaze a trail in the right direction by thoughtfully breaking down the issues on Twitter and on talk shows and through her acting career. We can’t wait to see what she does next.