Laverne Cox, best known for her role as Sophia Burset in the Netflix Original Series Orange Is the New Black, is hosting a documentary entitled ‘The T Word’ that will shed light on the every day issues faced by young trans individuals. In the interview that we read in class with Viviane Namaste, we got some insight on the distinctions between the terms, “sex,” “gender,” “transsexual,” and “transgender,” a look at the types of discrimination faced by transsexuals and transgendered people daily, and the politics surrounding the transgendered body that inherently challenges the gender binary. Cox’s effort through this documentary is just one way that transgender individuals are speaking out about their rights as citizens and agents over their own bodies.
Viviane Namaste’s interview piece gives a thorough summation of several components of the life of transgender individuals. She distinguishes between a few key terms: “sex” is the biologically body at birth, commonly thought of in terms of genitalia; “gender” includes the situation of a body in a social setting, the roles one is expected to occupy, and the meanings associated with those roles; “transsexual” refers to an individual who is born as one sex but identifies with the opposite; and “transgender” is an umbrella term including anyone who does not fit in with the normative gender binaries, such as drag queens, cross-dressers, or intersex individuals. Namaste goes on to emphasize that those are important distinctions to make, because the use of language in transgender discourse has implications on the treatment of bodies that look and behave outside of the heteronormative gender binary. Discrimination incurs in several forms. Transgender people often experience trouble accessing services such as healthcare and employment, which in turn marginalizes them to the edges of society. Transgender individuals also generally have a hard time placing themselves in a category with an LGBTQI label, because those categories have their own discourses, and if transgender folks don’t fit in, their voices will often not be heard. Transgender bodies, because often drastically different in appearance, are often outwardly treated differently and spoken about and towards in a different manner. This belittling and discrimination leads to high rates of depression and attempted suicide among transponders. These words and actions cut deeply, and further the heteronormative discourse that anything outside of the gender binary is to be considered wrong. The benefits to this interview are the ways in which it sheds light on the real issues that bodies are confronted with, and it breaks down the truths about non normative sexualities and identities. A limitation is that Namaste herself does not live in a transgender body. Laverne Cox, however, does. And her firsthand knowledge has made her all the more ready to speak out about it.
Viviane Namaste, through her interview, and Laverne Cox, through her documentary, work to combat these discriminatory practices that affect real lives every day. We got a glimpse of the struggles that transgender people face when we got a chance to hear from the Speak Out! panel in class. There were many sexualities represented, and one of the males on the panel was a female-to-male transitioned transgender. He shared his story with us, and the specific thing I remember him saying was how difficult it was to come out twice. Not only did he have to come out as a lesbian female when he was in a female body, he also had to come out as a queer transgender man once he transitioned into his new body. Hearing him speak about the challenges of transitioning was very eye opening, and I think that these similar issues will be tackled in Cox’s documentary. The documentary trails a few individual stories of transgender people who have been homeless, raped, abused, marginalized, and belittled to the point of considering taking their own lives. Cox says that the documentary “is about adding more voices to the conversation.” As we’ve discussed in class, through panels and readings, the importance of creating a more positive and accepting discourse surrounding transgender people and their rights as humans is drastic. Here is a link to an article about the film ‘The T Word’:
While Cox is engaging in activist work through venues like the production of her documentary, she also is acting as a positively viewed transgender role model in society through her role in OITNB. She plays Sophia Burset, a male-to-female transitioned woman who is serving prison time for stealing credit cards and using them for her sex reassignment surgery. Her wife, Crystal, stuck by her through the whole process, but her son, Michael, was confused by his dad becoming a woman. To get revenge, Michael turns her in to the authorities, and that’s how she ends up in Litchfield Penitentiary. Sophia is the hairdresser at the prison, and everyone loves to come see her and talk about the latest drama. While she is a fun and comedic character, she also faces struggles in the prison. She has to go through an extensive process of how to get her hormones and how to pay for them. She has to navigate visits from her wife and son and try to catch up on the details of their lives that go on without her. She has to fend off looks, questions, and accusations from other inmates, as she is the only transgender in the prison. Cox portrays a transgender woman who is strong and confident, yet also deals with real complications and struggles with issues that other trans people can more than likely identify with. What can we learn from Sophia Burset, a dynamic character that gives us a firsthand look at the life of a trans woman in prison?
What can we do help expose the public to knowledge of the distinctions between biological sex, gender, transsexual, transgender, and queer? Are there enough resources on Vanderbilt’s campus that are promoting positive conversation around these categories? What implications could a more positive public attitude towards transgender people have on those bodies? Should transgender people be included in this sociopolitical fight for rights of gays and lesbian individuals?