Celebrities / Culture

Laverne Cox and the Importance of Visibility

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PHOTO CREDIT: TIME

In 1997, I was 29 years old and had already been out as a lesbian for seven years which means two things:

  1. I am old.
  2. I was a grown woman when Ellen Degeneres came out publicly.

That was 17 years ago.

I remember talking to a straight friend at length (and long past my friend’s obvious signs of boredom) about the significance of her coming out, about the lack of images in the media of out lesbians, about the role pop culture can play in acceptance because I have always believed that visibility plays an important part in social change.

I was deeply emotional about Ellen’s appearance on the cover of Time all those years ago because at 29 years of age, I’d never seen anyone even the tiniest bit like me in mainstream media. It was meaningful and powerful to me personally but also culturally because, inarguably, it was a turning point that led to greater acceptance. Ellen became the gay BFF to the most unlikely audience – daytime television viewers.

And now it is 2014 and Time has given us another cover with the potential to push society further along, to educate and enlighten – Laverne Cox appears with the title, “The Transgender Tipping Point: American’s Next Civil Rights Frontier.”

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PHOTO CREDIT: TIME

I will admit that I knew nothing about Laverne Cox before watching Orange Is The New Black but the moment she appeared on my screen, I was mesmerized – gorgeous and talented, a trans woman playing a trans woman. Beyond her appearance in my favorite show, I remember the first interview with her I saw in which she talked so fiercely about living as a queer person in this world, about violence and identity and it was her story but it wasn’t just her story. She painted the picture larger than herself which is one of her many gifts to all of us. She took the conversation to a place much more aligned with the conversations I’ve been part of in the GLBT community and it was stunning – in every meaning of that word – to hear those words coming from an actress in an interview.

So, yesterday, when I saw her on the cover of Time, I had the same feeling I had in 1997. This matters. This is powerful. There is a black trans woman on the cover of Time magazine and within those pages, she is talking about her experience and in doing so she is giving trans people an image of someone the tiniest bit like them, giving all of us the opportunity to broaden the discussion about what it means to be a part of this LGBT community and taking the conversation about gender and trans rights mainstream.

Obviously, social change requires more than visibility but I think we can all agree that for most of us who identify as queer – sometimes – a picture really is worth a thousand words.

FEATURE PHOTO CREDIT: GILLIAN LAUB FOR TIME

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6 Comments

  1. Movements like this get a conversation going. Yes, there will be ugly hate for anything that doesn’t fit neatly into a box, like some need it to be. But there will also be people asking questions, who may have been afraid to before. To those that can answer, I ask for patience, as those that do want to know and understand, come out and ask how to help. I have had someone treat me abruptly because I wanted to clarify him/her before an introduction. I just didn’t want to get it wrong and I wanted to assume nothing. Conversations, people becoming visible and topics brought out of the darkness… I am positive it will allow a lot less of lives being merely endured, in covert pain. NICE job here, Vikki. Thank you.

    • I have no doubt your heart is in the right place. It is our responsibility is to educate ourselves and not expect others to educate us and one of the ways we can do that is to open up a dialogue.

  2. You speak the truth of many things. Visibility is essential for the path to acceptance. And also, you are old. As am I. But I’m grateful that we’re not so old that we can’t appreciate our evolving nation.

  3. I am not sure how/why the pic accompanying the article on the front page got cropped so that Laverne’s head doesn’t show. Definitely not my intention to focus on her body only. Technical oops.

  4. This is really good, Vikki. Thanks for sharing your experience. I remember that Ellen cover so well, and that episode. I know people will remember Laverne’s well, too.

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