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“A Backlash Against Our Existence”: Laverne Cox Speaks Out on Violence Against Trans Women of Color

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At least 19 transgender people have been killed in the United States in 2019 — most of them trans women of color. Last year, there were at least 26 killings of transgender people. The American Medical Association has declared the wave of violence an “epidemic.” Laverne Cox, the award-winning transgender actress and longtime trans rights activist, says such violence has long been part of the lives of trans people. “For my entire life as a trans woman, for 21 years, I have been hearing about, witnessing, going to memorials [and] going to Trans Days of Remembrance,” she says. Cox says the violence reflects a society-wide backlash against the gains made by trans people and others in the LGBTQ community, including from the Trump administration. “Now we’re coming out of the shadows, and as we come out of the shadows, people want to force us back into the dark,” she says. Cox joined Democracy Now! ahead of Supreme Court hearings this week on whether federal nondiscrimination laws extend to LGBTQ people. She was joined in studio by Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Our guests are actress Laverne Cox and the ACLU’s Chase Strangio. I want to ask about the violence against trans women. Last month, Ja’leyah-Jamar, an African-American trans woman, was murdered in Kansas City, Kansas. She’s at least the 19th transgender person to be murdered in the U.S. this year. Thirteen died from gun violence. The majority are women of color. Jamar’s killing followed the murder of 32-year-old Brooklyn Lindsey in Kansas City, Missouri, in June. This comes after an assault in Portland, Oregon, of a transgender woman named Atlas Marshall. Marshall was attacked by a man shouting homophobic and transphobic slurs, leaving her with bruises on her head and knees. Laverne Cox, you have long spoken out on this issue. Talk about the climate in this country today.

LAVERNE COX: It is really hard for me to continue to talk about the murders of trans women of color. I was talking to my makeup artist, Deja, who’s also openly trans, early yesterday. And I told her, when I started transitioning medically in 1998, that violence — that this was a reality in my life in 1998, that there were trans people being murdered all around me, and this insane fear: “Will I be next?” I remember going to a memorial for Amanda Milan, a trans woman who was murdered in the early 2000s here in New York City. She was stabbed outside of the Port Authority. And for my entire life as a trans woman, for 21 years, I have been hearing about, witnessing, going to memorials, going to Trans Days of Remembrance. And the trauma of that is — I don’t actually even have words for the trauma of that. And I think about just black people in general who have watched our people be murdered in the streets and the collective trauma of that. And I disassociated from it so much because it’s too much. It is way too much.

And we live in a culture that consistently stigmatizes trans people, tell us that we aren’t who we say we are. When I read the Alliance Defending [Freedom] brief on Aimee Stephens’ case, they bent over backwards to not use female pronouns to refer to Aimee Stephens. There was this insistence in misgendering her. And what underlines most of the discrimination against trans people is the insistence that we are always and only the gender we were assigned at birth, that we’re somehow fraudulent. And when we have an administration and we have government policies that continually stigmatize us, it makes it OK for the person on the street who sees a trans person and decides that we should not exist anymore.

And it is just — I’m really at a loss, because I know it’s intersectional. I know that it’s about employment. I know it’s about healthcare. I know it’s about homelessness and having access to all of these things to keep us out of harm’s way, that so many of us don’t have access to. The unemployment rate in the trans community is three times the national average, four times that for trans people of color. The majority of us make less than $10,000 a year. And so, when you cannot make a living, you find yourself in street economies, you find yourself homeless. That makes you more of a target of violence.

And so, there’s so many things that we have to do as a culture to end this violence. And showing up tomorrow at the Supreme Court, letting your friends and family know that it is not OK to discriminate against trans people, that when we are living our lives, so many times just walking down the street as a black trans woman, people saw it as some sort of affront to them, when men would find themselves attracted to me because I was walking down the street, and they would get upset about that. I talked a lot about Islan Nettles’ case, and she was just walking down the street, a black trans woman, in 2013, and two men catcalled her, realized she was trans and beat her until she died.

We should not be killed simply for being who we are. We are not — we deserve civil rights. We deserve to be able to work and to live and to thrive. And so, the targeting that this administration has done, the very first — one of the very first things that Jeff Sessions did in his Justice Department in 2017, February 2017, was rescind the guidelines that the Obama administration set forth for transgender children in the United States of America. And then the military ban happened, and then so many of these other things. And that consistently sends a message that it is OK to discriminate against us.

I think part of this is a backlash against the unprecedented visibility we have in the media now. Trans people are coming forward and saying, “This is who I am. I have a right to exist.” We’ve always existed, and now we’re coming out of the shadows. And as we come out of the shadows, people want to force us back into the dark and to back pages. And we are saying, “No, we deserve a right to live in the light.” And that’s all we want.

AMY GOODMAN: Laverne, you starred in Orange Is the New Black as the —

LAVERNE COX: I was a castmate, as part of an ensemble, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: All stars. All stars. And it’s now the last season, has come out.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the importance of the depiction of trans people played by trans people. You’re in Dear White People now. You were in Black Lady Sketch Show. Can You Keep a Secret? is your latest. Talk about the importance of being front and center with who you are.

LAVERNE COX: Well, we have to change the narrative. According to GLAAD, 84% of Americans don’t personally know someone who’s transgender, so what we learn about transgender people, we learn in the media. So, how we’re represented in the media is crucially important to our life chances.

What was amazing about Orange Is the New Black is, when we started in 2013, there were no openly trans people with recurring roles on television. And now, according to GLAAD, there’s 26 of trans folks, who are openly trans, working in television now, which is remarkable. I think we need more. I think we need more stories.

And I think with this unprecedented visibility, again, there is a backlash against our existence. But I think if we can continue to tell stories and continue to have artists come forward, casting directors, producers, and tell our stories courageously — I think what’s exceptional about those three projects that you listed that I’m involved in — _Dear White People_, Black Lady Sketch Show, the film Can You Keep a Secret?, that’s on demand right now — is that I’m not playing —

AMY GOODMAN: That’s on Apple.

LAVERNE COX: It’s on Apple, but it’s on all platforms right now. I’m not playing trans characters in any of those. I’m an openly trans actress, and, I mean, I’m not playing trans characters. And that feels remarkable, and it feels like this insane progress, right?

So, we have this, you know, in some ways the best of times and the worst of times, where I get to sort of thrive as an openly trans black woman, which is unheard of, really. We couldn’t have even imagined this 10 years ago. But at that same time, we have these insane murders that keep happening in record numbers. We see these policies. So, it’s this holding space for both these realities, is really — it’s really intense. And it’s really — I think it’s important to celebrate wins and victories, but it’s also important to understand that just because there are trans people on billboards and on magazine covers, that they’re not trying to take our rights away. And they have been — there has been a concerted effort. Trans people have been deeply scapegoated by conservatives for many years, I think, since marriage equality became the law of the land. I think a lot of people were maybe upset about that, and as trans people become more visible, people are becoming upset by that. And so, they’re like, “We have to target this group of people.”

And it doesn’t — and as Chase said earlier, it doesn’t just have implications for trans people and the LGBTQ+ community; it has implications for everyone, because when you discriminate against trans people, it makes it OK to discriminate against everybody else. That Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins decision from 1989, I think it was, said that a woman at Price Waterhouse was denied a promotion because her employers thought she was too masculine. Her case went to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court said that enforcing sex stereotypes is indeed sex discrimination. What the Alliance Defending [Freedom] and this administration is arguing is that it is OK to enforce those sex stereotypes. So, if we lose this, then it’ll be OK for them to say, “You’re not the right kind of woman,” or, “You’re not the right kind of man,” even if you’re not transgender or LGBTQ+. And that is not the kind of America I want to live in. It’s not the kind of country that any of us should be living in.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the protests that were taking place on Sunday outside the Supreme Court, women’s rights activists calling for Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s removal from the bench one year after Republican senators narrowly confirmed him to the U.S. Supreme Court despite multiple credible accusations of attempted rape and sexual assault. Massachusetts Congressmember Ayanna Pressley introduced a resolution last month to impeach Justice Kavanaugh. She told the crowd she believed Kavanaugh’s accusers and Anita Hill, who told Congress in 1991 that Justice Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her.

REP. AYANNA PRESSLEY: When we share our stories, our pain and our struggles, we liberate each other. Together, we will raise our voices to mobilize our communities and to legislate our destiny. I believe in the power of us. And our fighting didn’t end when Brett Michael Kavanaugh put on a robe. And our fighting won’t end until there is a real investigation and justice for survivors. I still believe Anita Hill. I still believe Dr. Christine Ford. And I believe Deborah Ramirez.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Massachusetts Congressmember Ayanna Pressley. Chase Strangio, if you could summarize Brett Kavanaugh’s career in this last year, his judicial record on the Supreme Court, and respond to the call for his impeachment?

CHASE STRANGIO: You know, so, the last term was his first term on the bench. This is his first full term on the bench. I think what strikes me as most important in this moment is that it’s a reminder of the power that these nine human beings hold over our lives. And he will be hearing a case tomorrow that is directly about sex discrimination in the workplace, including, I might note, sexual harassment in the workplace, you know, sexual violence in the workplace. So he has the power, along with his eight colleagues, to really decide what the law is going to permit, what it is going to require, and how we, as human beings in this country, are either going to be protected or cast aside.

And so, whether or not he is impeached, whether or not we can look back on Clarence Thomas and all of the accusations against these individuals, I think what we need to do now is look at the power they hold in our lives today, and say, “We have to mass mobilize to ensure that the decisions that they make about whether we live or die are ones that we are going to hold them accountable to,” because at the end of the day, the court will decide things, but it is us in the streets, it is movements, it is changing hearts and minds and building power, that is ultimately going to transform the country that we live in. And so, yes, we want to hold people to account, but we also have agency in the movements that we build inside the court and outside the court.

And so, I will be looking Brett Kavanaugh in the eye tomorrow as a trans person in this case, but I also want everyone to know that they have the power to say that whatever happens at the court, that we are going to keep demanding that we be seen and that we get to live in the light, as Laverne said.

AMY GOODMAN: Laverne Cox, are you going to be there tomorrow?

LAVERNE COX: I will be there tomorrow, yes. It’s my first time going to the Supreme Court.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you directly address President Trump and Vice President Pence, your message, what you feel they need to hear right now?

LAVERNE COX: I’m not really sure it’s about our president and vice president right now. I think it’s about the people. I think it’s about the folks out there who maybe voted for them or didn’t vote for them, and the people who didn’t vote. And I think it’s about everybody out there, who really does — we do have the power as the people. And I think sometimes we feel powerless, and we feel like there’s not something that we can do. And so, I would say to everyone out there that you do have the power to make a change in your lives and in our government, but you have to lift your voice. You have to vote. You have to talk to the people in your lives, because I think it’s a hearts-and-minds conversation, as well as it’s a policy conversation. So, I don’t have anything to say to them. I wish them —

AMY GOODMAN: The action tomorrow outside, can you describe what it’s going to be?

LAVERNE COX: I think Chase can do that better than I can.

CHASE STRANGIO: Yeah, so, tomorrow there’s going to be multiple actions. There’s going to be a civil disobedience action. There’s going to be rallies on our side. We are bringing people together, because as much as there will be a legal decision decided in the court, what the country will see is what happens outside. And so, there will be people from all over this country rallying in defense of LGBTQ lives and to protect the hard-fought protections under the Civil Rights Act, that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was instrumental in implementing through the courts and that so many people have lived and died for. And so, people will be showing up in the rain in D.C. tomorrow. And it is going to be a beautiful moment that we will never forget.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, talking about trying to change culture, Laverne, you fought to change the IMDb, the Internet Movie Database’s birth name policy, which it recently revised. Talk about the fight.

LAVERNE COX: I know that that fight continues, and there’s been some progress made there. I think the biggest piece is that for a very, very long time — as I said earlier, trans folks have always existed, but we existed in the shadows. And so, a lot of the structural things that exist in our culture now, the systems that are in place, have not been in place to accommodate trans people. And so, now that we’re acknowledging that trans people exist, systemically some changes have to be made. And that’s really what that was about. And we have to make a lot of other systemic changes, so that we can fully acknowledge the humanity of not just trans people, but people of color and immigrants and people with disabilities, and no matter how you identify in terms of your gender identity or sexual orientation.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Laverne Cox, transgender actress and activist, best known for her role on the show Orange Is the New Black, played Sophia Burset, a transgender woman in prison for using credit card fraud to finance her transition. Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project. We’ll continue, of course, to follow this case and what happens in the streets tomorrow, as well as what happens in the Supreme Court.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a major surprise announcement about what will happen to U.S. troops and to Kurdish soldiers in Syria. And we’ll look at the mass protests that have been taking place in Iraq. Over a hundred people have been shot dead by police and security forces. Stay with us.

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