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Laverne Cox Read by Eva Reign

Laverne Cox dreamed of performing on stage and being her truest self, even when people told her that was impossible. Today, she is a world-famous performer, director, producer, and unstoppable spokesperson for transgender rights.

Get to Know Eva Reign

Eva Reign is a Peabody and GLAAD Media Award-winning actress, writer and artist originally from St. Louis, Missouri. Eva brought us the story of fellow actress and trans rights advocate, Laverne Cox. Hear how acting gave Eva new confidence!

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Reel Audiobooks. It was written by Alexis Stratton and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan with sensitivity read by Schuyler Swenson. Narration by Eva Reign. Joy Smith was our executive producer. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Amid rows of canned vegetables and under buzzing fluorescent lights, little Laverne Cox was dancing down the grocery store aisle. Trailing behind her mother’s shopping cart, Laverne sashayed and swirled, imagining the entire store was a glamorous movie set with her as the star. 

Whenever her mom paused to grab something off a shelf, Laverne closed her eyes. In her head, a chorus of grocery clerks sang behind her as they clickety clacked in their tap shoes. 

“Honey, c’mon!” her mother urged. But even after opening her eyes again, Laverne saw her dream so clearly — the spotlights, the swell of music, the shimmer of excitement as she strode forward. She was ready to shine!

I’m Eva Reign. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us. 

On this episode, Laverne Cox: award-winning actress, artist, and fierce advocate for transgender equality.

Laverne grew up in Mobile, Alabama, which is a city near the gulf of Mexico where it rains a lot. Laverne lived with her twin brother and their mom. For as long as she could remember, Laverne begged her mom to sign her up for ballet classes. But her mom said no every time.

Until one day, when Laverne was 8, her mom gave in — sort of.

“You can take tap and jazz classes,” she said.

Laverne’s heart leapt. “And what about ballet?”

Her mom shook her head. “That’s for girls only.”

Laverne sighed, trying to hold back tears.

See, when Laverne was born, the doctors had said she was a boy. So everyone around her did too. Back then, people called her by a different name — a name that is usually given to boys. Laverne didn’t feel like a boy though. How could she explain that to her mom?

Later that night, lying in bed, Laverne pictured herself dancing on stage. The audience was cheering and throwing flowers at her feet. Even imagining it brought a smile to Laverne’s face.

She felt herself grow lighter as she thought about dancing. Once she got on that stage, she knew she could become anyone she wanted to be!

Dance classes were truly a treat for Laverne. She stunned her teacher, floating across the floor and improvising complicated combinations. Soon, Laverne was performing in dance recitals and talent shows too. 

But offstage, life seemed to be getting more and more challenging.  Whenever Laverne skipped or twirled on the playground, her classmates made fun of her. 

People said boys should be tough and strong, and Laverne was gentle and kind and a little dreamy.

The older Laverne got, the more she stood out for being different. When she got off the school bus, bullies chased her down the street. Sometimes, they even beat her up.

When her mom found out about the bullying, Laverne got in trouble for not fighting back. Laverne didn’t want to fight! Hadn’t her mom raised her and her brother to love others—not to hurt them?

But her mom was confused and worried. At a teacher’s recommendation, she sent Laverne to therapy where they tried to make her act more masculine. It was awful. Laverne felt so lost and alone — like no one understood or appreciated her.

How would she ever become a famous ballerina if she wasn’t even sure she could make it through middle school?

The one thing that always gave Laverne hope and freedom was her creativity. She danced whenever she could. She wrote stories and made up characters who were full of life. She always found ways to express herself through art. 

She and her brother were both so creative and studious that they won scholarships to go to a very selective boarding school for talented young artists. This was a huge opportunity for Laverne. Stepping into her new dorm, she felt like she was opening the door to a whole new world. People here were passionate about dance, music, drama and painting. Laverne signed up for her very first ballet class, and walked into the dance studio exuding grace and courage. Nobody laughed or made fun of her. They accepted her just as she was.

After boarding school, Laverne leapt across stages from one city to another. She moved to Indiana for college, then transferred to a school in New York City where she studied dance and acting. She started auditioning for college plays and indie films. Each time she took the stage, it was like a bolt of lightning zig-zagged through her. She felt herself come alive.

She loved dancing… But she loooooved acting. And so, a new dream was born—she would become an actor. 

While in New York, Laverne became friends with more and more people who were gender nonconforming, gender fluid, and transgender. Talking to them about gender identity gave Laverne the confidence to fully transform into her most fabulous feminine self. 

Soon, she found medical care that allowed her body to match her gender. She wore whatever she wanted, too—a paisley vintage coat with a faux fur collar and platform shoes, mini dresses and makeup. And she officially changed her name to “Laverne,” so she could move through the world as the woman she knew herself to be.

For years, Laverne descended the steps into the New York City subway, riding the train from audition to audition. She made postcards with her picture and the words “Laverne Cox is the answer to all your acting needs.” She sent it to about 500 agents and casting directors. It only led to four meetings, but one of them was with a manager who agreed to represent her as an actress. 

She started to land small TV parts here and there. Finding jobs as a transgender performer wasn’t easy though. In the 1990s and early 2000s, there weren’t a lot of roles made for trans people. And especially not Black trans women like Laverne. Laverne had only ever seen one other openly trans woman on TV. But that one person was enough to keep her going. 

Laverne chased her dream of making it as an actor for two decades. Sometimes she auditioned as openly trans, and sometimes she kept that information to herself. By the time she turned 40, she had performed lots of small roles. But it was getting harder and harder to keep going. She worked long hours as a waitress for income. She was on a payment plan to avoid eviction from her apartment. And she had mountains of debt. 

Maybe it’s time to give up this acting thing, Laverne thought. Her heart ached even thinking about it though; she knew she belonged in the spotlight.

Then, her manager told her about an audition for a new show on Netflix. The role sounded fascinating, but Laverne didn’t want to get her hopes up too high. She’d experienced so many rejections through the years…

I’ll give it one more try, she decided. 

A few days later, Laverne was standing in a small audition room. In front of her was a camera on a tripod, and a casting director—a woman with long blonde hair and bright eyes. 

“Whenever you’re ready,” the casting director said.

Laverne steadied herself, drew in a deep breath, and began. With each line, she felt herself embodying this character, filling in all the love and loss and longing that this character must’ve felt. 

When Laverne finished her audition, the casting director smiled.

“We’ll be in touch,” she said.

That audition turned out to be life-changing for Laverne. She got the role and soon joined the cast of a new show called Orange Is the New Black. It was the job of Laverne’s dreams. The character she played was a Black trans woman named Sophia. Sophia was fierce, loving, and unstoppable, just like Laverne. The show was very collaborative too — the actors, creators and writers all worked together to create thoughtful, complex storylines. 

When the show was released, it was a huge hit—and Laverne was launched into stardom. 

Soon, she was interviewed by magazines across the globe. She spoke on college campuses, telling her story. She was the first trans woman of color to have a leading role on a mainstream scripted TV series. And in 2014, she became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a primetime acting Emmy!

Since then, Laverne has remained centerstage—and has become one of the most famous trans women in the world. Every day, she uses her powerful voice to speak up about the needs, dreams, and rights of transgender people just like her. She encourages everyone to have what she calls “difficult conversations” — asking people to think about how they define and relate to gender identity. She wants us each to listen and learn with an open heart.

Laverne continues to shine, proud to be exactly who she is, and helping others to do the same. As she once said, “We are not what other people say we are. We are who we know ourselves to be.”

May we all be brave, bold, and a rebel just like Laverne Cox. Whether it’s dancing down the grocery store aisles or giving your dreams one more try, there’s always a way to find and celebrate your truest self.