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Laverne Cox Deserves to Be the First Transgender Person to Win an Acting Emmy

"I became the vessel for a moment that was inevitable," Cox said. "I got to be the first in a lot of ways, but I'm not the last."

Laverne Cox'Orange Is The New Black' TV show final season premiere, Arrivals, New York, USA - 25 Jul 2019

Laverne Cox

Efren Landaos/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

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When Laverne Cox was first nominated for an Emmy for her work on Netflix’s groundbreaking series “Orange Is the New Black” in 2014, she became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy in any acting category. (And only the second nominee at all since composer Angela Morley in 1990.) When she won her Daytime Emmy Award for producing the docu-series “Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word,” she became the first openly transgender person to win that award.

This year, she’s nominated for her work in one episode of the final season of “Orange,” the women’s prison drama that forever altered the fabric of television and transgender representation in Hollywood. This is her third nomination for playing hairdresser Sophia Burset on the Netflix drama, this time for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama series. If she wins, she’d become the first openly transgender person to win a Primetime Emmy in any category.

If anyone deserves to break that final glass ceiling, it’s Laverne Cox – though she’d be the last person to say it.

“There has to be a bigger reason why I was nominated, and maybe the bigger reason is to highlight the unbelievable talent of trans folks who are working in television right now,” Cox said during a recent phone interview. “I would love to encourage Emmy voters to consider some of the other trans talent. … it’s an honor but it’s also responsibility comes with that I think to hopefully as much as I can elevate the work of other trans folks working.”

Cox lists shows such as “Pose,” “Billions,” “The OA,” and “Euphoria” as places for Emmy voters to look next year. When she first learned of her third nomination, she was disappointed to still be the only one.

“When I was nominated for an Emmy the first time in 2014, I was trying to grapple with the history of it all. I found this documentary on Sidney Poitier, and he was talking in the documentary about when he won his Oscar in 1965 for ‘Lilies of the Field,'” Cox said. “[He said] he would feel black actors had overcome when he wasn’t the only one. So, that stuck with me, and…I’m still the only trans person to be nominated for an acting Emmy. I really sincerely thought that that would no longer be the case this year.”

Laverne Cox in "Orange Is The New Black."

Laverne Cox in “Orange Is The New Black”

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

In this current boon for trans representation in Hollywood, with an abundance of nuanced and complex trans characters being played by actual trans actors proliferate on TV, it’s easy to forget just how far we’ve come in such a short amount of time. In many ways, Cox was a catalyst for a much-needed change that was bubbling underneath the surface, and “Orange Is the New Black” was the method of delivery.

“‘Orange’ is such a singular show. There was nothing like it before. There’s not anything like it in the seven years we have had our run, and there still is nothing like ‘Orange is the New Black,'” said Cox. “‘Transparent’ happened after our show premiered, ‘Pose’ happened after our show premiered. So much progress has been made around trans representation on television [since] the premiere of our show. So, maybe we had a little bit to do with that.”

For casting director Jen Euston, who first discovered Cox when casting an indie film before calling her in for “Orange” creator Jenji Kohan in 2012, watching Cox inhabit the both the role of Sophia and the role os spokesperson has been one of the great joys of her career.

“Because she’s so intelligent and articulate and is such a great speaker and motivator, she’s been able to use the ‘Orange’ platform in a way I would’ve never imagined,” Euston said by phone. “I couldn’t have even guessed what she’s done, it’s so special, and I don’t know if another actor could have or would have done that. With the opportunity she was given.”

While she has been pleasantly surprised to see Cox take to the advocacy elements, Euston saw something special in Cox from the very beginning: “Laverne really left an impression on me. She’s just so beautiful and graceful and articulate and I loved the way she read the role, with such ease. It was lovely. It was heartfelt, there was heart to it.”

As for the weight of the moment, Cox has always been humble about her place in the trans movement, even as she can rattle off her record number of magazine covers in quick succession.

“None of this has ever been about me. I’ve been very clear from the beginning that my journey has been bigger than me. That we had needed, that my community, that the world at large needed to have a moment where a trans person was nominated for an acting Emmy,” she said. “I became the vessel for a moment that was inevitable. … I got very lucky, and a lot of this was about timing.”

Cox can call it luck, but there’s no denying her immense talent. Sophia is one of the most beloved characters on a show full of complicated, funny, and dynamic women and non-binary folks. And there is a whole generation of talented trans actors and actresses coming up behind her, from Hunter Schafer to Trace Lysette to Asia Kate Dillon.

Still, respect must be paid to the OG, even if she doesn’t see it that way.

“There’s a part of me that just feels really proud that it feels proud that I got to be the first in a lot of ways, but that I’m not the last. That’s as much as perspective as I can have. I have a lot of firsts in my career, but I have not been the last. In a lot of ways. In terms of the Emmys, I won’t be the last.”

Final-round Emmy voting is open from Thursday, Aug. 15 through Thursday, Aug. 29 at 10 p.m. PT. Winners for the 71st Primetime Emmys Creative Arts Awards will be announced the weekend of Sept. 14 and 15, with the Primetime Emmys ceremony broadcast live on Fox on Sunday, Sept. 22.

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