With a hashtag and a whole lot of heart, actress and activist Laverne Cox shares her bold, inclusive vision of beauty.

By Laverne Cox, as told to Jennifer Ferrise
Updated Apr 13, 2020 @ 11:00 am
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Credit: Tyren Redd

About five years ago, I was giving one of my college talks. I recalled the first few years of my medical gender transition and how difficult it was constantly being misgendered on the streets and in my daily life. Here I was, finally living in acceptance of my truth, and this world wasn’t reflecting that back to me. I told the students that it took me years to realize that I wasn’t beautiful despite the things that made me noticeably trans — like my big hands and feet, my wide shoulders, my deep voice, my height — but I was beautiful because of those things.

For years I’ve been thinking about bell hooks’s essay “Loving Blackness as Political Resistance.” In it she references the slogan “Black is beautiful” as part of a larger movement, which started in the ’60s to empower Black people to fight against white supremacist beauty standards, and how even in the face of such a movement, Black folks continued to struggle with internalized racism. I lamented that the trans community didn’t even have such a movement. And right then, onstage, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if trans people had a campaign to empower us to move away from cis-normative beauty standards?” So I said, “We should start a hashtag that says #transisbeautiful as a way to define beauty on our own terms.” I began tagging my posts, and the movement just took off.

The next thing you know, I was doing a cover shoot for Entertainment Weekly dressed as the Statue of Liberty holding a tablet inscribed with #transisbeautiful. I may be one of the most famous trans people in the world, but I’m also Black. And being an African-American has helped me understand the struggle in a different way. I’m at the intersection of both those identities, and they inform my vision for what true liberation might look like.

Today, the hashtag has over one million posts. I get endlessly inspired when I scroll through them. It’s really wonderful to have a place that encourages people to love and celebrate their unique selves. I think it has helped create some progress in the past few years, but we have a long way to go. Yes, our community is more visible than it’s ever been, but there’s still a lot of backlash. Every year we face a slew of anti-trans legislation in different states. We’re fighting against public policies that stigmatize us. And we’re still fighting for access to health care and housing and for basic survival.

Even at this stage in my life, when there are a lot of amazing things happening to me, I still have to remind myself of this. Just a few days ago I was doing a video on Instagram Live, and someone commented, "Laverne, your voice is so deep." And it was such a mind fuck for me. So I stopped, took a moment, and repeated to myself: “Trans is beautiful.” I mean, some people just have deep voices! It doesn’t make me any less of a woman. And if someone has a problem with that, then that’s going to be their problem, because I’m going to love this voice. I’m going to love myself.

It’s become such an important mantra for me that I even had a #transisbeautiful neon sign made to hang in my dining room. There was a point in my life when I didn’t embrace myself and wouldn’t have wanted to display it in my home so boldly. And now it just feels like a happy thing to celebrate when I look up at it every day. It’s just out there, right in front, all lit up for everyone to see when they walk into my house.

The truth is, I’m like everybody else — sometimes I feel beautiful, sometimes I don’t. Last weekend, for example, I was hanging out at home. I didn’t have a date, and no one was coming over, but I was like, “You know what? I need to put on some lingerie.” And so I just danced around in my glam room to the new Pussycat Dolls song. I literally just needed to remind myself that I’m 47 years old and I’m sexy! I’ve had to work to figure out how to love this body. And now I’m going to own it.

—As told to Jennifer Ferrise.

Cox stars in the upcoming film, Promising Young Woman.

For more stories like this, pick up the May issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download April 17.