The Netflix original Orange Is The New Black, based on Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, has been very open and diverse with their characters from the very beginning. We meet several characters representing the LGBTQA+ community, including the marvelous Sophia Burset, played by Laverne Cox, an openly transgender character on the show, who absolutely deserves a spotlight this month.
Sophia is iconic – both as a transgender individual and as an individual all her own. She is strong and sassy. She is beautiful and stylish. Even from the confines of prison, she can create amazing sandals out of duct tape because “metallics are very in this season.” In earlier seasons, she even runs a salon in the Litchfield Penitentiary, styling her fellow inmates hair and making sure they feel just as beautiful. She tells it like it is, on topics ranging from prison life to love. And she is often shown giving her inmates wise advice. Sophia is a well-rounded character with a vibrant personality.
However, it is not all positive. Orange Is The New Black tackles many important issues within the series, including those that affect Sophia personally: transphobia and hate crimes. She faces many struggles during her incarceration, such as being denied her hormone medication, verbal attacks from other inmates and violent physical attacks.
It is the last that ends in an unjust, but unfortunately realistic manner. As the victim in the attack, Sophia fights for better security in the prison, but is instead sent to solitary confinement (the SHU), leading to a heartbreaking-to-watch arc for her character. These performances, and the ones to follow, hopefully shed light on real issues and the very real need for visibility and acceptance.
Season 1, Episode 3 “Lesbian Request Denied,” includes Sophia’s first flashback. She used to be a firefighter before being incarcerated, and before transitioning went by the name Marcus. (Pre-transition Sophia is actually played by Cox’s identical twin brother, M. Lamar.) We meet her wife, Crystal (now separated,) and her son, Michael. We see the struggles she went through personally and within her marriage as she went through her transition. It was beautiful to watch Crystal help Sophia dress and lend her clothes after Sophia came out to her. Even facing a few differences, she continued to care and support Sophia. We see her son’s struggle to accept her, and the consequences that come of that. And we learn that her crime was credit card fraud in order to pay for her sex-reassignment operation.
What makes these performances so powerful and meaningful is that Cox, the actress who plays Sophia, is openly transgender herself and an advocate for LGBTQA+ rights. It is a role that has led to two Emmy nominations, making her the first transgender person to be nominated for acting. Her groundbreaking work within Orange Is The New Black, and outside of the show, shines a bright light on more acceptance within the world and the entertainment industry, and gives hope for better today and a better future.