The LGBTQ Community & Laverne Cox


Members of the LGBTQ community campaigning for equality. Original photo from

Without a doubt, society has become accepting of the LGBTQ community in the past fifty years. 92% of the LGBTQ community say that society is more accepting than a decade ago, and the same number are optimistic that the acceptance will continue to grow over the next decade.

This new level of acceptance has been reciprocated in the diversity of television characters. In the 2014 fall television season, LGBTQ characters make up “3.9% of the total number of series regulars on prime-time shows on the five broadcast networks, or 32 out of 813.” This looks fairly representative of the LGBTQ population at first glance because 3.4% of American adults identify as a member of the LGBTQ community, except “no regular characters on broadcast prime-time shows are transgender.” The transgender community has been historically overlooked or forgotten even in the LGBTQ community.

Two of the only shows that have included a transgender regular character are not made by broadcast television, but by their online, streaming television equivalents. Those shows include Amazon‘s Transparent and Netflix‘s Orange is the New BlackOrange Is the New Black even “has more LGBT characters than any other show on broadcast and cable TV.”


Laverne Cox: actress, activist, advocate. Orignial photo from Hollywood Reporter

Laverne Cox plays Sophia Burset, on Orange is the New Black, who is a transgender inmate in Litchfield. This character emphasizes the treatment of the transgender community in prison when Sophia’s estrogen pills are changed to generic and she’s given a below recommended dose just so the Department of Corrections can save some money. Laverne Cox said at the 2014 Creating Change Conference that “healthcare for trans people is a necessity. It is not elective, it is not cosmetic, it is life-saving… But we are more than our bodies.” Since it is not elective, the prison should honor the lives of these people and give them the proper medical care.

Besides being an advocate for the transgender community on television, Laverne Cox is an advocate in her personal time, including the support of CeCe McDonald, her release from prison, and the documentary made about her. Cox was also the first openly transgender person to have their own Time magazine cover. She also produced a recent documentary on trans youth, The T Word.

And just remember that just because they are being represented, it doesn’t mean that they are being represented accurately or not based on stereotypes. When the transgender community is represented on television, which is not often, it is as some sort of sex worker. Laverne Cox has this to say on this stereotype:

“When folks want to write a trans character, the first thing that they think of is sex work. And part of the reason is that the most visibility, really, that trans folk get is through sex work. And then there is also crazy unemployment rates among transgender people; it’s like twice the national average. If you’re a trans person of color, it’s four times the national average. So, so often the only job opportunities presented for trans folks are in street economies, including sex work. Obviously there are lots of trans women who don’t do sex work, who have all kinds of professions.”

While Orange is the New Black and Laverne Cox are promoting tolerance and equality for all members of the LGBTQ community, it doesn’t mean anything if you aren’t. Just be tolerant of anyone who is different than you and respect their freedom of expression.

Corruption in the American Prison System

In Orange is the New Black, several issues are brought to attention that are currently corrupting the American prison system. Piper Kerman and Jenji Kohan have included these topics in order to raise awareness of these issues. Obviously, some of these issues are dramatized on the show in order to make it more emotional or appealing, but they are still very real.

Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is common in prison unfortunately. Half of the sexual assaults are committed by guards and prison staff. Even if the inmates give consent, it is still technically statutory rape if committed with a guard. 10% of inmates suffer from sexual assault. Even if the sexual acts are consensual between inmates, it is still illegal and not allowed, but is often used to have a submissive partner be protected by the dominant partner.

In the show, multiple inmates are having sexual relations with each other like Piper and Alex. Some inmates even have consensual relations with prison guards like Daya and Bennett. The show doesn’t depict any rape between inmates, but does bring up the fact that sexual relations between an inmate and a guard is rape. These depictions show the vulnerability inmates feel while in prison. They just want love. They want someone to care for them. They want to know that someone understands what they are going through.

Elder Care

The elderly are the fastest growing population in prison due to the long sentences given to inmates in the past. While the population is growing, the care needed to provide proper medical attention to them is increasing. The price for caring for ailments such as dementia and cancer is well above the limit that is currently set aside for the inmates. It costs three times more to pay for elderly inmates. For when it gets too expensive to care for the elderly inmates, the prison system does compassionate release regardless of if the inmate has a place to live or if they will just be homeless. In some cases however, the inmate could stay in prison instead of receiving compassionate release and staying with loved ones during their final days.


Orange is the New Black if the characters were played by an older cast. (Collage made by Gar Tate)

In Orange is the New Black, an inmate, Jimmy, suffers from dementia and is given compassionate release after diving from a stage onto the ground believing she was diving into a pool. She has no where to go and is essentially put on the streets where she will probably die. Another inmate, Rosa, suffers from cancer and is unable to receive the surgery that she needs to live due to the prison system refusing to pay for it.


In prison, solitary confinement is often used to punish inmates. They are placed in a room by themselves to “think about what they’ve done.” They can be placed in there for any amount of time. This can have psychological, mental, and physical effects on people. It is not a safe practice. Protestors of this punishment is saying it is torture. In the show, several inmates are given solitary for very mundane reasons or just because the correctional officer doesn’t like them.

Budget Shortages

States have cut prison budgets severely in the past years, but the demand for money has not decreased. On July 31, 2007, 4,322 women inmates were housed in a correctional facility that was designed for 1,980 inmates. Overpopulation is a trouble for many populations. It has also been said that the prisons are highly understaffed. The federal correction system is functioning with 3,200 fewer guards than need.

In the show, they show budget shortages when it comes to lack of food and supplies. Instead of fixing the plumbing when sewage was rising from the shower drains, the prison system ignores it due to the high cost of fixing it. In the show, Natalie Figueroa, the executive assistant to the warden, embezzles money from the prison in the show which is an extreme case of corruption in prison.

The show does portray some of these issues in exaggerated or inaccurate ways which has angered some former inmates. It is important while watching this show to remember that this is someone’s life. Hundreds of thousands of women live this daily. Don’t be afraid to laugh at the jokes, but take it with a grain of salt. Do not take it as a perfect guide on how to survive women’s prison.

Obviously, just the depiction of these problems on the show is not solving any of the problems, but it is starting a discussion. The show is making these issues mainstream and opening people’s eyes. It is all about informing the masses. With knowledge, change can occur.

Orange is the New Black

There have been plenty of shows based on real life: Band of Brothers, Bones, Scandal, Necessary Roughness, M*A*S*H, and countless others. Most of these shows try just to entertain, but occasionally there is a show based on real life that tries to prove a point. Orange is the New Black is one of these shows. It tells a story based on real people while also expressing issues of the prison system, excelling in representation of television, and including the LGBTQ community. All of the real events that inspired this television sensation started in 1993.

Taylor Schilling, Piper Kerman

Taylor Schilling (left) and Piper Kerman (right). Credit: Huffington Post.

In 1993 at the age of 24, Piper Kerman carried more than 10,000 undeclared dollars into Paris for a West African drug lord. All of this would seem odd for an upper-class suburban woman from Northampton, Massachusetts, who majored in theatre at Smith College, but it wasn’t considering Kerman began a relationship with Catherine Cleary Wolters, an international drug trafficker, a year earlier. Kerman described Wolters as her girlfriend, but Wolters disagrees saying “[they] weren’t girlfriends… [They] were friends with benefits.” Kerman and Wolters traveled the world together, with Kerman running drug money only once, but they would later split. In 1998, Kerman was living in New York with her fiancé (now husband), Larry Smith, when she was indicted on charges of drug smuggling and money laundering by a federal court in Chicago. After pleading guilty, Kerman would serve 13 months of her 15-month sentence beginning on February 4, 2004, at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury. In 2010, Kerman wrote and published Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison which was a memoir of her time in prison.

This book inspired the Netflix original seriesOrange is the New Black. After reading Kerman’s book, Jenji Kohan created the show whose entire first season was released on July 11, 2013. The show follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), “a woman in her thirties who is sentenced to fifteen months in prison after being convicted of a decade-old crime of transporting money for her drug-dealing girlfriend.”


Uzo Aduba, as “Crazy Eyes” (right). Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman (left). Original source.

The first season was an instant success and a crowd favorite, it also impressed the critics getting 12 Emmy nominations, winning three of them including Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series to Uzo Aduba for her portrayal of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren. The show also received praise for its portrayal of “real women” because of the diversity. The 13-episode second season was released on June 6, 2014, with the majority of the cast returning as well as an introduction of new characters, such as Yvonne “Vee” Parker portrayed by Lorraine Toussaint. Filming for season 3 has already begun with an expected release date in June 2015.


Prepon (left) and Schilling (right). Credit: Vanity Fair.

Although based on a true story, the book and TV series take steps to embellish the story in order to make it more entertaining. In order to protect the privacy of the inmates in her memoir, Kerman uses pseudonyms for all of the inmates except for Sister Ardeth Platte and Alice Gerard, whose permission was given. The TV series took even more precautions to protect the privacy of the people involved in the production including Piper Kerman herself. The TV series used Kerman’s life as a basis for the story but took several liberties in the story telling process. In the memoir, Kerman and Wolters were only in the same prison for 5 weeks, while in the series, Chapman and Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) stayed for months in the same prison. The Chapman-Vause relationship, in the TV series, escalates to a friends-with-benefits situation, while in real life that did not happen. Piper Kerman is involved in the TV series’s process as an executive consultant, and despite these changes to the true story, the series still attempts to give an accurate portrayal of what the female prison system in America is like. The TV series semi-accurately portrays the corruption in the American female prison system while also expressing the view of women, minorities, and the LGBTQ community in a manner that is hardly ever seen in American productions.

All background information on Piper Kerman that is not cited can be found in her book.