Today, National Center for Transgender Equality Program Manager Andy Bowen joined actor Laverne Cox on HuffPost Live to talk about the new hit show “Orange is the New Black.” The show features, for the first time, a transgender character played by a transgender actor.
Watch the interview here.
The show centers around Piper Chapman who is incarcerated for a drug offense committed 10 years earlier. The show is novel for a number of reasons, well outlined by the Washington Post, but for those keeping tabs on popular media’s portrayal of transgender women, it is particularly significant.
Few mainstream TV shows or movies have portrayed transgender people at all. And when transgender people are depicted in media, they are often type-casted as powerless victims. Cox’s character, Sophia Burset, instead, is a self-assured and strong character who, as Dr. Ziegler notes, bucks perceptions of transgender women of color.
In addition to touching on other problems in the prison system like sexual assault, solitary confinement and mental health issues, Orange is the New Black highlights injustices facing transgender people. A key part of Sophia’s plot line is when prison authorities take away Sophia’s hormones, an unfortunately common experience for transgender people in incarceration. As found in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, transgender people in incarceration are often denied routine health care (12%) or hormones (17%). These numbers reflect two sadly common attitudes: 1) hormones aren’t recognized as essential medical care, and 2) people in prison are not valued enough to be provided with proper medical treatment.
Despite the barriers to medical care Sophia faces and the harsh conditions facing all the women of Litchfield Correctional Facility, Sophia is far safer than the vast majority of transgender women in our nation’s prisons and jails, because she is housed with other women. While this is becoming more common, many systems still automatically house trans women in men’s prisons – and then, realizing just how vulnerable to abuse they are there, put them in long-term solitary confinement that amounts to torture. New standards under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) are meant to end these cruel practices, and NCTE continues to work alongside many other advocates to see that trans people are housed with safety and dignity.
Only released a few weeks ago, the show continues to inspire conversations around race and transgender issues and garner accolades from mainstream viewers. And fortunately, as Orange is the New Black enters its second season, viewers across the country will have the chance to learn more about transgender people through Sophia.