When Laverne Cox was a child, her mother gave her and her twin brother a Black History book, a gift she remembers carrying around with her wherever she went until it was ragged. She was infatuated with one of its photographs in particular, a shot of 1960s opera singer Leontyne Price. "She was wearing this turban and was just so regal and beautiful, and she had big, full lips like me, and I just connected," Cox recalls. "She was the first internationally renowned black opera singer during a very turbulent time for black folks, but through her art she really made it better for all the black opera singers that followed her. When I was a kid, I dreamed that with my life, maybe I could make things better for the people who might follow me."
With her role on this summer's acclaimed Netflix juggernaut Orange Is the New Black, she's realized that dream. Cox's performance as Sophia Burset, a trans inmate in a women's prison fighting to secure the hormones necessary to complete her transition, is less a breakout than it is a breakthrough. As the only transgender actress playing a series regular on television, she brings refreshing depth to a character that a decade ago might have been a punchline, or dead within the series' opening moments. Sophia is the tough, quick-witted, resourceful hairstylist who makes her own slippers from duct tape; she's also heartbroken and vulnerable, terrified for her future. Much of the show's third episode, directed by Jodie Foster, was devoted to Sophia's memories of her troubled past, her struggle to sustain a relationship with her wife and young son through her gender reassignment process (Cox's twin brother, M. Lamar, plays Sophia before her surgery). In Cox's hands, it proved to be one of the most touching, genuine story lines to air this year. "As a trans woman of color, I've often looked for my story in the media and I haven't seen it, or I've seen sensationalized, exploitative images of trans women of color, where they've been the victim of a crime," says Cox, who also spent a good chunk of her year traveling the country to speak out about transgender rights. "It's wonderful to have this very human story about this trans woman that people are really connecting with."
Photographed at Bar Bruno in Brooklyn, N.Y., on July 23, 2013