What Caitlyn Jenner Can Learn from Laverne Cox

Cox skillfully uses her celebrity-- and magazine cover appearances-- to inform and advocate.

Reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner says she'd like to become an advocate for transgender people. "I have a platform that's so large, how can I use that to make this better?" she wondered, in an interview published on Vanity Fair's website.

When she's ready to speak out, she might want to look to transgender actress Laverne Cox as a role model. Here are a few lessons Cox could teach her.

Stay Informed About the Transgender Community

Cox brings up the challenges transgender people face whenever she gets the chance even though it's hard to get accurate data on the transgender population. Federal surveys don't really ask about gender identity, as The New York Times recently noted. But the latest National Transgender Discrimination Survey, from the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, found that the same dynamics of racial and economic inequality present across the United States play out in the transgender community, too.

The survey of more than 6,000 transgender people found that 27 percent had a household income of under $20,000 a year, compared with 13 percent of the overall population. The survey also found that transgender people were more likely to face discrimination in school, in the workplace, and in securing housing than other people. They were also more likely to contemplate suicide and to experience homelessness.

+ A photo editor looks at the July cover of Vanity Fair, featuring Caitlyn Jenner.   (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Get to Know Regular Transgender People

Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the show that introduced the Olympic athlete Jenner to a new generation, chronicles the insular world of one very rich, very famous family. While any attention brought to the challenges that trans people face is good, some advocates wonder whether Jenner will become the kind of role model they really need. "She is the exception, she is not the rule," says Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, policy adviser for the Racial and Economic Justice Initiative at NCTE.

To her credit, Jenner told Vanity Fair that she wants to talk to other transgender people and hear their stories. That will help her break out of the Kardashian bubble.

Refocus the Conversation Away From Body Politics

Cox has become an icon in the transgender community not just because of her celebrity—she has a high-profile role on the TV show Orange is the New Black—but because she's very adept at deflecting attention away from her physical appearance and toward the larger set of issues that trans people face. In a television interview last year, Slate noted, Cox responded to Katie Couric's questions by saying this:

The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don't get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of trans people's lives is that so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans women. If we focus on transition, we don't actually get to talk about those things.

Share Your Reflections on Your Identity

In the Vanity Fair interview, Jenner commented on the photos and her fear that she wouldn't be accepted as a woman. "I was always worried—you never wanted to look like a guy in drag. ... You have to look very feminine, you have to be able to, what I call my presentation is extremely important because it puts people at ease."

Cox recently released a set of reflections that went a step further—acknowledging her own desire to look feminine but reminding everyone that not all trans people can or want to embody gender norms. Cox wrote on her Tumblr about her experience appearing on the cover of Time magazine last year and why she thinks so many people told her she looked gorgeous. "I think what they meant is that in certain lighting, at certain angles, I am able to embody certain cisnormative beauty standards," she wrote. "Now there are many trans folks because of genetics and/or lack of material access who will never be able to embody those standards. More importantly, many trans folk don't want to embody them."