Laverne Cox’s Documentary Special “The T-Word” Is Groundbreaking, Must-Watch TV

“When a baby is born, one of the first question asked when is it a boy, or is it a girl? But what if it’s not that simple?” The question, posed by actress and advocate Laverne Cox, sets the stage for the hour-long documentary, “ Laverne Cox Presents: The T-Word.” Cox, an executive producer on the project as well as the host, takes viewers into the lives of seven different transgender youth, ranging in age from 12 to 24.

The stories of these young men and women provide a face, a name, and a reality to the horrifying statistics related to the trans experience. Trans men and women face significant challenges at both systemic and daily levels. A 2014 National Transgender Discrimination Survey Report looked at the data to better understand why 41 percent of people who are trandgender or gender nonconforming have attempted suicide, a staggering nine times higher than the national average. Homelessness, which is especially prevalent in trans youth, was a large factor, with 69 percent of homeless transgender people reporting they had tried to kill themselves. Many are also victims of domestic violence, at the hands of both family and friends, according to a report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence programs, people who identify as transgender are 28% more likely to experience violence than those who are gender normative. Transphobia and trans discrimination and violence are still all too real in this country, despite the increased visibility of high profile transgender people like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock and many others.

Mainstream media hasn’t been very kind to transgender people in the past, stripping them down into punchlines, parodies, or victims, rarely allowing them to speak for themselves. However, we’ve recently seen a glimmer of change in they way transgender men and women are being portrayed. “Orange Is The New Black” gave us the character of Sophia Burset, which has earned Laverne Cox an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of an incarcerated, multi-layered transwoman. “Transparent” on Amazon is also giving us another insight into the trans experience, and has been well-received by audiences and critics alike.

And now, we have “The T-Word” — a groundbreaking documentary. Not only does it shine light on the very real struggles of transgender youth trying to live their lives as authentically as possible, but it provides them a platform to share their truths with their own words and voices. “The T-Word” draws its audience in and allows them to connect with these young people beyond stereotypes and statistics. We quickly learn about the challenges facing many of the youths profiled, from 12-year-old Zoey, who despite having to transfer out of her school, has the support of her mother and siblings behind her, to Kye, a 24-year-old man who became the first Division One transgender basketball player, and is still struggling to get his mother to fully accept him.

Last week, I spoke with Laverne Cox to to learn more about her role as executive producer on “The T-Word,” and what her goals were in bringing these stories to the small screen. “We have a little Trans 101 at the beginning with terminology. Part of it is, we have to educate people a little bit, because some people still don’t understand what it means to be trans.”

But to her, the power is in the narrative of these seven young people. “When we tell our stories and when we are truthful about our stories, that’s how we connect as human beings,” she said. “I’m really interested in connecting this group of young people with the audiences who will be watching this show. And hopefully through that connection, we can begin to break down the misconceptions that people might have about people who are transgender… and also to diversify the vision that people might have of who transgender people are.”

Cox, along with the trans youth she introduces us to, manages to accomplish what she set out to do. In only an hour, “The T-Word” gives viewers a look at the diversity and complexity of trans youth, while allowing them to share their truths. Perhaps through increasing visibility through projects like these, the stigma and violence that can accompany the trans experience will begin to decrease.

The T-Word airs tonight, Friday, October 17th at 7 p.m. EST on both MTV and Logo TV.