Laverne Cox has never been afraid to be first.
As the first trans actress to be nominated for an Emmy, to win a daytime Emmy, to appear on the cover of Time magazine and to even to have a statue at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, Cox has dedicated her life and career to amplifying the voices of the LGBTQ+ community.
This week, SeeHer Story honors the actress, activist and filmmaker for playing a key role in bringing the fight for trans rights to the mainstream. Her groundbreaking work will also be profiled in the upcoming issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday.
Katie Couric Media and PEOPLE partnered to create the second season of SeeHer Story, a weekly digital video series produced to celebrate various female trailblazers from the past 100 years to today.
Cox fell in love with performing at a young age.
She started studying dance at 8 years old in Mobile, Ala., where she grew up alongside her identical twin brother, M Lamar.
As a teen, she earned a scholarship to the prestigious Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, but she didn't take up an interest in acting until college.
Around the same time, Cox began openly identifying as transgender.
Cox tells PEOPLE that as a result of growing up in Mobile, where she experienced severe racism and bullying, then moving to New York, where she began transitioning, "I now realize how I've used stress hormones to survive — that I've always been in perpetual fight, flight, or freeze."
That's made her very sensitive to how others might be suffering. "In this political environment, I think we dehumanize people we disagree with," she says. "What we need is to rehumanize each other … we need to begin to have empathy and love."
After graduating, Cox decided to pursue acting but struggled to land roles as there was a lack of trans representation in Hollywood.
"The first story that made me feel like my identity was really represented on screen had to be Candis Cayne in Dirty Sexy Money in 2007. What’s so sad about that is that I was 35 years old when this moment happened," she said in a past interview.
In 2013, Cox finally got her own big break as inmate Sophia Burset in Orange Is the New Black.
She quickly became a household name and started to cross off her list of "firsts" the following year, beginning with her groundbreaking appearance on the cover of Time magazine in 2014.
That same year she made Emmy history as the first trans woman to win as an executive producer for her work on the LogoTV documentary The T Word.
Cox, 48, has continued to act and inspire in 2020, appearing alongside Lena Waithe in the horror film Bad Hair, and executive producing the documentary film Disclosure about transgender people working in Hollywood.
The actress tells PEOPLE she feels a civic responsibility to the LGBTQ+ community. And part of that is letting the next generation come forward.
"Can I tell you one of the greatest joys of my life, having done all the things that I've done, is seeing young trans people shine? It brings shivers to my spine, it brings tears to my eyes," she shares.
She says seeing the next generation of "trans and non-binary voices being elevated and having media presence, honestly, it feels like I can pull back a little bit," she says. "Finally, we have a mainstream platform to amplify the voices of activists, who, for years, have been saying we need a certain level of respect and dignity for trans people."
The star says having so many "brilliant younger folks who can come forward" and speak out helps her remember she's not alone.
"The reality is that I've always had my community behind me and with me, but there weren't as many faces as there are now. Public faces. And that is beautiful," she says.
SeeHer Story will be a regular feature in PEOPLE’s print edition and the weekday morning newsletter Wake-Up Call with Katie Couric.
"SeeHer Story celebrates the important contributions of bold women from the past 100 years who have changed our country forever,” said Couric in a statement. “We hope recognizing them and telling their stories will not only give them their due but will also inspire the next generation of leaders.”
She added, “Together with Meredith and PEOPLE, I’m so excited to bring back a second season of stories of women whose names you may know — and put those whose achievements are not as well-known — front and center so we can celebrate them as well.”
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