(From The Campus Lantern – February 5, 2015)
On Thursday, January 29th, Laverne Cox spoke at Central Connecticut State University as part of their Living Room Lecture Series. As soon as Cox took the stage, her power and confidence swept the room and the audience clapped to show their appreciation of her presence.
Cox started her speech talking about how people have multiple identities. From there, she reflected upon her experiences as a transgender woman of color. Taking a powerful line from Sojourner Truth, Cox posed a question to the audience: “Ain’t I a woman?” She then went on to talk about other influential feminists and activists, such as bell hooks, Judith Butler, and Simone de Beauvoir.
Cox is originally from Mobile, Alabama. She talked about how she was bullied up until high school; her peers made fun of her for her nonconforming gender expression. With this in mind, Cox touched upon the importance of spaces of gender self-affirmation for young folks, in which they can “express gender however they see fit.”
Cox talked about how her imagination and passion for dance saved her life when she was going through rough times as gender nonconforming child. She shared an anecdote from third grade in which an adult asked her if she knew what the difference between boys and girls was; she replied, “there is none.”
When she was in sixth grade, Cox’s grandmother (whom she lovingly called “Madea”) passed away. Cox was overwhelmed with worry that Madea was looking down on her from Heaven, disappointed that she was attracted to boys. This self-shame ended in Cox’s suicide attempt – she overdoes on pills. Thankfully, she survived and promised to make her family proud.
At the end of her emotional anecdote, Cox shared the statistic that 41% of transgender people attempt suicide, compared to only 1% of the population.
From there on, Cox made the decision to earn high grades in school, excel in leadership positions, and participate in any and every way she could. She applied and was accepted into the Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA), a high school in Birmingham, where she majored in ballet.
Throughout the night, Cox discussed much about overcoming internalized shame due to her sexual orientation and eventually gender identity. At ASFA, she encountered discrimination that she had never faced previous: against her race and class. It was at this time in her life that Cox started showing her feminine gender expressions with the world; she would dress in girl’s clothing. Since she came from a lower income family, she wore many clothes from thrift stores – she jokingly called her style “Salvation Armani.”
When she graduated from college, Cox first went to Indiana University, but soon after transferred to Marymount College, a theatre school in Manhattan. Living in New York City was first time she felt validated in her gender expression as a woman. She became acquainted with many drag queens and transgender folks who helped her feel comfortable in her own skin.
Even in New York, violence against transgender folks is an issue. Cox told stories about how she had often been verbally harassed, and sometimes even physically, on the streets. Police, too, have been known to criminalize transgender folks for their gender identities. She shared with the audience that three transwomen of color, the most targeted by violence, have already been murdered in 2015 so far.
“Calling a transgender woman a man is an act of violence,” stated Cox, stressing the importance of self-identification and autonomy.
Now, Cox has come to realize that being a transgender woman is beautiful. She ended her speech on an inclusive note, stating the importance of creating safe spaces for people to identify on their own terms.
“It is important to have difficult conversations with love and empathy to create safe spaces to understand who other people are, and ultimately who we are,” Cox solemnly ended her speech.
The event ended with a question and answer session in which Cox discussed more about the LGBTQ community, her personal love life, gender pronouns, Beyoncé, and the prison system.