February 27, 2014
When Laverne Cox began her keynote speech in Wellin Hall on Saturday, Feb. 22, she identified herself as a “proud African-American transgender woman from a working-class background raised by a single mother.” She stressed how vital it is for her to “claim various intersecting parts of [her] identity”—especially those which have previously brought her shame.
The actress, writer, producer and transgender advocate spoke before an audience comprised of people with similarly varied, multidimensional identities. Cox’s lecture was co-sponsored by the Days-Massolo Center, Kirkland Endowment and the NY6 Consortium, which comprises Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Union College, St. Lawrence University, Skidmore College, Colgate University and Hamilton. Students from the Upstate New York schools were on the Hill for the weekend for the first-ever NY6 Spectrum Conference, a weekend-long series of activities and discussions with the purpose of connecting LGBTQIA students from different schools and allowing them to share their experiences. The title of Cox’s talk, “Ain’t I a Woman: My Journey to Womanhood,” was based on the title of a speech delivered by Soujourner Truth at the Women’s Convention in Akron, OH, which took place in December 1851.
Director of Diversity and Inclusion Amit Taneja introduced the talk, citing Cox’s various honors and accomplishments. Though she is best known for her role as Sophia Burset on the Netflix Original Series Orange is the New Black, Cox has chosen to use her celebrity to project her political voice. In 2013, she received the Anti-Violence Project Courage Award. She was also the first African-American transgender woman to produce and star in her own television show, TRANSform Me. Through various media, Cox is “committed to telling diverse and three-dimensional stories” about transgender experiences, Taneja said.
Cox explained that telling these stories empowers people to challenge “points of view which disavow our identities… that suggest that no matter what I do, I’ll never be a woman.”
While growing up, feminist theorists informed her conception of womanhood. She particularly appreciated Simone de Beauvoir for saying, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” The language was evocative of the process of transitioning. “I was very excited,” she said. “I wasn’t quite ready to own my womanhood, but this idea of becoming spoke volumes to me.”
Cox was born seven minutes before her identical twin brother, M. Lamar, in Mobile, AL—a historical site of racial oppression and resistance.
“Before I knew anything about myself,” she said, “I knew that I was black.”
When Cox entered school and began to interact with peers, however, her classmates told her “that [she] acted like a girl—whatever that means, since girls act all sorts of ways.”
Perhaps worse than the fact that Cox was bullied was the blame associated with her treatment. “When my mother found out about [the bullying], she would ask what I was doing,” Cox said, “and why I didn’t fight back.”
It remains true today that when kids are bullied, it is often because of their gender expression. Cox urged the importance of not using the word “gay” as an insult on the playground but exclusively as a self-determined identity. Additionally, she stressed the need for people to create spaces for children to perform their gender identities. These efforts could limit the shame that LGBTQIA people feel, as well as the internalized transphobia, racism and classism embedded in their experiences.
Because Cox’s mother felt that her behavior was abnormal and wrong, she sent her to therapy. During one of the initial sessions, the therapist asked Cox if she knew the difference between a boy and a girl. A third-grader at the time, she responded, “There is no difference.” But the people in Cox’s life disagreed and expressed it by targeting her differences.
“I didn’t feel safe at school, and I didn’t feel safe at home, but where I did feel safe was in my imagination.”
For Cox, dance was an important means of expression, though the styles of dance she was allowed to learn were policed. She was allowed to enroll in tap and jazz classes but never ballet, as her mother believed that was “too gay.”
“I loved performing,” Cox said. “Church for me was another performance opportunity.” Yet in church, Cox observed strict reinforcement of the gender binary and attitudes toward homophobia that made the attraction she felt towards boys during her early pubescent years feel dissonant.
“All of these forces were telling me who I was authentically was wrong,” she said.
Cox and her brother relocated for high school, enrolling in the Alabama School of Fine Arts. There, she had the opportunity to study dance, but that ability to express herself came with the compromise of increased shame with respect to her race and class. She and brother were two of three black students living in the dorms, and it was the first time she felt strong feelings of otherness with respect to those aspects of her identity.
While her high school experience was formative, Cox intimated, “My real education happened in the club scene of New York.”
“I started to experiment with makeup and women’s clothing,” she said, mentioning her affinity for “Salvation Army couture,” or “Salvation Armani,” given her financial constraints.
In the early ’90s, the “age of the club kid,” Cox frequented the nightlife scene and met transgender women for the first time in her life. Though they collectively contributed to her perception of gender performance and her belief in the possibility of transition, one had a particular influence. She met Tina Sparkles, another African-American trans woman, in the restroom at Webster Hall. Sparkles borrowed some of Cox’s powder, and they became friends.
“I watched her transition over the years from a statuesque queen to a beautiful, sophisticated woman,” Cox said. She remarked that she might not have started her own medical transition had they not met.
Cox prefers to talk about her experience as a transgender woman, rather than detail her transition. During an appearance on Katie earlier this year, Couric tried to get her to talk more about her hormone injections and surgery. Cox deflected Couric’s prying questions and stated that if we focus on genitalia, then the more complex social issues that transgender people face receive less attention.
One of these issues is the experience of “getting spooked,” or being recognized and humiliated by passersby based on her transgender identity. “I’ve come to believe that calling a transgender woman a man is an act of violence,” Cox said.
And oftentimes, it is an act that is accompanied by physical violence. Cox told the story of Islan Nettles, a 21-year-old transgender woman who was beat into a coma in the summer of 2013 while walking in Harlem. She died a few days later. To date, no suspects have been incarcerated for her death.
Similarly, the violence that LGBTQIA people experience is often self-inflicted. At a number of points in her life, Cox has contemplated and even attempted suicide. After her grandmother’s death, she swallowed a bottle of painkillers hoping to end her life, but she woke up in the morning with a stomachache instead. About a decade later, she planned to jump off the Empire State Building with a note in her pocket that stated her name, Laverne, and her preferred pronouns.
“It was so important to me that I wouldn’t be misgendered in my death,” she said.
“When I told my mother that I was transitioning,” she remarked, ‘but you have such big hands and feet.’ Now when people use the wrong pronoun to refer to me, my mother corrects them.”
Though passing as cisgender may seem like the ideal of a medical transition, Cox stressed that the process’ goal isn’t necessarily to alter how others see you. Rather, the purpose is to change how you see yourself.
“I’ve come to accept that sometimes people will look at me and see that I’m trans,” she said. “I think that is beautiful.”
After Cox finished her speech, Spectrum Conference volunteers walked around the auditorium with microphones for a Q&A session. Students in the audience who had LGBTQIA relatives, or were LGBTQIA themselves, asked for advice and thanked Cox for her work. Some even suggested that she has been a role model for them or people they know.
In response, Cox said, “I prefer the term ‘possibility model.’”