On Monday, actress and LGBTQ activist Laverne Cox delivered her much-anticipated lecture, entitled “Ain’t I A Woman: My Journey to Womanhood,” to a packed Chapin Hall audience. Cox gained fame for her role in the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black, for which she is the first openly trans women to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy in an acting category.
Cox’s appearance marked the 25th anniversary of the The Michael Dively ’61 Lecture Fund for Human Sexuality and Diversity, which is sponsored by several campus groups and departments.
Cox was introduced by Professor of French and Comparative Literature Brain Martin. “With various firsts in her already impressive career, the Emmy-nominated actress, documentary film producer and celebrated equal rights advocate Laverne Cox continues to make history in her career and major strides in her activism,” Martin said. “As she continues to be a major voice for transgender awareness and equality, Laverne Cox continues to resonate with audiences and create positive change on a global scale.”
Cox began her lecture by listing her intersecting identities. “I stand before you this evening a proud, African-American, transgender woman,” she said. “From a working-class background, raised by a single mother, I stand before you an artist, an actress, a sister and a daughter, and I believe it’s important to name the various intersecting components of my multiple identities because I am not just one thing.”
Cox interwove quotes from various critical theorists, including Cornel West, bell hooks, Judith Butler and Brené Brown, into her talk. “When I discovered bell hooks’ work, I was a gender non-conforming college student in New York City … and her words were like oxygen to me. I came to critical consciousness reading her books,” she said.
Cox then transitioned to her story of growing up in Mobile, Ala. and her experiences being bullied as a child. “I was often chased home by groups of kids who wanted to beat me up. They said I acted like a girl,” Cox said. “I think if we’re really serious about ending the bullying of our LGBTQ youth, we have to begin to create spaces of gender self-determination.”
Depression and suicide are issues that disproportionately affect the trans community, with an estimated 41 percent of trans people reporting that they have attempted suicide. Cox spoke of her own experience with depression as she went through puberty and grieved the loss of her grandmother in the sixth grade.
“As puberty happened, I realized that I was attracted exclusively to boys… This was something I internalized a tremendous amount of shame about,” she said. “I imagined that [my grandmother] was up in heaven looking down on me, and I imagined that she knew every single thought that I was having about boys. And the idea of her knowing that, the idea of disappointing her – because in my mind, she had to be disappointed because this was a sin – that moment made me not want to live. So, I went to our medicine cabinet and took an entire bottle of pills and swallowed them and went to sleep, hoping not to wake up.”
Cox also discussed the ways in which dance served as an escape for her. She enrolled in the Alabama School of Fine Arts for high school. “I found out there was a ballet-only dance program … and my mother didn’t allow me to study ballet because she thought it was too gay,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘I can submit myself as a creative writing major, get in, get a scholarship, start studying ballet and then switch my major to dance,’ and that’s exactly what I did.”
Since high school, Cox has confronted the different types of shame she felt. “Shame has been such a huge part of my life, and working on and through shame is something that I continue to work on to this day. We are a shame-prone culture,” she said. Quoting Brown, she added, “Empathy is the antidote to shame.”
This was the time in Cox’s life where she first felt comfortable experimenting with clothes and makeup. “I began to wear women’s and girls’ clothes for the first time,” she said. “I began to exist in this gender non-binary, androgynous kind of space.”
After attending Indiana University at Bloomington and Marymount Manhattan College, Cox further explored her gender identity through the New York club scene of the 1990s. “For the first time in my life, my gender expression was looked upon as something that was valuable, something that made me special,” she said.
Through interacting with other trans and non-binary people in this environment, Cox was inspired to start her medical transition and began hormone therapy. “Some of the people that I would meet in the New York City club scene would change my life,” she said. “There was a particular person that I met who went by the name of Tina Sparkles. And over the next several years of knowing Tina, I watched her transition from a statuesque queen to a beautiful, elegant, sophisticated woman… And I said to myself, ‘If Tina can do this, what can I do?’”
Cox also discussed the different types of violence that trans people face as well as her personal experiences with street harassment. “After all these years of experiencing this, I have come to believe that calling a transgender woman a man, misgendering a trans person, is an act of violence,” she said. “Often, when I would be misgendered, when I would hear someone yell ‘that’s a man’ to me on the street, I would immediately feel unsafe, and very often I was.”
Cox ended her lecture on a positive note of hope and healing despite the many challenges that she and the transgender community have faced. She also gave advice to the College community on how to heal during turbulent political times.
“We can’t heal from our history if we don’t talk about it, if we don’t acknowledge it,” she said. “That is the first step. And then we need to try to get clear about what pain we are in so we’re not inflicting that on other people. I would like to challenge each and every one of you tonight to go out into your communities and have those difficult conversations across difference. Create safe space so that you can take risks and make mistakes. Have those conversations with a lot of love and empathy.”