This past Tuesday, over 2,200 people, LGBTQIA people and allies alike, stood in unison to welcome Laverne Cox into the O’Neill Arena at Saginaw Valley State University. As the applause dissipated, she confidently leaned into the microphone and declared, “I stand here this evening claiming my womanhood in a social context in which we often deny it.” This statement was just the tipping point for what was to come.
Laverne Cox is a television actress who is most popular for her role as Sophia Burset on Orange is the New Black. She is also a transgender activist and spokesperson. In her lecture, Cox invited the audience to consider the intersectionality of the multiple facets of her identity as an African-American transgender woman who was raised in a low income, single parent home in Alabama.
Cox faced many other struggles due to the nature of her gender identity in her early life. While Cox and her identical twin brother were raised to be proud of their racial heritage, her mother was far from accepting of her daughter's deviation from the cisgender norm. Having grown up in a very conservative part of Alabama, Cox was also riddled with incessant bullying and gender policing from those in her community that enforced the gender binary model. At the suggestion of her third grade teacher, she was forced to go to therapy. Then, the idea of injecting her with testosterone was even suggested, but thankfully decided against. This intolerance escalated at her church, where she was taught that her authentic self and her budding homosexual feelings were not only wrong, but deeply sinful. To cope with the animosity around her, Cox poured herself into her passions, namely acting and dancing. She described how she always felt safe in her own creativity as her imagination became a safe haven of sorts. However, when her grandmother, whom she was very close to, passed away, Laverne felt the tensions from her childhood build to an unbearable extent. She described the experience of feeling that her grandmother was looking down on her, disappointed at the “sinful thoughts” that circulated her mind. Unable to cope with this internalized shame, Cox attempted suicide shortly after. When she survived, she resolved to push down this aspect of herself and attempt to feel more worthy of her life. In this way, she distracted herself by overachieving in her academics and daily life.
Laverne explained that she did not fully accept her authentic self until attending college and moving to New York City, where she became more educated about transgender issues. To her, New York represented the idea of ultimate possibilities. In college, she discovered the writings of countless influential women that spoke about gender issues. Among these included Sojourner Truth, bell hooks, Judith Butler (whom she affectionately refers to as Judy B), and Brene Brown. She claims that their words were like oxygen to her, as they legitimized the feelings that she had previously struggled with. One phrase that stuck out to her in particular was Simon De Beauvoir’s famous line, “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” These women inspired her to take ownership of her true self and helped her work through her shame. Additionally, New York gave her the freedom to express herself more completely. For the first time, Cox was meeting real transgender women that allowed her to picture what her life might be like. These women made all of Cox’s previous misconceptions about transgender people melt away. As she got to know them better as people, she understood them more clearly without the fog of stereotypes and misrepresentation. And so began the long process of transitioning into her real self.
Post-transition, Laverne Cox faced even more challenges due to the transphobia and probability of violence against transgender people in her neighborhood. She shared her experiences with catcalling and public ridicule, as well as a firsthand account of physical violence committed against her on the street. These instances of what she called “transmisogyny” proved problematic not only because of the physical threat they posed to her, but also because of the way these men were attempting to take ownership of her body. Furthermore, she explained the microaggressions committed by people on the street who gawked at her or called her out as a man.
While at first these instances threatened her perceptions of her identity and gender, with the help of her newfound support system, she realized that she was not at fault. She asserted, “I [did] not deserve to be treated that way.” Though she was initially embarrassed after being identified as transgender in public, eventually Cox was able to proudly claim this part of her identity. She described her journey to understanding that transgender is beautiful in its own right and that she is okay with being identified as a transwoman rather than attempting to pass as cisgender. Yet, she makes her thoughts clear, saying, “Calling a transwoman a man is an act of violence.” This statement punctuated her adamant declaration that pronouns matter.
Laverne Cox has come a long way in the vein of self-love and gender acceptance since her difficult childhood. Her story is one that is both inspiring and important, especially in light of the recent events surrounding violence, suicide, and forced conversion therapy for LGBTQIA youth. In this way, her recent celebrity has given her a platform to advocate for those in the LGBTQIA community whose voices have been previously silenced. Her performances in mainstream pop culture have sparked numerous open conversations about gender and identity in a wide variety of settings. Moreover, it is clear that she is aware of the role she plays in effecting a better and more equitable societal understanding of transgender issues, fiercely promoting the importance of love and empathy. To close, she stated, “I would like to charge each of you to have these difficult conversations, take risks, make mistakes, and be vulnerable, so you can have a better understanding of who the other person is and who you are.”