Laverne Cox isn't just an Emmy-nominated actress known for playing transgender character Sophia Burset on Netflix's Orange Is the New Black. Rather, she's an artist who's using her platform in entertainment to spearhead an issue society is still learning how to approach: being transgender.
As part of her "Ain't I a Woman?" speaking tour, Cox spoke at Cal State Fullerton on Wednesday, May 6 about how the intersection of race, class, and gender contributes to our complex identities and how trans people in particular are affected. Part-personal and part-TED-Talk-like lecture, Cox's speech aimed to empower LGBT members while helping others understand the LGBT experience. As you can imagine, the Titan Gym–packed from wall to wall that night–was vibrant with periodic roaring cheers and standing ovations to greet and send her off.
"I stand before you as an artist, an actress, a sister, and a daughter–and I believe it's important to name the various intersected components of my multiple identities because I'm not just one thing, and neither are you," Cox told the audience in the beginning of her speech. "I believe it's important to claim the various intersecting, multiple components of my identity with pride in public because I haven't always been able to do so. I've always carried shame for aspects of who I am, and let's face it: being a black, working class, transgender woman isn't necessarily a celebrated class."
Cox went on to explain that trans women are large targets for homicide and harassment, and because of that she declared a manifesto for complete equality, inspired by a Cornell West quote ("Justice is what love looks like in public"):
Transgender people can use some justice. People of color can use some justice. People with disabilities can use some justice–some love today.
On stage, Cox exhibits a warm, positive energy–so much so that it's hard to fathom that she tried to commit suicide at age 11. Upon her grandmother's death, Cox, afraid of disappointing her grandmother because of her sexual orientation, grabbed pills from her kitchen cabinet and tried to kill herself that night. It didn't work.
Cox's childhood, as you have probably implied by now, was difficult. It included ample amounts of teasing from classmates and, when she was going through puberty, she realized she didn't want to grow up as a man. Once, her 3rd grade teacher called her mom and said, "Your son is going to end up in a dress if you don't take him to therapy." Cox, wearing a bright pink dress on stage, smiled facetiously as she shared this.
"If we are really serious about ending LGBT bullying, we have to begin to create spaces of gender self-determination," she said. "Far too often have I been in situations where I really felt unsafe, where I have been called out and threatened."
After all the shame and bullying, Cox was eventually able to accept herself and immersed herself into her dream of becoming a performer. Today, she's the first openly transgender woman to receive an Emmy nomination, produce and star in her own television show called TRANSForm Me, and appear on the cover of Time magazine. Now, ain't she a woman?
If you missed this appearance, be sure to check out Cox 's next one at UC Irvine on May 12. See you there!