Laverne Cox likes to make an entrance.
Greeted with extensive cheering and applause, she confidently strutted across the stage of Memorial Chapel and took her place behind the podium. She was elegant, with sleek blonde locks that cascaded far past her shoulders. Her features were stunning. Her sleeveless purple dress revealed toned arms which made me want to ask what her workout regime was.
As she began to talk, I slid back in my chair and prepared to absorb her stories, thinking, “Wow, that’s what she sounds like when we aren’t hearing her from our computer speakers! This is what a celebrity sounds like in person!”
Throughout her address, it became evident that despite the hardships and oppression she has experienced, she has successfully accepted herself for who she is, lives life with a positive demeanor and uses her role in the media to provoke change within society.
Cox became the first openly-trans individual to receive a nomination for an Emmy in 2014 for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. She won this award for her well-known role as the transgender hairdresser Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black. Fans are also eagerly anticipating the release of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in which Cox will play Dr. Frank N. Furter. She spoke publicly about the role for the first time to the University of Redlands and revealed that she wanted to take on the part despite controversy over whether she should be the one to play him since the role is normally taken on by males, because she is fascinated by how deeply flawed Dr. Frank N. Furter is and wants to show a different side of herself as an artist.
These roles, particularly that of Sophia Burset, along with her production of documentaries regarding transgender issue such as Free Cece, a film about a transgender woman who protected herself against a violent, transphobic and racist attack in Minnesota and served 41 month in prison because of it, has allowed Laverne Cox to become a prominent leader and icon for the community.
Her speech series such as “Ain’t I a Woman? My Journey to Womanhood” have been hugely influential as well, seeing as her dialogue fosters understanding and brings awareness to the violence and oppression that transgender individuals face–especially those of color.
Laverne Cox grew up in Mobile, Alabama, and as she said, “Before I knew anything about myself, I knew I was black.” Her mother was sure to make Laverne aware of the fact that she was born in a place where there is racial oppression. Cox was bullied as a child and was “called names, taunted and chased home by kids who wanted to beat her up because she acted like a girl”.
She knew from a young age that she was a girl and informed her therapist in 3rd grade that there was no difference between males and females, her logic being that she personally had the anatomy of a male but knew she was supposed to be female. When she reported to her mother that she was being bullied, her mother replied,
“What are you doing to make the kids treat you that way and why aren’t you fighting back?”
Comments like these caused Cox to internalize shame for attempting to be her authentic self.
This continued throughout her life. Her church taught her that being attracted to boys was a sin and that she would go to hell and rot in eternal damnation for having such feelings. Because of this, Cox no longer subscribes to organized religion. She does however currently believe in a power greater than herself and considers herself to be very spiritual.
When Laverne Cox went off to college and attended the Alabama School of Fine Arts, she was able to explore her feminine side. She shopped at Salvation Army and found herself sporting pairs of extravagant patterned bell bottoms in order to wear female clothing in a somewhat subtle way. She altered the clothing she purchased and referred to it as her “Salvation Armani”.
However, despite being able to explore her sexuality in clothing form, college proved to be an environment where Cox felt self-conscious about more aspects of her life than before. Previously, she had felt the shame she experience was gender and sexuality based. In college, she was bullied for those aspects as well as race and class. She constantly felt like she was less privileged than her peers.
It wasn’t until Cox moved to New York City that she began to feel empowered as a woman. By scouring the NYC night club scene, she was able to meet trans woman who proved to her that it was possible to make a smooth transition to womanhood. A woman she met on the night scene inspired her and prompted her to accept them and herself for their true selves. The relationships she crafted with these empowering women allowed her to move past the judgment of the church and her mother and pursue transitioning.
As Laverne underwent medical treatment, she was surprised at how challenging the process was. Often times people have disrespectfully referred to her as a male in passing. It wasn’t until this occurred a few times that she realized that, “The act of misgendering a trans-person is an act of violence.”
Many transgender individuals face such bullying on a daily basis. An example of this can be found in the case of Islan Nettles, a 21 year-old trans woman who was beaten into a coma by men she passed on the street once they realized she was a transgender. Nettles was declared brain dead a few days after the incident and later her mother was forced to make the tough call to take her off life support. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon occurrence. This year alone, 22 trans women have been found murdered.
It is because of unjust acts like these along with the mistreatment which she continues to endure, that Laverne Cox feels the need to speak out against violence within the transgender community. Cox used to live with an understanding of who she really was, but be terrified about how this truth would be received. Now, she embraces everything about herself, both masculine and feminine. Her acceptance has led her to feel free and allowed her to love herself for who she is. By doing so she has been able to live confidently and teach others to do so as well. Through her speeches she hopes to encourage others.
“Go into your communities and have those difficult conversations. Have them with love and empathy and get a better understanding of who the other person is and who you are.”
Ultimately, Cox wants people to be their authentic selves. She wants us to remember that “trans is beautiful” and that we should all “celebrate the diversity of each and every one of us.” She strives to work to “change the culture that victimize trans people for being who they are” and leave us with the reminder that “trans lives matter and black lives matter.”
[Images courtesy of Sky Ung, Redlands Bulldog photographer]