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Transgender rights activist Laverne Cox brings humor, drama to UB talk

Actress and transgender rights activist Laverne Cox spoke to an enthusiastic crowd of about 4,000 at UB. Photo: Joe Cascio

By MICHAEL ANDREI

Published September 17, 2015

“If we just get to know them as people, all of our misconceptions will melt away.”
Laverne Cox, actress, transgender rights activist

With a mix of candor, humor and sobering statistics, award-winning actress and outspoken trans-rights advocate Laverne Cox captivated an enthusiastic audience last night at UB, sharing what it is like to be a black transgender woman in the United States.

Cox is best known for her role as hairdresser Sophia Burset, an incarcerated African-American transgender woman in the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” She spoke at Alumni Arena on the North Campus, opening the 2015-16 Distinguished Speakers Series.

The title of Cox’s speech, “Ain’t I a Woman: My Journey to Womanhood,” honors emancipated slave Sojourner Truth, who was a well-known 19th-century anti-slavery speaker. Cox’s talk explored the complexities that transgender people face in today’s society, while sharing her journey from outcast to advocate.

Walking on stage to a lengthy ovation, Cox smiled and brought more applause when she stated, “Thank you so much for that wonderful welcome! It’s good to be in Buffalo! I stand before you a proud, African-American, transgender woman: Ain’t I a Woman?”

Cox then turned a spotlight on troubling statistics, such as the high rate of suicide attempts among transgender people, as well as the prevalence of bullying and prejudice.

“There have been 21 transgender murders so far this year nationwide. Twenty one. That’s more than double the number at this time last year. Approximately 78 percent of all transgenders experience harassment. The chances of a trans person being murdered is one in 12; the homicide rate is highest among trans women. This represents a transgender state of emergency.

“One of the biggest obstacles facing the transgender community is points of view that deny our right to equality and our own identity. The violence. The injustices. The slow progress. This is reality for trans people.”

Cox went on to share her life experiences, and told the story of a young child who, more than anything, wanted to dance.

“I was born in Mobile, Alabama, to a single mother who raised me with my twin brother, M. Lamar. My mother often worked two or three jobs to support us before becoming a teacher. Education was very important in our house.

“I was bullied from the time I started kindergarten — taunted for being different and called names I sometimes didn't even understand the meaning of.

“I was called the F-word, which is a synonym for ‘sissy’ which I don’t say. Basically I was chased home from school by kids who wanted to beat me up. When my mother would find out, she would say, ‘What are you doing to make the kids treat you that way? Why aren’t you fighting back?’”

Cox related a story from when she was in third grade involving her flamboyant use in class of a Scarlett O'Hara-type fan that she bought on a field trip, which prompted a teacher to call her mother.

“We went to Six Flags and I bought the fan in the gift shop. I had seen “Gone With the Wind” about six weeks earlier and I loved the way Scarlett O’Hara was always fanning herself. My teacher, Mrs. Ridgeway, and others at my school did not approve. She called my mother and said, ‘Your son is going to end up in New Orleans wearing a dress if we don’t get him into therapy now.’”

Cox then stopped, looked the audience and said (to applause), “Third grade. So not much has changed.

“I was exclusively attracted to boys and the church told me that was a sin and I was going to hell,” she said. “People were telling me that I was a boy, but I knew in my spirit that I was a girl. I did like church, though; it gave me another opportunity to perform.”

Cox said that throughout her young life, she felt she was a girl, although she was living as a boy. By sixth grade, she had reached a dark point. Partly because of the pressures of puberty and a growing attraction to boys, coupled with the death of her beloved grandmother, she attempted suicide, downing a bottle of pills.

When she woke up the next morning — with a stomach ache — she decided to push back and focus on being the best at everything that she took on. She was elected vice president of her student council. And in what turned out to be a turning point in her life, she and her twin were accepted into the Alabama School of Fine Arts.

“I had to go to the Alabama School of Fine Arts,” Cox told the UB audience. “I was thrilled when I was accepted. It turned out to be an amazing, incredible time for me — and my brother!”

Cox graduated and went on to Indiana University as a dance major. Then after two years, in hopes of pursuing a career in acting, she moved to New York City and transferred to Marymount Manhattan College. It was a period which would change her life.

“It was there, as a student in the early 1990s, that I began frequenting a few of the city’s nightclubs, and I came to know a group of transgender women,” Cox said. “I experienced an ‘awakening’ of sorts and was inspired by one of the transgender women to begin my own personal transformation.

“Tina Sparkle — and she really did sparkle — was known for her big, Diana Ross-like hair. She transformed herself into an elegant woman, with her makeup, dresses and, most importantly to me, her confidence.

“Moving to New York City allowed me to get to know real transgender people, and all of my preconceived notions and thoughts about transgenders melted away. It was truly a transformative moment for me.”

Cox went on to say that it has not been easy. She told the UB audience of more than 4,000 that, “I am not one thing, and neither are you.”

Cox added that since beginning her transition 17 years ago, “I have become increasingly comfortable with the person that I am.

“In my youth, I came upon a quote by the French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, who, among many other things, explored the roles of women in society. She said: ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’

“A bit later on, I discovered the works and thoughts of Judith Butler, a philosopher and gender theorist, who added: ‘Nowhere in the quote does it say the one becoming a woman is female.’”

Cox’s stirring, nuanced performance as Burset on “Orange is the New Black” has garnered her nominations for a Primetime Emmy and a Critics’ Choice Award. Bringing up the chal­lenges trans­gender people face through her acting, speeches, social media exchanges and cultural interactions, she has become one of the most well-known LGBT advocates and transgender actors in Hollywood.

Her documentary “Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word,” explored the lives of seven transgender youth from across the country and their determination to live as the people they are meant to be. Cox, the documentary’s host and executive producer, was nominated for a Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Media Award.

She has taken her empowering message of living more authentically and moving beyond gender expectations to audiences all over the country. One of her messages to the UB audience was to encourage work on creating her suggested “safe spaces” for those who feel different.

“The question I am asking is, how can we create spaces of healing around all of this so we can really do the work of liberating ourselves and each other?” she said.

“There is a link between the bullying we inflict on our LGBT youth and the violence that so many trans women experience,” Cox said. “And far too many trans people experience this on a daily basis. Far too often the murders of trans people go unsolved.

“We will only get there — create safe spaces — by having the difficult conversations, to be able to reach an understanding of who the other person is, and who you are.”

She urged the UB audience to think beyond the “binary gender structure” that leaves room for only girls and boys.

“The reality of so many people’s lives and their experience is that they don’t fit that binary model,” she said. “The binary gender model conflates gender identity and sexual preference. But we know that the lived experience, the reality of our lives, defies that binary system.

Ultimately, Cox called for a better understanding and acceptance of transgender lives. She called on students, communities, society and the justice system to acknowledge that “trans lives matter.”

“If we just get to know them as people, all of our misconceptions will melt away.”