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Blog: What I Learned from Laverne Cox

By Justin Merkel

By Justin Merkel

A little over a month ago I had the pleasure of hearing Laverne Cox’s talk, “Ain’t I a Woman: My Journey to Womanhood”. My first exposure to her and her work was almost a year ago, when I stumbled across one of numerous articles titled something along the lines of “Reasons You Should be Watching Orange is the New Black”. Along with learning the context of the show (it’s a Netflix series that takes place in a women’s prison), I also discovered that for the first time in a series, a transgender person was going to play a transgender character. In the show, Laverne Cox plays Sophia, and she displays some of the struggles that come along with being a transgender person, as well as other aspects of her life. Besides Orange is the New Black, Laverne is working with Cece Mcdonald on a documentary about violence against the trans community, as well as producing her own show TRANSform Me on VH1, featuring transgender youth. When another Q-Cross member announced that this amazing woman was going to be talking at a nearby university, several of us knew we had to attend and hear what she had to say.

The room was filling with anticipation as people continued to pour in and find their seats in front of the stage. The excitement was like that before a concert or theatre performance. So much that when Laverne Cox stepped out on stage, I was somewhat expecting a big, grandioso entrance filled with lights and fog and a booming soundtrack. Even though none of these happened and she simply walked out on stage, the reaction of the audience was similar to that of rock concert. Laverne took her place at the microphone and began by quoting Sojourner Truth and describing how Sojourner was not seen as a woman due to her skin color. Laverne then went on to tell us about the book Gender Trouble by Judith Butler, and a particular line that influenced her deeply. Laverne says, “One is not born a woman, but rather, becomes one. And the one who becomes a woman is not necessarily female. And ain’t I a woman?”

I was all ears as Laverne went on to tell her story. She started to talk about feeling out of place and being made fun of for being feminine as a young boy, something I could relate to. She pinpointed this as the moment when she started to feel ashamed of who she was, and like there was something about her that made people dislike her. She also told a story about seeing Gone With The Wind and buying a fan at a school trip because of her love for Scarlett O’hara in the film. A teacher who witnessed her using the fan made phone to call Laverne’s mother, and said that her son desperately needed therapy.

Laverne described therapy as more of a “gender policing” segment, where she was sat down and told what the different roles were of men and women. Included was constant reminding that all of the male roles were ones that she was supposed to take on. This continued until the therapist suggested to her mother that Laverne be given testosterone shots to be “more manly”, which her mother was not willing to do. She then told the room that one way to help break stigmas of the binary gender roles was to choose to not be the gender police on a daily basis.

Amongst the hardships, Laverne remained determined to do something big with her life. She used her creative writing abilities in order to get a scholarship to an arts college in New York, where she then majored in dance. It was in New York where she would find the club kid scene, and meet some transgender people that inspired her deeply. From this point, she began talking about her transition, and the violence that accompanies it

One of the things I learned the most about in terms of gender was the importance a lot of people place on looking like your assumed gender. In the trans community, the idea of “passing” is one that puts many lives in danger. Laverne talked about how she would hear slurs, but it wasn’t until she began her transition process and that she felt the danger and violence in the words said to her. She also mentioned that the trans women of color have the highest assault and homicide rates in the country. This fact blew me away and made me realize how risky it is for trans people to simply be themselves and try to live their lives.

Laverne spoke very passionately of love after this and claimed that it was the solution to transphobia. She said that if more people would just learn to love trans people, and express that love towards them, the lives of trans people would improve immensely. After her talk she had a Q & A session where she expressed this idea even further. When someone asked how she deals with slurs and hateful language now, she said that she reminds herself that people lash out when they feel hurt or ashamed, so she tries to be as kind as possible to them. She also expressed how important it is to have conversations, not debates, with trans people, trans people of color, and people in other intersections so that we can provide a comfortable environment for them to exist in, something I feel that I’ve taken for granted at times.

Laverne group
When the Q & A session was over, we rushed out into the hallway to meet her. We got our pictures with her and I got to speak to her for a minute! She’s the first actress I’ve ever met and I must say I was pretty excited, and she was even more gorgeous and sweet in person than on TV. The car ride home was filled with sharing favorite quotes and discussing topics that Laverne brought up, along with occasionally mentioning how excited we are to see her on season 2 of Orange is the New Black. I personally learned a lot from Laverne about embracing intersections and being a voice of love and support for the trans community. I would definitely recommend hearing her speak if you ever get the opportunity. It was truly and amazing experience!


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