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Ain’t I a Woman: Laverne Cox’s journey

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Tickets to the event at the Performing Arts Center sold out. Photo courtesy of Jasmine Robinson/Times Union.
Tickets to the event at the Performing Arts Center sold out. Photo courtesy of Jasmine Robinson/Times Union.

By Michelle Checchi


[email protected]

Feb 10, 2015

   Laverne Cox makes being the bold face of a social movement look like a walk in the park.

  The first transgender woman of color to have a leading role in a mainstream scripted television series, the LGBTQ activist and star of “Orange is the New Black” has been touring the country with her speech “Ain’t I A Woman.”

   On Tuesday Feb. 3, Cox strutted on stage at the Performing Arts Center to roaring applause.

   “I stand before you this evening a proud African-American transgender woman, from a working class background, raised by a single mother,” she said.

   “I believe it’s important to claim the various intersecting components of my multiple identities with pride, in public, because I have not always been able to do so. I’ve often carried tremendous amounts of shame about various aspects of who I am. And let’s face it folks, being a black working class transgender woman isn’t necessarily a celebrated class in this society.”

   Cox was born in Mobile, Ala. to a single mother, exactly seven minutes before her identical twin brother. Cox said she often gets asked questions about her brother’s sexual identity, so she asked her brother what she should say in response.

   “He said, ‘Hmmm. You can say that I’m a practicing homosexual. Because I prefer the idea of practiced orientation, and the term ‘gay’ is a white-bourgeoisie construct.’”

   “In the spirit of intersectionality, my brother also identifies as ‘punk rock,’ as ‘negro-goth,’ and as a ‘free, black male.’”

   Cox’s presentation was the start to the University at Albany’s annual Sexuality Week. “Ain’t I A Woman” is the story of Cox’s transformation and journey. And, unsurprisingly, her struggles started at a very early age.

   “From preschool up until about high school I was bullied practically every single day. I was called names, I was taunted by the other kids, I was often chased home by groups of kids who wanted to beat me up.”

   In her grade school years, when Cox would get bullied, her mother would question what she was doing to bring these problems upon herself.

   “I was just going about my business, as myself. And I began to feel that who I was authentically was a problem.”

   At this point in her life, Cox began to internalize this as shame.

   “From a very early age, I began to feel that I was wrong.”

   Being bullied for “acting like a girl,” Cox didn’t feel safe at school, or at home. But she did feel safe in one place.

   “My imagination. I loved to dance as a kid, and I was pretty good at it, if I must say so myself.”

   Cox experienced another landmark moment at that young age. Cox’s third grade teacher called home to her mother one day after school, and said, “Your son is going to end up in New Orleans wearing a dress if we don’t get him into therapy right away.”

   The incident that led to the call? Cox had found a beautiful hand-held peacock fan in a gift shop while on a trip with her church.

   “So I’m sitting in third grade, fanning myself. Just fanning away, feeling very Scarlett O’Hara, feeling very Gone-With-the-Wind-fabulous.”

   That’s when her teacher called her over, and Laverne’s mother received the call home.

   A little bit more about the church for Cox: growing up in Mobile, Ala., attending every Sunday was essentially mandatory. And while there were many wonderful things about the church for her, it was here that Cox learned some very lasting lessons.

   “I learned who I was authentically was not only a problem, but that it was blasphemy, that it was a sin, and that it meant that I might go to hell.”

   In sixth grade, things only became more complicated. Cox started something that can be awkward and uncomfortable enough as is- puberty.

   “This was a very difficult, confusing, and horrible time for me. I remember saying to myself distinctively, that I didn’t want to grow up and turn into a man. The idea of being a man was horrifying to me.”

   As puberty happened against her will, Cox also came to another realization.

   “I realized that I was attracted almost exclusively to boys, and everyone was telling me that I was a boy.”

   Cox discussed one more pivotal incident in her early years that still resonates with her to this day.

   Emma Cox, Laverne’s grandmother, passed away. And one night, when Cox was in bed, grieving the loss of her grandmother, she imagined her grandmother knew every single “sinful” thought Cox had, and that her grandmother was disappointed in who she was.

   “And so I went to our medicine cabinet, and took an entire bottle of pills, and swallowed them, and went to sleep, hoping not to wake up.”

   Surviving her attempted suicide, Cox woke up with a stomachache, and vowed to push down the feelings that she was so shameful of.

   “It’s important to note that 41 percent of all transgender people report having attempted suicide… Shame does kill.”

   Cox began to compensate for her feelings by becoming a self-proclaimed “overachiever.” With hair flips and giggles, she described how she was voted vice president of the student council, a particularly proud moment for her, because the other students had to vote her into place.

   “I was the kid that they made fun of, I was the kid that they didn’t like, that they chased home from school every day.”

   “Success really is the best revenge.”

   In her teen years, Cox realized her dreams were to study dance at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. While she loved her time at ASFA, which cultivated her love for the arts, Cox also experienced being called a racial slur for the first time. Cox and her twin brother were two of three black students who lived in the dorms.

   “Up until that point, most of the shame that I had internalized was around gender and sexuality. But when I got to the Alabama School of Fine Arts, I added race and class to the equation of things I was shameful about.”

   While she was away from her mother at the ASFA, Cox was able to experiment with how she dressed. Initially afraid of dresses and skirts, she started with other women’s clothes.

   “I had this pair of polyester, leopard print bell bottoms, that were so huge they pooled on the floor behind me when I walked.”

   Calling her style “Salvation Army couture,” and “Salvation Armani,” Cox was always altering clothes, and putting her own spin on her outfits.

   “At the time I had a shaved head, and had started wearing makeup. So I began to exist in this androgynous, non-conforming space.”

   Cox went to college for two years at Indiana University, before transferring to Marymount Manhattan College.

   Having dreamt of arriving in New York City for years, for Cox the Big Apple represented ultimate possibilities.

   “Not only in my career aspirations, but in my pursuit of becoming more of myself.”

   While she kept her nose to the books, Cox admitted that a large part of her education happened in the nightclubs of the city.

   “Stay with me,” she responded to the laughter of the audience.

   Cox arrived in New York City in the early ‘90s, when the infamous Club Kids ran the social scene, a-la McCauley Culkin in Party Monster.

   “The Club Kids were these folks who got paid to dress outrageously, often in various forms of gender nonconformity, androgyny, drag.”

   Armed with her shaved head, gender nonconformity, and Armani-couture, Cox was able to walk up to the velvet ropes of these nightclubs, and be let right in.

   “I never had to pay, they’d give me drink tickets. It was the first time in my life that my gender expression was looked at as something to be celebrated, to be valorized. I felt like a star, I felt special.”

   “I moved to New York City and met real, live, transgender people. And I got to know them as people. And slowly, all of the misconceptions that I had about who transgender people were melted away.”

    “And I was able to accept them, and ultimately, accept myself.”

   Cox received her first hormone shot 16 years ago, a date which marks the beginning of her medical transition. She dropped her old first name, which she didn’t share with the audience, and adopted her middle name, Laverne. Her mother had to get to using different names, different gender pronouns.

   “Pronouns matter, by the way, when we talk with and about transgender people”

   “It is my belief that one of the biggest obstacles facing the transgender community are points of view which disavow our identities. Points of view that suggest that no matter what we do, we are always and only the gender we were assigned at birth. Points of view that suggest that, no matter what I’ll do, I will never be a woman. Yet, ain’t I? Ain’t I a woman?”

   Before “Orange is the New Black,” Cox had been working as an actress, and wrote for the Huffington Post about gender issues.

   “It’s something that I’ve just been passionate about anyway,” she said after her presentation. “‘Orange’ has given me a platform… but I’ve been talking about this stuff for years, it’s just that people are listening now.”

   Cox borrowed the title of her speech from Sojourner Truth. The well-known abolitionist and women’s rights activist gave a speech that garnered the same title on May 29, 1851. Ironically enough, May 29 happens to be Cox’s birthday.

   “Different year though, I’m not quite that old. Although that would be a fierce moisturizer though, wouldn’t it? Woo! You could make a billion dollars from that!”

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