“Orange is the New Black” star Laverne Cox visits TU for the semi-annual Division of Student Affairs ‘Diversity Speaker Series’
Whether she’s playing a role on screen or speaking on stage about unapologetically shaping identities, Laverne Cox is trailblazing the paths of intersectionality. As hundreds of students and members of the TU community gathered in SECU Arena Tuesday night, the blanket of excitement and support that laid itself over the crowd was unmistakable. This was the second time, almost four years to the date, since the TU community has been allowed an opportunity to listen, learn and develop new perspectives from the actress, advocate and transgender powerhouse, Laverne Cox.
Beginning with her difficult childhood, Cox spelled out stories that resonated with members of the audience as she spoke about discovering your identity and struggling with misconceptions of shame versus guilt, and how to differentiate the two. She referenced definitions by Brené Brown, the Texas researcher and professor who studies courage, vulnerability, empathy and shame.
While guilt is the feeling that “I did something wrong,” shame differs in “an intense belief of being unworthy—I am something wrong.”
Cox spoke of her personal struggle with the definition through her experiences growing up in Mobile, Alabama, raised by a single mother with her twin brother, M Lamar. She recalled countless acts of bullying and harassment by peers and friends throughout elementary and middle school. Fortunately, she found a way to express herself through dance.
“I didn’t feel safe in school, I didn’t feel safe at home. But where I did feel safe was in my imagination,” Cox said. “I loved to dance and I was really good at it! Because I had something I loved to do, it saved my life.”
As she continued to build her identity, she was accepted to and given a scholarship to attend Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, Alabama. Inspired by the 1980’s television series “Fame,” she knew she had to go. For the first time in her life, she was granted the freedom of expression, four hours away from home.
She started shopping at The Salvation Army and Goodwill to wear women’s clothing and makeup. Finally in a space that she was able to express her identity, she existed as non-binary or androgynous.
“I had this pair of polyester bell bottoms that were so huge they pulled on the floor behind me as I walked down the hallways” she recalled. “That particular pair I actually cut from a jumpsuit. I used to call them my Salvation Army Armani’s,” she joked as the crowd filled the arena with laughter.
Eventually, Cox found herself in “NEEEW YOORK CITTTYYY,” she shouted, not once, but twice. New York City represented for her a place of ultimate possibility, not only for a professional career, but somewhere that she could “become more of herself.”
It was there that she felt her “gender expression was looked upon as something that was valuable for the first time.”
This is a story told in variations by many individuals of the LGBTQIA+ community. While dealing with the exterior pressures of “social norms,” the internal struggles that individuals may experience in embracing identities can be overlooked.
Following the show, students talked about their major takeaways from the talk. Junior Britton Schams immediately referenced the value in Cox bringing up the communal connection to shame.
“It’s almost a universal topic among the queer community,” Schams explained. “We’re taught from a very young age that it’s not okay when it is.”
Since the advent of the Trump administration in January 2017, marginalized groups such as the transgender community have faced scrutiny and attacks. Following an attempt by the administration to place a ban on transgender individuals from serving in the military due to “tremendous medical costs and disruption,” and rescinding the laws that protected transgender students from using bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity, the LGBTQIA+ community and its allies have remained vigilant of further attempts to dismantle rights.
In her talk, Cox recognized names of individuals that were verbally discriminated against, assaulted or murdered for being transgender. Citing statistics of crime rates against transgender individuals, especially those of color, she ultimately called on each and every person to take part in the calls to action and to talk about the criminal and discriminatory practices that are taking place.
“Intersectionality is really important for her and a lot of other people,” explained TU Queer Student Union Vice President Simon Heil. “I think sometimes in queer circles intersectionality is talked about as if it’s a given, but I think it’s important to remember that it’s always there and it should always be taken into account purposefully.”
Cox stood among fellow members of the community and spoke about this violence that exists against transgender people, the disproportion of this violence among transgender people of color and profiling by police, along with the lack of reported crimes due to that.
“As we’re attacked more and more, we have to talk about these things because there’s so much going on right now and so many people are in pain,” Cox expressed standing before members of the LGBTQIA+ community and allies. “What does the healing look like? What does healing look like as you’re still resisting?”
In an interview with The Guardian, Cox previously referred to herself as an “actress first and an activist second.” When asked Tuesday night if this still holds true, she responds “the wonderful thing about being an artist is when you get to tell a story, that in itself can be incredible activism. It’s an incredible platform to elevate someone’s truth whose story wasn’t told,” she responded. “In this current environment it’s important that we all stay active and resist, but we also have to make sure that we are doing the things that we love most and are passionate about.”
In keeping with the theme of diminishing shame, Cox provides one last piece of Brown’s research information to TU, “empathy is the anecdote to shame,” she explained. “If you put shame in a Petri dish, dose it in a little empathy.”
Laverne Cox is a widely recognized voice for the LGBTQIA+ community. Her work in the entertainment world has pushed for, and accomplished, larger representation on screen for transgender individuals, especially those of color. As a career veteran of making history, Cox has led the way for marginalized people to achieve great success.
She is the first transgender woman of color to produce and star in her own television show, VH1’s “TRANSForm ME,” the first transgender woman of color to appear on an American reality television programs, VH1’s “I Wanna Work for Diddy” for which she accepted a GLAAD media award, the first transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in the acting category for her role in “Orange Is the New Black,” the first transgender woman to win a Daytime Emmy as an executive producer for her documentary, “Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word,” in which two TU alums, Shane Henise and Jess Liberatore held roles and she is also the first transgender person to appear on the cover of both Cosmopolitan and Time Magazine.