Laverne Cox stood at the podium in Memorial Chapel, flipped her long hair around her shoulders with splendor and claimed, “Ain’t I a woman.”
It was a statement, not a question.
In elementary school, Cox was bullied relentlessly. This did not stop her. With sweeping arm gestures and a wide smile, she made light of what happened and explained how she overcame it. She ran for class president and won.
“In eighth grade, I got to lead the entire school in the Pledge of Allegiance on the intercom every single day, and so this kid no one liked, everyone made fun of, they got to hear my voice every single day. It was awesome,” she said. The chapel echoed with claps and laughter.
She alternated between humorous anecdotes and theory. She elaborated on the importance of being validated and, using the language of Bell Hooks, decried the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Cox also quoted Simone de Beauvoir, who said: “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes, a woman.”
Cox talked about the feminist icons and writers she was inspired by, highlighting the complexities of oppression and identity. “Bell Hooks’ words were like oxygen to me,” Cox said.
It were these complexities of oppression and identity that showed when she walked down the streets of New York City as a black woman after her transition.
When she was catcalled, she explained how she experienced the intersection of misogyny and transphobia. She called this transmisogyny, the misogyny trans women face.
Early in her life, Cox had a deep passion for dance.
“I believe that if we can find something in this world that we are truly passionate about, it can be life-saving,” Cox said as people in the audience nodded their heads in either agreement or gratitude.
“The moment I heard about the Alabama School of Fine Arts, I knew I had to go there.” It was her hometown and she wanted to study dance there. However, the school only offered ballet.
Her mother had never let Cox study ballet because it was “too gay,” so instead she applied for and was accepted to the creative writing program. In the meantime, she studied ballet until she was able to transfer into the ballet program at the university.
This same persistence and drive wove throughout the lecture, along with the idea of shame. She used Brené Brown’s explanation: Guilt is I did something wrong. Shame is I am wrong.
In sixth grade, she would go to bed praying to God, “Please don’t let me wake up and turn into a man.”
But puberty happened anyway.
That same year, her grandmother passed away, and while lying in bed one night she began to think about her grandmother.
“I imagined that she knew every single thought that I was having about boys and imagined that she must be extremely disappointed in me and the idea of disappointing [my grandmother] made me not want to live.”
Overwhelmed by shame, she went to the medicine cabinet and swallowed the contents of a bottle of pills, going to sleep hoping not to wake up in the morning.
In the morning, she woke with only a terrible stomachache. “When I survived, I remember saying to myself that I would do everything that I could to push down those feelings that I was having for boys,” she said.
She tried desperately to act the way she was “supposed to” in order to make her family proud. This shame and horror continued.
However, in university, Cox had a shaved head and began aligning herself with the gender non-conforming side of herself, chasing a future in New York City.
Cox flipped her hair again then grew solemn, the audience waited.
Her hands gripped the edges of the podium as she said, “I did not associate transgender with being successful and accomplished, and then I moved to New York City and met real transgender people and got to know them as people … individually accepted them and ultimately accepted myself.”
Liam Baronofsky, a senior Psychology major with he, him, his pronouns, was enthralled by the event.
“As soon as she came out I fucking cried. And I cried like five times after that,” he said. “So it was actually amazing. I’m trans so no one has ever validated my life before really in terms of having someone go on stage and be a trans person.”
The theme of shame continued through Cox’s lecture into Baronofsky’s comments: “I related a lot to the shame part. There is such a culture of shame around anyone who is different … But I fucking hated myself and felt so much shame for so long and it’s only been the past maybe three months or so that I’ve actually started to learn how to love myself.”
Cox asked the crowd: “What would it be like for a day, a week, a month, a year, if each of us decided that we are not going to be enforcers of these binary models? If everyone expressed their gender in what felt most authentic to them?”
Cox created the hashtag #transisbeautiful to embrace different identities and spread the message.
Featured Photo Credit: Screen capture of Laverne Cox in her portrayal of Sophia Burset from the Netflix hit Orange Is the New Black.
Raye Weigel is a sophomore multiplatform journalism and English major and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.