Tyra Wu ‘19 Associate Editor
Laverne Cox sat in her third grade classroom in Alabama glamorously fanning herself with a handheld fan she had recently bought during a church trip to Six Flags. She had just seen “Gone With The Wind” and was busy imagining herself as Scarlett O’Hara. After watching the scene for a while, her teacher pulled her aside and asked her, “Do you know what the difference between a boy and a girl is?” Cox candidly replied, “There is none.”
This incident caused her teacher to make a concerned phone call to her mother, saying “Your son will end up in New Orleans in a dress if we don’t do something now.”
Looking back on the incident, Cox glanced down at her figure-hugging iron blue dress and laughed. On April 17, the Emmy-nominated actress shared this story among many other experiences as a black openly transgender woman. “Transgender people are being attacked in our community,” she reminded the audience, citing the latest U.S. trans survey that states that 77 percent of students from grades K-12 of trans or gender nonconforming identities experience bullying.
“I believe that one of the biggest obstacles facing the transgender community are points of view which disavow our identity, points of view that suggest that no matter what we do, we are always and only the gender we were born as,” Cox said.
Cox traced the society’s rigid notions of gender back to Sojourner Truth’s famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” noting that suffragettes like Truth weren’t seen as real women. But with a flip of her honey-blonde hair over her shoulder, she asked the audience, “Yet ain’t I a woman?” Through her childhood, she struggled with her nontraditional gender expression. Cox suffered years of bullying from her peers; the second the bus stopped she would have to start running in order to escape, but sometimes she didn’t run fast enough. During her talk, a recurring theme was the shame Cox internalized throughout her childhood and adult life due to her nontraditional gender expression. Oftentimes it was her mother’s reaction to the bullying that made Cox feel ashamed. When her mother asked her what she was doing to make the other kids bully her, Cox felt as if her desire to be different meant there was something innately wrong with her. But despite the restrictions of a society that refuses to celebrate, acknowledge or even count transgender people, Cox was hopeful about change.
“We know that the lived experiences of our lives defy these conflation of the binary model,” she said.
Throughout the night she referenced several feminist and queer theorists including Judith Butler (“good ol’ Judy B”), Brene Brown (“she’s really everything”) and Simone de Beauvoir (“MAJOR!”). Cox also referenced bell hooks, who she discovered as a gender nonconforming college student in New York City. It was during her time studying in NYC that Cox discovered the club scene, which she recalled as a transformative time for her self-image. It was there that “my femininity could not be contained,” Cox said. Dressed in polyester leopard-print bell bottoms, what she called her “Salvation Armani,” Cox would saunter to the front of the long line of impatient clubgoers and was quickly waved in.
While NYC was the “ultimate place to be herself,” it was also a place where she was attacked. Four years ago she was walking in her neighborhood in Midtown Manhattan when a man threatened her. Luckily for Cox, she made it out of the situation unharmed. For many transgender people, this is not an unfamiliar situation and many are not as lucky. In 2017 alone, eight transgender people have already been killed, according to Cox. Referencing our current political climate, she stressed that people need to feel safe and respected.
“Now more than ever, we have to be engaged,” Cox said. “It’s about staying active and staying woke.”
The rest of her talk chronicled various aspects of her life, spanning from her relationship with her twin brother (a self-described “Negro-punk, practicing homosexual”), to her conflicting feelings about being on the cover of Time Magazine, to her immense love for Beyonce. In the last few moments of her speech, Cox acknowledged the difficulties of trying to fix the many problems in our society and challenged the audience to “pick a cause, stay woke.” After those words, she thanked Smith College and with a slight curtsy to the audience, glided off the stage to the thunderous sound of a standing ovation.