TRIGGER WARNINGS: Mentions of suicide, bullying, and harassment
On October fifth, Laverne Cox – transgender woman of color, feminist, social activist, producer, Sophia on Orange is the New Black and many other things – spoke in front of a full Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University.
Cox was not there to talk about how she overcame adversity to become the successful woman she is today, but instead stood in that room full of eager ears to discuss a personal story that reflects that of so many others, and how she wishes to use her voice to change lives, public policy and the world.
Her speech was one of connection. Cox shared how many of her traits are marginally looked down upon in society, but no longer looked down upon by herself.
“I’m not just one thing and neither are you,” Cox said. “I think it’s important to claim the intersecting values of my identity proud and in public.”
As the first transgender woman to have a leading role in a mainstream television show, Cox is predominantly recognized for her work with the trans community.
“It is my belief that one of the biggest problems that faces the transgender community are points of view that disavow our identity… I do stand here this evening claiming my womanhood in a social context that would often deny it,” Cox said to the crowd.
Cox went on to discuss her experiences in school. She grew up in Mobile, Alabama and was a victim of bullying everyday of her grade school career.
“They said I ‘acted like a girl,’ whatever that means, seeing as girls act a number of different ways,” Cox said, followed by enthusiastic cheers.
From peers, to church members and even to family, Cox was made to feel like how she felt inside was wrong by the people surrounding her.
Cox recalled a time that marked one of the most pivotal put downs in her childhood.
When in the third grade, she was at Six Flags with her church. Cox, then still identifying as a boy, purchased a handheld, peacock printed fan that she wanted in order to look like Scarlett O’Hara from “Gone with the Wind.”
When she used the fan in school, it prompted teachers to call her mother and say “your son needs to see a therapist before he ends up in New Orleans wearing a dress.”
So, Cox’s mother made a therapy appointment.
“My therapist asked me if I knew the difference between a boy and a girl,” Cox said. “In my infinite wisdom as a third grader, because third graders are so wise, I said ‘there is no difference.’”
Another major aspect of Cox’s adolescent shame was her experience with puberty.
“As puberty happened, I knew I did not want to grow up and be a man,” she said. “I would go to bed at night praying to God to make me a girl.”
With puberty, came Cox’s realization that she (still identifying as he at the time) was attracted to males.
When Cox’s grandmother passed away, she thought her grandmother could hear her homosexually charged thoughts from the afterlife, and was so shook by the thought of her grandmother being disappointed, that she consumed an entire bottle of pills.
“I went to sleep hoping I would not wake up the next day,” Cox said. “41% of all transgender people report having a suicide attempt. 41% compared to 2% of the entire population.”
Transgender Reynolds student Catheryn Bethel believed this story to be the most influential story Cox told throughout the night.
“I feel like, to a smaller degree, I have been in that dark place,” Bethel said. “My family has grown (to be) so accepting since I came out that I can choose not to give that shame power over me anymore.”
Using her life experiences as a segue to larger issues like homicide and street harassment, Cox spoke poignantly on how trans lives are “in a state of emergency” today.
She shared stories of multiple catcalling and public misgendering experiences, even being kicked and yelled at by a group of young men on the street in Midtown Manhattan. She feverishly discussed the fact that the US Census does not collect data on trans people, and how that lack of recognition makes public funding for the needs of trans people hard to come by.
She didn’t just talk about problems caused by the majority, she also discussed internal problems of the minority.
“Marginalized people often police each other,” Cox said. “That is one of the tools of oppression, to have us go against each other. How do we create spaces of healing so we don’t take our pain out on each other?”
Cox believes problems won’t be solved until “we change hearts and minds” of those who don’t respect trans lives. This is an idea echoed by Bethel.
“We (trans people) deserve to live as authentically as everyone else and to take that away from anyone is to take away basic civil rights, which is the worst torture imaginable,” Bethel said.
At the end of the speech, Cox took questions from the crowd, starting with trans and genderqueer audience members. When one young transwoman asked how to deal with “shade” from her unaccepting father, Cox offered the poignant advice to “go where it’s warm,” because life is best lived happily.
Cox also had advice that moved the whole room for those struggling with gender identity, especially those being pushed to suicidal thoughts because of this struggle.
“You are loved, you belong somewhere in this world, don’t give up hope,” Cox said. “You can live the truth of who you are.”
If you or anyone you know is struggling with gender identity or thoughts of suicide, here are numbers to contact for help.
Trans LifeLine: (877) 565-8860
Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1 (800) 273-8255
In times of urgency, never hesitate to call 911.