Laverne Cox knows her character in Orange is the New Black in a way most actors can only imagine. Unlike her character, Sophia Burset, Cox has never been to an all-women’s high security prison, but she shares a fundamentally similar experience with Sophia: undergoing the transition from male to female.
Cox discussed her experience Monday, Nov. 4 in a lecture titled “Ain’t I a Woman: My Journey to Womanhood” as part of Transgender Awareness Week. Cox said the title is a tribute to abolitionist Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech, one that inspired her to embrace her womanhood as an African-American and a transgender person.
When Cox stood at the podium, she said she could feel the palpable excitement of the audience.
“Gosh, I’m looking out at you and I’m thinking about all of the love that you’re giving to me and I’m so grateful for it,” Cox said. “I think that if all trans women of color all over the country got this kind of love every day, then we would change lives.”
In her speech, Cox discussed her life transitions, from feeling oppression growing up in Mobile, Ala. to finally being able to embrace herself while attending Marymount Manhattan College in New York City.
“My creativity and my brand of gender nonconformity for the first time was something that was really celebrated,” Cox said of her first experiences in New York City. She recalled meeting people of various backgrounds and gender roles. In New York’s nightclub scene in the 1990s, her role as a transgender person was embraced. Cox said that because of the way she looked, she never had to wait in line at nightclubs.
Cox said she has faced firsthand the issues that many transgender people encounter, including street harassment, employment discrimination, and even medical discrimination. In the lecture, she recalled an instance in which two men who cat-called her were arguing over her gender as she was waiting to cross the street.
“That moment, to me, encapsulates so much of what trans women have to deal with — these intersections of misogyny, transphobia, and some racial stuff as well,” Cox said.
Although the transgender community continues to confront these problems among others, Cox stressed that progress is being made. She said that having a transgender woman represented on television is extremely important for the transgender community and for those who struggle to understand it.
In the show, Cox’s character Sophia is a transgender woman who endures harassment from prison guards and fellow inmates. Flashbacks to her pre-prison life portray her transition from a male New York City firefighter — played by her identical twin brother, musician M. Lamarto a female in-prison hairstylist who struggles to receive hormone treatment from the institution’s doctors.
“I can’t tell you how many messages I’ve gotten from transgendered folks saying how validating that is for them to finally see themselves on TV represented in ways that they really can relate to,” Cox said in a press conference in Piano Row prior to her lecture. “When we actually have a real transgendered person [on television], then there’s a whole population of transgender folks who see themselves and begin to imagine the possibilities of their lives and have their experiences validated.”
Malcolm Meyer, the vice president of Emerson’s Alliance for Gays, Lesbians, and Everyone, was a speaker at the event. The junior journalism major, and former Beacon staff member, said that Cox was spreading awareness simply by being on the show.
“People don’t always understand what being transgender is, so by seeing someone on TV or Netflix, they can understand some of the struggles that transgendered people have,” said Meyer, who himself is transgender.
For Cox, one of her biggest struggles was dealing with harassment and bullying, especially during her childhood. As a girl in a boy’s body, she didn’t have a strong sense of self, and said she struggled to defend herself against bullies, who regularly chased her home from school from first to eighth grade.
“I was made to feel as though who I was was a problem,” Cox said.
Cox’s journey from feeling self-hatred as a child to empowerment as a grown woman is ongoing, she said, but it helped to have people who supported her. She also said that undergoing therapy helped her to deal with the pain and trauma.
“For me, it’s about … having a lot of support to love myself … even though all these things are happening to me, or things are being said about me, and to know that what other people say about me is not who I am,” Cox said.
Amber Bigwood, a senior interdisciplinary major and member of EAGLE’s EBoard, said that even though Emerson’s community is like a little bubble, she is grateful that she can be herself.
“If I were to go to any other school … I’m not just going to be Amber, I’m going to be your token gay friend,” Bigwood said. “At Emerson, I’m not a token, and I think that’s really overlooked by a lot of people.”
In the future, Cox said she wants a society that loves and accepts transgendered people without making fun of them, criticizing them, or stigmatizing them. As she embraces her role as an advocate for the transgender community, she said she also hopes that more transgendered people will be portrayed in the media.
“There’s no possible way that I can represent the entirety of the transgender community,” Cox said. “I represent myself and I do think it’s my responsibility to speak for those who don’t have a voice and the platform that I have, but at the end of the day, we need those voices in front of us on television.”