by Catherine Zhang
Laverne Cox appeared at Northwestern University Tuesday evening to discuss the intersection of gender, race, class and social inequality.
Hundreds of Northwestern students, faculty and staff turned out at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall to attend the event, which was hosted by Rainbow Alliance, A&O Productions and One Book One Northwestern.
Cox, who is best known for her role as Sophia Burset on Orange is the New Black, is also a television producer, transgender advocate and renowned speaker. She is the first trans woman of color to have a leading role on a mainstream TV show, and her critical writings have been published on The Huffington Post.
Cox enthralled the audience with a rhythm that came straight out of a slam poem, drawing inspiration from Sojourner Truth, Judith Butler, Monica Lewinsky and more.
She said that her mother, who was a teacher, placed a heavy emphasis on education when she was a child. Not only did her mother want her children to learn the history of racial oppression, but she also wanted them to learn the history of racial resistance.
Speaking with a tone as if she were having a one-on-one conversation with the audience, Cox attempted to explain why her classmates felt compelled to bully her as a child.
“I was acting in ways that felt most authentic to me,” she said.
Specifically, she fell in love with dancing as a child and encouraged the audience to never abandon doing whatever makes them happy.
“I would have these characters that I would express through dance,” she said. “If we can find something in this world that we are truly passionate about, it can be life-saving.”
However, going through puberty, she was often conflicted by what she felt was most authentic about herself and the conventional stereotypes that plagued her as a child.
“I did not want to grow up and turn into a man. The idea of that was horrifying,” she said.
Cox said she finally felt like her gender expression was celebrated when she moved to New York, arriving in her culottes and bell-bottoms, which she deemed “Salvation Armani.”
At night clubs, she met other trans women as well as many drag queens, who demonstrated to her the misconceptions about being shameful of trans.
Still, when she started the medical transition, she felt out of place.
“The world is not mirroring back to me the way that I see myself,” she said, quoting her thoughts back then.
Eventually, Cox learned how to celebrate her identity and to cherish the fact that she didn’t fit in.
Towards the end of her speech, she took the time to acknowledge the violence that was taking place in Baltimore, using it as a transition to discuss her overall stance about violence against trans people.
She said that other people of color misgendered her, perhaps because marginalized people tend to police each other, providing the example that African American males sometimes express the pain they feel about their ancestors being emasculated.
Slaves were often lynched, and their genitalia were sometimes cut off, pickled and sold in jars, she explained.
“Hurt people hurt people,” she said.
Freshman Makayla Finch said that Cox’s speech was far-reaching for Northwestern students.
“They came here and realized that these are real issues, that she is more than an actress, that she represents all of these things that we’re fighting for,” she said. “It’s really important for her to be the advocate that she is. Because she’s an actress, she has a great role in visibility.”
A short Q&A session followed Cox’s speech. Northwestern students were encouraged to submit questions using the hashtag #NUasksLaverne.
In response to a question about trans people in the media, Cox said, “Diversity really does matter for representation.”
She emphasized that her role on TV mattered a lot for the show’s audience, who often manage to relate to both her and her character.
However, she ended her speech with a call to action, arguing that change is not just exposing trans people to the world.
“Visibility needs to translate into policy,” she said.