When Laverne Cox walked on stage on Thursday night, the audience roared. Literally. It is shocking to see someone that you watch on TV in real life right in front of your face — especially someone with that fantastic of hair.
The Eisenhower Auditorium was packed for the Student Programming Association sponsored event where the actress and transgender activist, best known for her portrayal of Sophia Burset on “Orange Is the New Black,” shared her unique life story about acceptance of self.
Cox began the night with declaring her pride for openly identifying as an African American, transgender woman by confidently repeating the phrase “ain’t I a woman” several times. The audience could not stop exploding with applause and praise. However, Cox was quick to say that she did not always possess the iconic confidence about her identity that she does today.
Cox opened up about her childhood full of the horrors of bullying for being effeminate in a time of strict gender conformity. “I felt safe in my own imagination,” she said. She explained that she only behaved in ways that felt natural to her, but noted, “We are a culture that uses shame.” And this constant feeling of shame is what led her to attempt suicide at just 11-years-old.
After the attempt, she pushed down her identity even more, trying to conform to the structured views of the people around her. “One of the biggest obstacles for the transgender community is point of view,” she said.
Cox admitted that she internalized a lot of shame about her identity. However, her femininity could not be contained. By the time she was in high school at Alabama School of Fine Arts, first for creative writing and eventually for ballet, she acted and dressed how she wanted to, even as bullying and criticism continued. She expressed, “if we can find something in this world that we are truly passionate about, it can save a life.”
It was not until Cox moved to New York City that she felt her gender nonconformity was actually celebrated, instead of tolerated or denied. She explained she arrived in New York with many misconceptions influenced by other people’s rigid viewpoints combined with the flawed gender logic in America. Of course, now Cox insists that, “realities and experiences in our lives defy this binary model.”
Still, Cox recognized that we live in a world with a lack of listening and empathy for others. Because of this, she reiterated that we all need to be willing to have the difficult conversations. “We don’t always know the right thing to say,” she acknowledged, “but creating safe spaces through talking is so important.”
Today, she sees herself as beautiful because of traits that characterize her as a transgender female. She fiercely owns her uniqueness. And she stressed that she accepted herself through simply seeing other people as people. She emphasized, “Accepting others leads to accepting ourselves.”