Sharing personal anecdotes, speaking about various schools of feminist thought and even taking a selfie with an audience member, Emmy-nominated actress and transgender activist Laverne Cox drew uproarious applause for her speech at the Jorgensen Center Wednesday night.
The lights were dim when she walked on stage, but the instantaneous explosion of cheers lit up a smirk on Cox’ face. As soon as she began talking, viewers quickly silenced to listen.
“Justice is what love looks like in public,” Cox said, quoting American philosopher Cornel West. She added that empathy was the solution to the shame marginalized people feel.
Cox said she was often bullied as a child growing up in Alabama and initially ostracized by her mother for not acting like a boy. At one point in third grade, she was recommended to have testosterone injections so that she would act more masculine. Cox said that at age 11, she tried to kill herself by overdosing on pills. She cited a survey stating that 41 percent of transgender and non-gender conforming youth attempt suicide.
These experiences, along with her being attracted to men and told by her church that this was sinful, added a level of shame and questioning to her own sense of identity. However, though she said that she never felt safe at home or school, Cox said her imagination helped her persevere.
“My passion saved my life,” Cox said, bringing up how her interest in dance, as well as reading and writing, often brought her hope and motivation to do well in school. “I realized that success is the best way to get revenge.”
Cox said her experiences dancing in high school and going to college in Manhattan gradually helped her find out that there were others like her and that transgender people could be happy and even successful.
Cox also brought up ideologies from Judith Butler, specifically mentioning the idea of gender as a performance, rather than being innate. Cox continued, stating that her favorite feminist was bell hooks, who influenced her thoughts on women’s rights and helped her acknowledge race as a huge part of identity.
Reflecting on her own experiences in dealing with harassment, Cox said that minorities are often systematically turned against each other, despite being negatively impacted by a traditional white patriarchal system. Bringing up aspects of slavery like the emasculation of black males, Cox said she suffered the majority of her harassment as a child from other African-Americans, but partially because of their own historical suffering.
“I have been fetishized for being a woman, misgendered as being a man, identified because of the color of my skin and had my body objectified,” Cox said, mentioning one incident where a black man and a Latino man verbally harassed her. “But over the years, I have realized that being transgender is beautiful.”
Cox said her experiences as a transgender black woman helped empower her and that she knew that her success as an actress could help educate others and help change how cultural institutions treat anyone. She also said she realized black people could be just as bigoted than other races, citing experiences with talking to her mom numerous times, allowing Cox to eventually gain acceptance and a safe place to be herself.
Yet with all of what she said, the most poignant moment of her speech may have been near the beginning. Cox mentioned how one of the obstacles to her self-acceptance and success was people telling her that she would never be a woman. She then subsequently quoted Sojourner Truth and asked audience members, “Ain’t I a woman?”
By the standing ovation she received at the end of her awe-inspiring and electrifying performance, the answer was pretty clear.