Laverne Cox discourages gender policing

by Zac Hardwick | 5/4/14 7:06pm

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Cox said moving to New York was a formative experience.
by Annie Ma / Annie Ma

Discussing childhood bullying in Alabama and her journey to self-acceptance, Laverne Cox, an LGBTQ activist and actress on “Orange is the New Black,” gave Friday’s keynote Pride Week address. Over 300 people packed into Filene Auditorium and an overflow room to listen to Cox speak about intersecting identities, gender policing and meaningful dialogue, with many others watching a live stream online.

She emphasized that those engaging in challenging conversations must support each other.

“I believe that we can have difficult discussions across difference if we do it with love and empathy,” Cox said. “With this society and social media, the love and empathy piece is often missing when we have difficult discussions about difference.”

Cox, a transgender woman, also discussed her childhood and the bullying she experienced at school. She said she noticed that while many students berated her with anti-gay slurs, they were reacting to her gender expression, not her sexuality. Society’s conception of a gender binary, Cox said, conflates the ideas of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“If we are really serious about ending the bullying of our youth in this country, particularly our LGBTQ youth, we have to begin to create spaces of gender self-determination,” she said.

When she was in third grade, a teacher suggested that Cox attend therapy to avoid becoming “a woman in a dress in New Orleans,” she said. She saw a therapist for a short period of time before the therapist suggested injecting Cox with testosterone to make her more masculine, at which point Cox’s mother withdrew her from treatment, Cox said.

In middle school, however, Cox said that the tide turned in her favor. She applied and was admitted to the Alabama School of Fine Arts, a Birmingham high school where she studied dance. Cox said she was a straight-A student, member of the National Junior Honors Society, county-wide public speaking champion in 8th grade and student council vice president. She went on to receive a scholarship to Indiana University in Bloomington, where she stayed for two years before transferring to Marymount Manhattan College in New York City.

Cox said that her experience at New York nightclubs were a formative aspect of her education, marking the first time that her gender expression was celebrated by others.

In New York, Cox also met other transgender individuals for the first time, helping her overcome prior misconceptions, she said. One woman, named Tina Sparkles, she recalled, showed her that transgender women could be elegant, sophisticated and successful.

“If it weren’t for Tina Sparkles and all of the amazing women I met in the club scene in New York City, I might not have ended up in Dr. Rich’s office almost 16 years ago for my first hormone shot in the beginning of my medical transition,” she said.

Cox also discussed deciding to tell her mother that she was medically transitioning. Cox told her mother roughly eight months after beginning her transition, and was met with denial. She said that her mother had to get accustomed to calling her daughter by a different first name and using different gender pronouns.

Students interviewed said Cox was a good choice for a Pride Week speaker.

Logan Henderson ’17 said her remarks were engaging and would help him more effectively participate in important campus dialogue.

“Her speech really reflected upon her experiences in a humorous and humbling way,” Henderson said. “Her presence, I think, will serve as a catalyst for me to have productive and meaningful conversations about trans people, people of color and queer people of color in this fairly homogeneous community and encourage people to attempt to empathize and really listen when others tell their stories.”

Henderson added that she attracted “more than the usual crowd,” boosting student engagement with Pride Week.

John Pessoa ’16 said Cox brought a unique perspective to the Dartmouth community. Her experience as a transgender woman was a perspective he had never taken the time to critically examine and appreciate, he said.

While he could not attend the show, Richard Stephenson ’12 said he was able to overcome his nerves and fears about participating in his first drag show, the Pride drag show, because he was inspired by Cox’s “Orange is the New Black” character. In the show, Cox plays Sophia Burset, a transgender woman incarcerated for committing credit card fraud to pay for her gender transition.

“Laverne Cox is an inspiration to everyone, not just members of the LGTBQ community, but anyone that struggles with identity issues,” Stephenson said. “Her work as an actress and an activist allows her to be a beacon of hope for all those lost in their sea of insecurities can find their way back home to their confidence and pride.”