Making the Marginalized Heard: Transgender Actress Laverne Cox Shares Her Story at UMass

Sonali Kumar ’14
Contributing Writer

On Monday, Oct. 21, actress Laverne Cox of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black spoke at UMass about her perceptions of the series, her upbringing in Mobile, Alabama, and her experiences as a transgender black woman. The event was well-attended, with over 300 students from all Five Colleges.

With her golden, shoulder-length wavy hair, red dress and sassy personality, Cox was a captivating speaker as she gave a brief history of the transgender and black rights movements and recounted stories of transphobia, homophobia and racism. While in elementary school, peers would use offensive terms against her, and her teachers reprimanded her for failing to conform to gender norms. Her mother, who is now Cox’s biggest supporter, blamed her for being bullied when she was in school at the time. “She would ask me, ‘What are you doing to make them bully you?’ ” In third grade, her mother finally allowed Cox to take jazz and tap lessons, but not ballet, because “that was too gay.” Cox was delighted, remembering, “I was allowed to live out my fantasy.” Her teacher, however, was not as pleased: “Your son is going to end up in a dress in Mobile if we don’t get him to therapy.” In therapy, Cox proved to be wise beyond her years when she responded to the question, “What is the difference between a boy and a girl?” with “There is no difference.”

Perhaps the most heartbreaking story was when Cox strongly felt that her grandmother was disappointed in her and “went to the medicine cabinet and took a bottle of pills, and swallowed all of them.” Luckily, she was unharmed except for a case of nausea, but the story conveys the damaging effects of gender identity repression. With time, she learned to associate gender conformity with success and popularity.

She began to accept her identity as a gender-noncomforming individual in college, when she discovered bell hooks, Judith Butler, Sylvia Rivera and Simone de Beauvoir.  She was also inspired by Tina Sparkles. “I watched Tina Sparkles transform from this sweet queen with bad skin into a beautiful woman … with great skin,” she joked. “I thought that if she could do it, I could too. When I got my first hormone shot, I knew that I had people like Tina Sparkles to thank.” However, she continued to encounter people who would not accept her gender identity even after she had transitioned. A few years into transition, she walked down the street in a dress, only to hear “That’s a man!” and listen to men argue over whether she was a “n***** or a b****.” She described this moment as one that exemplified “the intersections of oppression.” Much of the black community would not accept her identity because of the historical emasculation of black men: “Black men see me as embodiment of that trauma.” By including the histories of lynching, Sylvia Rivera and Tina Sparkles, Cox was able to remind her audience of the bigger picture, in which she was not merely one person who had struggled with these issues, but part of two large communities who have been fighting oppression for centuries.

Despite all of these tragic anecdotes, Cox remains optimistic regarding the future of people of racial minorities and those who struggle with gender identity. While her mother was not as accepting of Cox’s identity during childhood, Cox says, “Now my mother corrects pronouns and hands out cards. She’s proud of her transgender daughter.” While she said that “the church was the place where I really learned that who I was was an abomination,” she added that although she prefers to pray by herself instead of participating in organized religion, many denominations are becoming friendlier toward the LGBT community.

As the event came to an end, the actor addressed Smith’s restrictive admissions practices, which last year prevented transgender woman Calliope Wong from being admitted into the College. She encouraged Smith College students to be activists in changing the admissions policy and proposed that students who do not deal with these issues “acknowledge their privilege, and listen to the stories of those who do.” She cited the show as one example which, she believes, “uses [protagonist] Piper as a gateway into the lives of women [of color] in prison. The reality is that we have to see lives through the lens of white women.” Perhaps Orange is the New Black will make it easier for marginalized people to make their voices heard.

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