13 Things We Learned from Laverne Cox’s Visit to UCD

On May 19th, Laverne Cox came to the Mondavi Center and told stories about her transformation into the actress and activist we all admire.

Even when she was a child, she believed there were no differences between boys and girls. Her teachers and peers disagreed. They bullied and reprimanded Cox for exhibiting feminine behavior, like waving around a peacock fan a la Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Cox recounted her mother’s reaction to her request to take dance lessons. Although she allowed her to take tap and jazz, she was not allowed to take ballet because it was “too gay” and too feminine. With the passing of Cox's grandmother, the bullying and shaming she experienced due to her gender expression reached its breaking point. Because she couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing or embarrassing her loved ones, she attempted suicide. 

Later in life, she wished to enter the Alabama School of Fine Arts as a Dance major, but due to her lack of ballet training, entered as a Creative Writing major, then switched to Dance and went on to study acting at Marymount Manhattan College. Gender policing intensified as she made her transition into a woman. While walking the streets of New York City in clothes she called "Salvation Armani," people delegitimized her gender identity in various ways. Catcallers would ridicule her for "deceiving" them, exhibiting classic symptoms of transmisogyny. Even Laverne's mother told her that she couldn't pass as a woman because her "hands were too big."

Though Cox has faced many hardships throughout her life, she also has many wonderful memories. In the midst of her acting career, her mother told a reporter that all parents of transgender men and women should "listen to their kids." Cox was moved to tears by her mother's statement; it was important to her that her mother created an atmosphere of acceptance. Along with her personal experiences, Laverne also shared her knowledge about transgender rights, intersectionality, and self-acceptance. Here's what we learned:

1.      Intentionally misgendering an individual is an act of violence. It threatens that individual's self-made identity.

2.      “Justice is what love looks like in public.” It's time to show more common humanity and love for the transgender community, the black community, and all other communities that have experienced injustice due to systems of oppression.

3.      Passion can be life-saving. Laverne spoke about how self-expression helped her cope with persistent physical and verbal bullying. 

4.      We live in a culture that thrives on publicly shaming others. Resisting that shame is essential for living a guilt-free and worthy life.

5.      "Hurt people hurt people." In other words, those who are marginalized have the tendency to marginalize others. When we take out our pain on others, we are using the tool of the oppressor.

6.      Telling a transgender person, “You pass so well!” or “You don’t look like a man/woman,” is not a compliment.

7.      Self-acceptance is a practice that requires us to really look in the mirror and describe each thing we love about ourselves. Laverne explained that the things that make her beautiful are her big hands, her broad shoulders, and her deep, sultry voice because those are markers of her being a trans woman.

8.      Be aware of our history as a nation and as a culture. Be aware of history repeating itself.

9.      Pronouns matter. To respect an individual, we have to address said individual with their preferred gender pronouns.

10.    Celebrating intersectionality means being proud of all aspects of our identity. We do not, and should not, have to choose one aspect of our identity (i.e. gender, race, sexual orientation, or class). All of these things make us who we are.  

11.      Protect Trans Women of Color. The National LGBTQ Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality say “a staggering 41% of [their] respondents reported attempting suicide, compared to 1.6% of the general population, with rates rising for those who lost a job due to bias (55%), were harassed/bullied in school (55%), had low household income, or were the victim of physical assault (61%) or sexual assault (64%).”

12.     Imagine what the world would be like if we stopped gender policing. She explained that if we stop telling people that their gender expressions (taking ballet lessons and wearing leopard print bell-bottoms in Laverne's case) are not in accordance with their assigned sex, we could achieve so much more than what is expected of us.

13.     #Transisbeautiful.

Ms. Cox had a cool, confident demeanor and sported an extensive knowledge of female activism, feminist pioneers, and scholars. Women like bell hooks (her pen name is stylized lowercase), Sojourner Truth, Judith Butler, and Brene Brown all served as academic voices to support the depth of her experiences. She articulated the profound effects of our society’s white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative, capitalist, imperialist, and transphobic systems of oppression without ever pointing a finger of judgement. Not once did she compromise any aspect of her identity to present herself as just a transgender woman. In doing so, Laverne echoed the importance of intersectionality in creating an inclusive, well-rounded practice of feminism.

Finally, Laverne described her transition as a very important time in her life, but never focused on the intimate details of her surgery. So many trans women endure invasive questions that objectify and “other” their bodies, as well as trivialize their accomplishments. The media’s preoccupation with the surgical procedures and status of a transgendered individual’s body delegitimizes their gender expression, and violates a very basic understanding of respect for one’s personal privacy.

Watch Laverne Cox talk to Katie Couric, explaining the issue:

Laverne Cox has given the trans community visibility in mainstream America through her work in an industry that tends to be problematic and exclusive. She is an inspiration, an educator, a pioneer, an actress, a dancer, an activist, an African-American, a daughter of a working-class single mother, a twin, and a transgendered woman. She refuses to be just one without the others, making Laverne Cox one dynamic 21st century feminist icon.