[Originally published here at OnwardState.com on October 9, 2014]
In honor of National Coming Out Week, Penn State’s LGBTA Student Resource Center arranged for “Orange is the New Black” star and admirable transgender activist Laverne Cox to give a free lecture to 800 lucky students in the HUB.
“I stand before you a proud African American transgender woman from a working class home, raised by a single mother,” Cox said by way of introduction. She gave a quick lesson about the transgender community and its current “state of emergency” before getting back to some of her personal background.
Cox was born in Alabama, where she was bullied daily. As a child, she developed an intense love for dance, which she enthusiastically embraced. “I only felt safe inside my imagination and I loved to dance. Dancing saved my life,” she said. “People said I was acting like a girl, but they were telling me I was a boy.”
Harassment over her gender identity and sexuality began early on — it started as early as third grade. She reminisced on a pivotal moment she had that year in grade school.
“One day, my teacher called my mother and told her, ‘Your son will end up in New Orleans wearing a dress if you don’t get him into therapy,’” Cox said.
She explained that this incident all started with a peacock fan, the kind that you see women fanning themselves with in old-time films. It made her teachers uncomfortable that she, a gender-assigned male, was using a fan like that during class. She was sent to the school therapist, who asked her if she knew the difference between a boy and a girl. A young Cox answered, “There is no difference.”
There was talk of injecting testosterone into the child to make her more masculine, but that aggressive option was avoided when Cox began attending church with her mother and siblings to “set her straight” the old-fashioned way. This meant church every Sunday was absolutely mandatory, but that didn’t deter Cox. “I saw this as another performance opportunity,” she said.
Three years later, in sixth grade, gender-assigned male Cox hit puberty, and she was less than enthusiastic about it. “I remember thinking ‘I don’t want to grow up and be a man,’” Cox said.
That year was also hard for Cox because her grandmother passed away. Her family called her Madea, short for Mother Dearest.
“She was sitting up in heaven, and I figured since she was up there, she could hear all the wrongful thoughts I was having about boys, and I couldn’t stand that,” Cox said. “I couldn’t stand to let her down like that. I stood up, went to the bathroom, emptied an entire bottle from the medicine cabinet into my hand, and swallowed them all, hoping I wouldn’t wake up the next morning. But I did wake up — with a horrible stomach ache.”
Statistically, 41 percent of transgenders have attempted suicide at least once, which is the largest suicide statistic of all facets of the LGBTA community. After her attempted suicide, Cox began to suppress her femininity and focus on becoming a better student, at which she excelled. In seventh grade, despite being relentlessly bullied, she was elected class vice president. But soon after her election into office, Cox learned about a fine arts school just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, and she started planning how she could get in.
It didn’t take much to convince her family to support her in her enrollment, and soon she was unpacking her bags in her new dorm at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. Since she was away from home for the first time, Cox started experimenting with makeup and women’s clothing, mostly from the Salvation Army and Goodwill. She used some of her spare time to alter the clothes, calling her creations “Salvation Armani.”
Although Cox found a sense of freedom at this new school, she still did not escape discrimination. Instead, she was met with a kind of discrimination she had never experienced before.
“When I got there, it was great, but it was the first time in my life that I had ever been called a racial slur,” Cox said. “It was the first time in my life that I’d felt shame around my race and wealth rather than my gender identity.”
After graduating from ASFA, she spent two years at Indiana University before transferring to Marymount Manhattan University, where she earned a degree in dance. Upon graduation, Cox packed her bags for New York City, which she knew would be “the ultimate place for her.” Once she arrived, she spent a lot of time in the nightclubs learning about New York City night culture, and she reveled in the acceptance that it offered.
“It was the first time that who I was was being celebrated,” Cox said. “I felt like a celebrity.”
The New York City nightlife ended up changing her life more than she expected. It was the setting in which she met the person who would ultimately inspire her life-changing decision to start hormone treatments.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without her,” Cox said. “Her name was Tina Sparkles. Isn’t that absolutely fabulous? She was African American, 6-foot-6 in heels, and she had this pimply face. Over the time that I knew her, I watched her transform. As her face became perfectly clear, it made me say to myself, ‘If she can do this, what can I do?’”
This subtle change in a good friend prompted an entire lifestyle change for Cox. She got her first hormone shot 16 years ago.
Cox then told the story of Islan Nettles, a transgender woman walking through Harlem in August 2013, paying no mind to those around her. Nettles was catcalled by a group of men, but upon their discovery of her transgender sexuality, they beat her so severely that she fell into a permanent coma. Days later, she died after being taken off of life support.
A somber silence filled Alumni Hall as Cox reflected on this tragedy. “I think about how easily I could be her,” she said.
She went on to explain that catcalling of this nature normally occurs between minorities, and that minorities are constantly policing each other. “Hurt people hurt people,” Cox said.
She then continued on a lighter note, recounting the moment she told her mother she was transgender.
“When I told my mother I was transgender, the first thing she said was, ‘But you have such big hands and feet!’” Cox said. She said the hardest part for her mother was calling Cox by the right name and using the correct pronouns. Laverne was actually Cox’s middle name given at birth, so when she began identifying as a woman, she dropped her masculine first name and started going by Laverne.
“I’m proud to report that, after 16 years, my mother actually corrects people now when they use the wrong pronouns,” Cox said through a wide smile. “It was difficult, but we got there with a lot of love and empathy. So go and take risks, and have those difficult conversations with lots of love and empathy. Thank you, Penn State.”
Cox was met with a standing ovation. After the lecture ended, she answered a few questions. Some people asked about her acting career, while others were more curious about her personal life. Cox was generous and forthcoming with her responses to all of the above, enlightening people on her life as a transgender actress, advocate, and artist.
Cox is a true inspiration to everyone. If you missed her, don’t worry — you’ll see Cox again when “Orange is the New Black” returns for the third season in June 2015.