Actress, trans activist Laverne Cox recounts journey to womanhood in talk at Smith


Staff Writer

Published: 04-17-2017 11:15 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Emmy-nominated for her role as Sophia Burset on the Netflix original television series “Orange is the New Black,” Laverne Cox exudes a confidence that allows her to shout out “trans is beautiful.”

“I’m really happy to be here tonight as a proud African-American, transgender woman,” Cox said, speaking to a near-capacity crowd of 2,000 at Smith College’s John M. Greene Hall Monday night

But Cox was quick to point out that she did not always possess this attitude, leading the audience through the trauma of her childhood, where she internalized shame, the difficulties of her teen and college years, to finally having her gender valued and validated in the clubs of New York City in the 1990s.

Cox’s talk, “Ain’t I a Woman: My Journey to Womanhood,” organized by the Student Event Committee at Smith, captivated the audience from the start, with loud applause as she took the stage.

“Oh honey, I had a hard day and that really helps,” Cox said.

Cox said the biggest challenge is the persistent viewpoint that people can never be anything but their birth gender.

“Transgender people are under attack in this country,” Cox said.

The binary model, she explained, is institutional, from having men’s and women’s bathrooms in most public places and the Census not tallying the population of trans people. “It sort of suggests we don’t exist,” Cox said.

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But this is an issue that has existed for centuries. She observed that prominent suffragettes, like Sojourner Truth, weren’t seen as real women, and Truth, in 1858, opened her blouse to prove otherwise.

“Now I’m not going to reveal my breasts tonight, sorry to disappoint you,” Cox said.

Cox cited statistics that more than half of all homicides in the LGBTQ community are of trans people, that their unemployment rate is three times higher than others in the community, and that 41 percent attempt suicide, something even Cox tried, by overdosing on pills, after her grandmother died.

Cox recalled reading several authors who opened her eyes, including bell hooks, who discussed race, gender and class, philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler, and French writer Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote “One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one.”

Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, Cox said, she was bullied throughout her youth because she didn’t act like a boy, once attending a church trip to a Six Flags Amusement Park where she purchased a hand fan and then pretended to be Scarlett O’Hara from “Gone with the Wind.”

A therapist soon after asked Cox the difference between boys and girls. “In my infinite wisdom, I said there is no difference,” Cox said.

Even in recent years, Cox said, she has encountered “spooking,” in which people on the streets of New York call out transgender individuals, yelling “That’s a man,” a misgendering act of violence. It’s the type of incident that led to the 2013 killing of Islan Nettles, who was catcalled before being slain. Eight transgender people have already been killed this year in the U.S., Cox said.

“There’s really an epidemic of people being disappeared,” Cox said.

Cox said she hopes people will heed the advice of scholar and researcher Brene Brown, who suggests empathy is the antidote to shame, noting that “I believe we’re a shame-prone culture.”

People need to feel safe and included, Cox said, quoting political activist and professor Cornel West that “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Cox graced the cover of Time magazine in 2014 with a story titled “The Transgender Tipping Point.”

“The combination of the popularity of a wonderful show and me choosing to have a voice on a lot of different issues made that Time magazine cover happen,” Cox said.

But as visible as Cox has been, she said work needs to be done at the policy level to prevent violence.

The recent repeal of the so-called bathroom law in North Carolina does little to change the fact that trans lives are treated as if they don’t matter, she said, and that discrimination will continue.

With President Trump, people need to continue to protest, Cox said.

“Now more than ever we have to be engaged,” Cox said. “It’s about staying active and staying woke.”

Following Cox’s talk, Jennifer DeClue, assistant professor of the study of women and gender, led a brief question-and-answer session and told Cox she is creating compassion and changing people’s lives.

“Your presence here makes a difference, it really does,” DeClue said.

Smith College President Kathleen McCartney attended the talk, as well, using the hashtag transisbeautiful and, after quoting Cox, tweeted “beyond inspirational.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at