Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox has been more than successful in her acting career. Not only has she become a beloved character in one of the hottest shows out there right now, but she was the first trans woman of color to land a role in a mainstream scripted show, as well as the first to appear on an American reality TV show (I Wanna Work for Diddy) and to produce and star in her own show (TRANSform Me) and the first trans woman to appear on the cover of Time magazine. But in addition to her acting career, Cox is a feminist activist and a captivating speaker.
Cox appeared at the University of Missouri-Saint Louis on Tuesday, October 21st where she gave an inspirational speech tracking the journey from a child ashamed to be herself to an award winning actress. The speech was entitled Ain’t I a Woman? Quoting the black women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth’s speech of the same title from 1851, Cox carries on the legacy of intersectional feminist activism and pays tribute to its foremothers, applying their principles to a whole new generation and a new marginalized group.
When Cox took the stage to roaring applause, she began by identifying herself as black, as a trans woman, as an actress. “It’s important to name our various intersecting identities” she said, speaking to her passion for intersectional feminism, but emphasizes that being proud to be a woman is not something she was always able to do. She put heavy emphasis on the shame she felt at a young age and how learning “shame resistance” helped her grow.
“The first thing I learned about myself was that I was black,” she said, “in preschool I started to learn other things about myself. They called me ‘sissy’ and the f word that I don’t like to say… they said I acted like a girl, whatever that means, because we all know that girls act all sorts of ways.” and that was only the beginning of her realization that her “gender was being policed.” She went on to tell the story of how she was taken to the principal’s office in third grade in an innocent event which led to starting therapy and fights with her mother.
“In a gift shop at Six Flags, I saw this hand-held fan, and the moment I saw that fan I knew I had to have it.” She said, “I had just seen Gone With the Wind,” she clarified. She had gone to class fanning herself like Scarlett O’Hara, when she was ushered to the principal’s office, and her mother was warned by the teacher that “your son is going to end up in New Orleans wearing a dress if we don’t get him in therapy.” When in therapy, she was asked if she knew the difference between boys and girls, she said “there is no difference.”
Such a small, innocent, and honestly quite wise moment led to so many familial problems that it took years still for Cox to be comfortable with herself. It wasn’t until after moving to New York as a young adult that she really felt accepted. “For the first time in my life, my gender non-conformity was celebrated,” she said, “it felt amazing.”
“I had had misconceptions about transgender people,” she went on to say, “I didn’t equate being transgender with being successful.” But of course, she’s proven her former self wrong, and now she’s confident that the world can change and start viewing all people as potential success stories. “All the misconceptions we have about folks who are different from us could melt away.”