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Laverne Cox of 'Orange Is the New Black' Speaks at Purdue

The transgender advocate talks about her difficult past and encourages students to embrace their diverse surroundings.

Purdue University became a hotspot when Orange is the New Black actress Laverne Cox brought out about 1,000 people to hear stories of her past and present.

Cox, a transgender writer, producer, actress, and activist, eloquently wove together her narrative with a spoken-word rhythm. She currently plays Sophia Burset—a transgender inmate on the Netflix original hit Orange is the New Black—which earned her the title of the first trans woman of color to appear on a major television series. Cox said that she presently inhabits one of the few acting roles for a transgender woman that does not involve portraying a sex worker (though she has done that seven times to date in her career).

Recently, Cox has been visiting colleges and universities nationwide to both share and listen to some riveting stories. She took a cue for the title of her speech from Sojourner Truth’s famous address (coincidently, delivered on the same day as Cox’s own birthday) when she asked her audience, “Ain’t I a woman?” Cox borrowed the sentiments of another compelling orator, Dr. Cornel West, when she told the audience, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” She went on: “Transgender people can use a little justice, a little love today.”

“I think what is so fascinating and important about Laverne is her use of the narrative and sharing of her journey,” Lowell Kane told IM. Kane is the director of Purdue's LGBTQ Center and orchestrated Cox’s appearance on campus. He explained that bringing Cox to the university has been a project in the making for nearly a year, with co-sponsors ranging from the Purdue Student Union to Greek Life and the Purdue Black Cultural Center. Kane found that the event uniquely brought diverse groups together for the first time. Cox’s speech similarly bound together a unique intersection of racial and trans issues—something she does not shy away from when telling her own story.

Her personal story overlaps with Sophia’s quite a bit. It is one of triumph and tragedy, but more than anything, it is entirely relatable and human. Cox was born in Mobile, Ala. where she experienced harassment and bullying from students and teachers alike simply because the gender she was assigned at birth did not fit with how she felt. She attempted to take her own life at a young age. Cox recalls being chased home from school, beaten up, and being in frequent trouble with school administration because she acted too feminine for their liking. Amidst the bullying and physical violence, she always found solace in art. To this day, Cox says dance and performance saved her life as a young person.

Photo by Courtney AlwineCox later became an advocate for ending bullying in schools. Step one, she says, is to address the dangers of a gender binary system and allow students to express themselves. She also spoke to the power of finding a focused passion for something at a young age. For her, it was dance that set the stage for her career as an actress. Cox pursued dance at a fine arts school, eventually leading her to Indiana University in Bloomington. Though she is not an IU alum—she transferred to Marymount in New York to finish her last two years—Cox holds Indiana near and dear.

“I didn’t realize it would be this emotional being back in Indiana,” says Cox, who hasn’t yet returned to Bloomington since she attended IU. “I have a lot of good memories of being at Indiana University.”

Her success since those college days keeps swelling. Cox won a Dorian Rising Star Award for her portrayal of Sophia on OITNB and a GLAAD Media award for her work on VH1. Time magazine named Sophia as the fourth most influential fictional character of 2013. OITNB wrapped up filming season two in January, with its first episode available on Netflix June 6. The show has been such a hit that it was renewed before the first season even premiered.

“Its hard for me to fully gauge [how attitudes have changed since the show started],” Cox told IM after the speech. “But a trans young person named Shane in Maryland told me that now he can have conversations because of the show with people and have a reference point. He will say ‘I am trans’ and they say ‘Oh, like Sophia from Orange is the New Black. He says ‘Yeah,’ and they just move on. It’s not a thing.”

Photo by Courtney AlwineShe explained how OITNB has brought her more joy than she expected. “The show has totally changed my life,” Cox told IM. “I have done a lot of independent films that no one has ever seen, and a lot of independent theater that very few people have seen. So this show has really exceeded expectations. It’s a great group of women who I work with.”

The timing of season two has presented a few challenges for Cox. Never before has she has as much on her proverbial plate as now. Cox is currently a guest writer for various opinion columns, and she is trying to kick-start a documentary on CeCe McDonald, a Minneapolis trans woman currently serving time in prison for defending herself when she was attacked on the street. And, of course, she's touring schools, with the expressed goal to push all the students she meets outside of their comfort zone.

“I encourage students to have difficult conversations and empower themselves around their diverse identities,” Cox told IM. “Every aspect of what I do is about telling stories. I told my story; I listen to people from the audience and their stories. It’s about engaging critically with our audience. … Through storytelling, we can empower and liberate ourselves and raise awareness.”

It was this common ground that brought Purdue and Cox together in the first place. “I think that these are conversations that historically have not happened in Indiana and also have not happened on our campus,” says Kane. “We are seeing college students coming out as LGBTQ or gender non-conforming, younger and younger. So these issues are making themselves more and more known in higher education.”