The last time transgender icon Laverne Cox set foot on Indiana University’s Bloomington campus, she was a “gender–non-conforming” freshman wearing leopard-print bell-bottom jeans.
That was before she’d ever worn a dress, had any hormone shots, or fully taken charge of her identity as a woman.
Yesterday, she returned to campus to speak about her experience as a member of the transgender community with a speech titled “Ain’t I a Woman?” echoing the famous words spoken by Sojourner Truth, an African-American women’s-rights activist.
In 2014, Cox’s character on the Netflix dramedy Orange Is the New Black, Sophia Burset, was named “the most dynamic transgender character in history” by Time magazine. She is the first transgender woman to appear on a mainstream television drama, and the first to be nominated for an Emmy Award.
But her journey to womanhood started long before that.
“I stand before you this evening a proud African-American transgender woman,” she said. Even so, Cox revealed she has multiple identities, and she loves to give them recognition. “I’m not just one thing, and neither are you,” she said. One way to help end discrimination and violence against transgender people is to recognize their humanity by seeing their dimensions, she said.
Cox’s appearance at IU was sponsored by the university’s Union Board as wellas the IU GLBT Alumni Association and IU GLBT Support Services Office. “It reminds us that people have various identities, and it’s important that we respect that,” Doug Bauder, a coordinator with IU GLBT Support Service, said. “The fact that a woman of Laverne’s stature is willing to speak about this, I think, helps a lot.”
IU has recently implemented more transgender-friendly services, Bauder said, including a preferred-name option on forms and other materials that lets transgender individuals opt to be called by their chosen names rather than legal names. The university has also created a gender-neutral housing unit on campus. Bauder said there’s still more work to be done.
“I think if we are serious about ending the bullying of LGBT youth, we need to create space for self-determination for gender,” Cox said.
Assigned male at birth, Cox was persistently bullied because of her inclinations toward feminine things. She said that everyone and everything around her—marketing messages and so on—told her to be ashamed of who she truly was. By the time she entered middle school, she had already attempted suicide. She was 11.
Her story is not uncommon, though. Cox cited a study on transgender issues called Injustice at Every Turn, which found that 41 percent of transgender individuals attempt suicide at least once in their life. It also found that transgender individuals suffer double the unemployment rate of others in society, and that 78 percent report being harassed.
Cox said she still doesn’t feel completely safe in public places, where she often gets called out for being a transgender woman. “It’s as if being a transgender person in public is something that constantly needs to be challenged,” she said. Throughout her experiences, she said, the most effective way to mitigate misconceptions about her transgender identity is to educate people and have those tough conversations, arriving (hopefully) on common ground. That’s how she and her mother came to an understanding, Cox said.
“I’m going to charge each and every one of you to have those difficult conversations,” she said.
But she had to learn things herself first. When she moved to New York City after two years at IU, she met many transgender women who changed her outlook about herself and others. “I didn’t equate being transgender with being successful and being accomplished,” she said. “But then I actually started getting to know transgender people, and all of those misconceptions melted away.”
Bloomington Pride Youth Group Director Laura Ingram came to the talk with 10 members of her organization. She wore “Pride” buttons on her backpack. “We try to do things that would be inclusive and give [youth] positive role models and examples,” she said.
At the end of her talk, Cox—just the role model that Ingram and others are looking for in aiding young people who identify as LGBT—entertained 15 minutes of Q&A exchanges. She answered queries about OITNB scenes and gave advice to people who want to be supportive of the transgender community.
“I think it’s important that we make people feel they are worthy of love and belonging,” she said.