In third grade, Laverne Cox was told to see a therapist. During their first meeting, the therapist asked her “Do you know the difference between girls and boys?”
“There is no difference,” Cox responded confidently.
“Everybody was telling me that I was a boy, but I knew I was a girl,” she remembers. “So I reasoned that there must not be a difference.”
Cox spoke at UNC Asheville on Tuesday, March 4, filling the venue with 580 people. Many others were turned away, unable to fit in the Lipinsky Auditorium. In her speech, titled “Ain’t I a Woman: My Journey to Womanhood,” Cox chronicled her experiences as a transgender African American woman growing up in the South. “From pre-school to high school I was called a sissy and the f-word and told that I acted like a girl,” Cox said. “I was often chased home from school. I didn’t act the way a ‘boy’ was supposed to act.”
Today, Cox is best known for her role as transgender inmate Sophia Burset on the series Orange is the New Black. Cox has also become an advocate for transgender people across the country, like Islan Nettles, a trans woman who was beaten and killed in Harlem last year for her gender expression, and CeCe McDonald, a trans woman who was released from prison earlier this year after being charged with manslaughter for defending herself against transphobic attackers.
Trans women were the victims of more than half of all the gay, lesbian, queer, bisexual and transgender homicide cases in 2012 and “the murders of trans women go unsolved far too often,” Cox says. “It is a state of emergency for far too many trans people.” Indeed, 41 percent of trans people have attempted suicide according to Cox, who struggled with internalized transphobia for much of her life. “My mother shamed me for [being feminine] and made me feel like [being bullied] was my fault,” says Cox.
But when she moved to New York City to study dance in college, Cox finally started feeling comfortable about her gender. “My education happened in the clubs of New York City,” says Cox, who was inspired by the first drag queens and trans women she met there. “My gender expression was for the first time being celebrated. It was wonderful to feel fabulous.”
Dealing with the intersections of racism, homophobia and transphobia in her everyday life, Cox defies the binary gender model and has rejected the policing of her gender by others. “We are told that we are the gender we were assigned at birth,” she said. “But our lived experiences defy that model. The only way it can exist is if we all enforce it.”