Laverne Cox, the actress from the addicting prison series Orange Is the New Black, encompasses nearly every historically marginalized or oppressed group at once: She's an African American, transgender female. As the first transgender performer to be nominated for an Emmy, her unlikely success story landed her on the cover of Time magazine last year.
Radiant, with triumphant poise and an air of humbly heroic wisdom, Cox sashayed into the UNT auditorium like Beyoncé, her blonde hair flowing as if thanks to an invisible wind machine. Cox is a powerful combination of celebrity and role model, and she was received by a standing ovation. The diverse crowd included a disproportionate amount of students with crazy-colored hair, some transgender, all happy misfits. Expectant energy filled the room. Cox is travelling the country delivering her lecture "Ain't I A Woman?" which speaks to her experience, and delivers a message full of humor and hope.
Her timing couldn't be more perfect. The recent speculation as to Bruce Jenner's gender transformation is what ultimately "broke the Internet," not stepdaughter Kim Kardashian's nude magazine cover. In a year where other famed TV dads had shocking allegations of rape and pedophilia brought against them (think Bill Cosby and Stephen Collins) the gossip surrounding Bruce Jenner's identity seemed to somehow take the colossal cake. It's a clear reminder that, for the general public, an alleged sex-change still rouses a far more intrusive interest than an alleged sex crime.
Cox began by relating her childhood struggles, starting with being born with a twin to a single mother in Alabama, and kindly referring to Mobile's "rich history in resistance." She described a life of nearly endless harassment, having been bullied for being effeminate starting on the playground. Following an incident in which she (then he) took a Gone With the Wind era handheld fan to school she said, "My teacher called my mother and said, 'You need to do something about your son or he's gonna end up wearing a dress in New Orleans." Her own church-induced guilt for daring to stray from the norm resulted in a suicide attempt, which she explained is the case in 41% of transgender people. She described this as a turning point, after which she moved to New York City, where Club Kids ruled the 80s nightlife. There she suddenly became a being worth celebrating.
It would seem to newer generations that LGBT's media presence hardly raises an eyebrow anymore. This is a post-Britney/Madonna kiss world, where the openly homophobic is more criminalized than the openly homo. But that's specifically in mainstream, liberal, western media. One that loves Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris enough to bestow them the honor of handing out the Oscars, which are the Purple Heart or Nobel Prize of American dreams. Transgenders are another issue we've yet to come to terms with, one for which we haven't formed a clear schema that we can recognize as familiar and non-threatening. Hence the importance of Cox's presence on an immensely popular show such as Orange Is the New Black. While lesbians are well represented without constricting labels on the series, it's a tad disappointing that Cox's character, Sophia, plays into the stereotype of sassy hair dresser. While her storyline makes a compelling case for transgender issues in prison and brings to light the journey of transformation into those true selves, one can only wonder when the day will come that transgender characters on a show such as Orange are written interesting backstory plot lines that depict a life story worth telling, gender aside.
Dallas may be a fairly progressive city in an ultra-conservative region, but the city of Denton, a college and music town much like a baby Austin, is particularly LGBT-friendly. The university has a strong "Ally" training program that promotes sensitivity and inclusion. Supporters came out from all over the metroplex to be enlightened by Ms. Cox. The scene was heavy in academics and prominent members of activist groups. For instance, there was Dr. Carmen Cruz, creator of the Ally program in Dallas, a psychologist who specializes in inclusion, and who stated: "Having someone who is out and well-known, such as Laverne Cox, come to Denton and be visible is important to the community and allies. There are definitely aspects to LGBTQ existence that are much better than in the past, and there remains much work to be done to help people see the biases they carry toward sexual minorities."
Cox also spoke on the importance of treating others as they wish to be treated, starting with the use of the pronoun of their choice. She denounced the "act of violence" in calling a transgender woman a man, especially loudly, with the intent to humiliate the invidual, and perhaps "warn" the public. She also made a case for the frightening effect of cat-calling on women, particularly as it often precedes what she called "transmysoginy and transphobia". Her speech, part stand-up, part personal essay, was all parts moving.
More and more frequently, medical research presents the concept of an innate male or female mind clashing with a defectively assigned exterior package, and not the other way around. These findings, however, are often ignored or met with blind and deaf resistance. Like the misconceptions surrounding AIDS before it, and the current data-throwing vaxers vs. anti-vaxers battle, gender identity may be the principal dividing scientific issue of our generation.
Cox's perspective seemed to be one of genuine perplexity at being treated and addressed as a man while "knowing in my heart, soul and spirit that I'm a girl." Few other transgender voices have the platform to sway public perception, and recognizing this, Cox admitted the reluctancy with which she became a public advocate, a job she does with utmost grace. She ended up wearing that dress after all, and to the Emmys, no less.