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Ain't I A Woman? Orange is the New Black's Laverne Cox's transformation to woman

Laverne Cox gives speech for Pride Day event
Laverne Cox gives speech for Pride Day event
Sidney Thomas

Amongst cheering and clapping, a wonderfully statuesque woman walks across the stage in a form fitting black and red color-block, thigh-length dress. As she positions herself at the podium, her absolutely gorgeous face and features are in plain view. The mystery woman above is Laverne Cox. Maybe you've heard of her. Maybe you haven't, but you should.

Laverne Cox has recently become well-known for her role as Sophia Burset in the critically acclaimed Netflix dramedy Orange is the New Black. The character Sophia is a former firefighter who undergoes gender reassignment surgery, while still married with a child. Frankly, Laverne Cox's character is ground-breaking since you rarely hear of or see transgendered people playing complex, recurring roles on TV.

This past Wednesday night, Laverne Cox was the keynote speaker for a local Pride Day event part as part of her nationwide "Ain't I A Woman? My Journey to Womanhood" speaking tour. During her speech, she advocated for transgendered people and spoke about her experiences as a black trans woman. In particular, she mentioned the increased likelihood of trans women being assaulted (specifically the murder of Islan Nettles last year), the higher rate of unemployment for transgendered individuals, and the increased rate of suicide attempts in the LGBT community.

Laverne Cox's words were very powerful and enlightening with a dab of humor. In the beginning, she mentioned Soujourner Truth, the originator of the "Ain't I A Woman" speech, which was given at the Women's Convention in Akron, OH in 1851. Laverne Cox discussed how during one of Truth's speeches, an audience member yelled out and accused Truth of being a man, so Truth opened her blouse and exposed her breasts as proof of being woman. Laverne Cox playfully addressed the audience, "Now, I'm not going to reveal my breasts tonight. Sorry to disappoint some of you. But, like Ms. Truth so many years ago, I stand here tonight claiming my womanhood in a social context, which would often deny it." This speaks volumes because that one statement indicates her whole purpose for talking to the filled room. She has accepted her womanhood, despite the opinions and actions of others.

Cox opened up about her personal life while growing up in Alabama. She talked about how her 3rd grade teacher urged her mother to send her to a psychologist; the teacher felt that Cox would "end up in a dress in New Orleans." Because of the times and a lack of understanding and education about transgendered people, the psychologist talked of injecting her with testosterone to make her more masculine as a way to "fix" her. And, when her mother found out about how Cox felt, her mother yelled and pleaded that she needed to act like a boy because she was a boy.

She also told about growing up in the AME church and this impacting her after her grandmother's death. The most heart-wrenching part of this segment was when she described how she felt so ashamed about herself because she believed her grandmother was up in heaven looking down at her and her "sinful" and "blasphemous" thoughts about boys. Because she felt she was a disappointment and disrespectful to her grandmother's memory, she didn't want to live. Consequently, she took a whole bottle of pills and went to sleep, but she woke up with a terrible stomach ache. After that point, she decided that she would push down all of those thoughts and act the way that she "was supposed to." She stated that she started suppressing parts of herself, until she got older and moved to NYC for college; she was able to immerse herself with many more people like her. Instead of seeing images of degenerate transgendered people in the media, she saw successful and vibrant transgendered people.

Even though her mother didn't fully accept Laverne in the beginning, she shared, "Pronouns matter, by the way, when we talk to and about transgendered people [...] I'm so proud to say that now when someone uses the wrong pronoun to refer to me, my mother corrects them. That just didn't happen over night. That took a lot of difficult conversations across difference."

In relation to her comments about pronouns matter, she gave her personal experiences with some people while out in public. She imitated how some would shout out "That's a man!" as loudly as possible in an attempt to humiliate her or call her out. In her opinion, she felt that the subtext of calling a trans woman a man was "an act of violence."

During the Q & A segment, we all got to see and hear about the impact that Laverne Cox has had on some. One audience member discussed how Cox had inspired her to finally accept who she was, start her transition, and even begin a group to advocate for local transgendered people. Another audience member, who identified as a binary individual (not categorized as just man or woman), shared how Cox's story encouraged them to talk openly to their family.

When asked about how transgendered people should advocate for the community, she made reference to how flight attendants demonstrate to passengers that in the event of an emergency landing, you must first put on your mask before helping others. She said that in order for members of the transgendered community to help others, that:

"We have to take care of ourselves. And, it's hard taking care of ourselves and really loving ourselves. So, there's a piece to really believing that I am worthy of love and belonging with a lot of work that I've done, To model self-love for myself so that I can begin to really help take care of others [...] And, then honoring every aspect of who I am, and then once I'm able to take care of myself, then I can go out into the community and say 'What does my community need?' 'What stories need to be amplified?' 'What voices, what issues need to be amplified?'"

She also answered questions about bullying since she did experience bullying as a child. Most profoundly, she said, "Kids are more open about things when they aren't ashamed about things." She went on to talk about how children should be allowed to create spaces for self-determination, how school policies needed to change, and how parents need to have open conversations with their children.

One audience member asked about her twin brother, M. Lamar, who played Laverne Cox's pre-transitioning character, Marcus, in the first season of Orange is the New Black. When asked how he felt and his reactions about her transitioning:

"[My brother] identified as a practicing homosexual. He says that he does not like the term 'gay.' He feels it's a white, bourgeois construct. He identifies as a negro goth. He also identifies as a a free black man. He also identifies as punk rock. So, my brother identifies in a lot of different ways[...] Me being trans was never an issue for my brother [...] It's important that even though we are twins, my story is not his story."

Conversations about taboo topics such as prisoner's, women's rights, and sexuality are definitely becoming more widespread with series like Orange is the New Black, as well as outspoken and honest discussions from people like Laverne Cox who share their personal experiences, "I believe that we can have the difficult conversations across difference if we do it with love and if we do it with empathy and towards getting to a better understanding of who the other person is to better understand ourselves."

Mark your calendars. The second season of Orange is the New Black premieres on June 6th! Also, for the latest updates, follow me on Twitter (@sidgelica) and like my Facebook Page! Don't forget to subscribe here, too!

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