Laverne Cox discusses being a proud African-American transgender woman

Credit: Lisa Qian/ Credit: Lisa Qian/

Laverne Cox, transgender activist and Emmy-nominated actress of Orange is the New Black, spoke to a packed crowd at Carnegie Mellon’s Wiegand Gymnasium last Thursday. Her speech was jointly sponsored by the Activities Board, CMU Allies, Residential Education, the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, Student Dormitory Council, Student Senate, and the Graduate Student Assembly. Tickets were free for Carnegie Mellon faculty, staff, and students, and a limited number were released to the general public for $15.

Cox opened her hour-long speech by claiming her identity as a “proud African-American transgender woman” to enthusiastic cheers from the audience. She thanked the audience for their support, which after a challenging week she found “deeply healing.” The audience laughed and cheered enthusiastically at several points throughout the speech.

Cox told her personal story of growth, from her childhood in Alabama to her adolescence at dance school to her burgeoning womanhood in New York City. Her speech was full of anecdotes and life lessons. She discussed the rampant bullying and shame she suffered as a child, from students who policed her gender expression with homophobic slurs to a third-grade teacher who warned her mother that, without immediate therapy, “your son is going to end up in New Orleans in a dress.”

Cox also talked about how the vibrant New York drag queen and trans community helped provide her with the courage to transition. “Trans was not associated with successful and accomplished, and I was groomed to be a successful and accomplished young person,” Cox said about her first exposure to the community. “We have misconceptions about people who are different but when we just need to get to know those people as people, all those misconceptions will melt away.”

Cox made multiple references to famous feminist writings that have influenced and inspired her, such as Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech about black womanhood, Simone de Beauvoir’s work on gender as a social construct, and Judith Butler’s theory that gender identity is performed. “One is not born a woman, one becomes one,” Cox quoted from Butler’s Gender Trouble. “Nowhere is it guaranteed that the one who becomes a woman is necessarily female,” she quoted from de Beauvoir.

The main theme of Cox’s speech was how the intersections of her identity — race, gender, and class — have deeply shaped her experience. She spoke out against the “devaluation of black womanhood,” the disproportionate rates of suicide and violence against trans women of color, and the violence inherent in misgendering a trans person. She also spoke of the need for minority solidarity rather than infighting.

“Often marginalized people will police each other,” said Cox. “That is the tool of the oppressor.”

She stressed the importance of supporting trans rights, especially in the current political climate, where transgender and gender non-conforming people are “deeply shamed, stigmatized, criminalized, and objectified.” She spoke of the need to fight back with love against discriminatory bathroom bills and Trump’s rescinding of Obama-era federal guidelines for the fair treatment of transgender students in schools, as well as to fight for the right of LGBTQ persons to be included in a federal census. “Justice is what love looks like in public,” Cox said. “We just want to be counted.”

Cox closed her speech with a call to action, stating that we need to “create safe spaces to have difficult conversations across differences” guided by “love and empathy,” where people don’t have to be afraid of saying the wrong thing.

Cox’s speech was followed by a 20-minute question and answer session with the audience. One audience member asked her about Orange is the New Black, which she said “opened so many doors for me and I’m so grateful.” When asked about her future goals, Cox said: “I want to expand my brand... I want to be a better businesswoman, and I want to have more control.” As she exited the stage, Cox waved to thunderous applause and a standing ovation.