Laverne Cox shares journey of transition and triumph with TU

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By: Bailey Hendricks, News Editor

All photos by Lexi Thompson/ The Towerlight

When Laverne Cox was in the third grade, she went to Six Flags on a church trip and brought a “very little bit” of spending money for the park gift shop, Cox said.

“The moment I walked into the crowded gift shop, there it was,” she said. “Hanging there. A handheld fan. It had peacocks on it. It was fabulous. The moment I saw this handheld fan, I knew I had to have it.”

Cox spoke to members of the Towson University community in SECU Arena on March 13 as part of the Division of Student Affairs’ Diversity Speaker Series.

A few weeks prior to visiting Six Flags, Cox had watched “Gone with the Wind.” After she returned from the trip with her new fan in tow, Cox spun around her third grade classroom, fanning herself in true Scarlett O’Hara fashion.

Cox’s third-grade teacher, Ms. Ridgeway, said “Come here and bring that thing with you.”

Ms. Ridgeway marched Cox down to the classroom of Ms. Farely, a fifth-grade teacher in Cox’s elementary school.

“Show her what you were doing with that thing,” Ridgeway said to Cox. “Okay. Stop. Now go back to class.”

Cox’s mother received a call following this incident, and took her child to a therapist.

Cox said she remembers sitting in the therapist’s office, and the therapist asked her if she knew what the difference was between a boy and a girl.

“And in my infinite wisdom as a third-grader — because third-graders are so wise, right? — I said ‘there is no difference,’” Cox said.

Cox said everyone was telling her that she was a boy, even though she knew she was a girl.

“I knew in my heart and my soul and my spirit that I was a girl,” she said. “So, I reasoned that there must not be any difference.”

Cox started to go to therapy, and although she assumed her mother wouldn’t know what she told the therapist, she did. Cox didn’t have therapist-patient confidentiality as a third-grader.

When Cox’s mother found out what Cox was saying to the therapist, she yelled at Cox and insisted that she was a boy.

“It was another moment in my childhood where I was deeply shamed for something that felt really natural for me,” Cox said. “When I look back, there’s something kind of adorable about a third-grader wanting to fan themselves like Scarlett O’Hara, right?”

After a few more sessions, her therapist suggested she get injected with testosterone to make her more masculine.

Cox’s mother didn’t feel right about injecting her third-grader with testosterone, and took her out of therapy.

“So, the therapy was discontinued, but the damage was done,” Cox said.

In sixth grade, Cox started to go through puberty. She described it as a “confusing and tricky” time for her.

“I remember going to bed every night and praying to God ‘please don’t let me wake up and turn me into a man,’” she said. “The idea of that was horrifying to me.”

But Cox went through puberty and realized she was attracted to boys. She felt shame because she was told in church that such attraction was a sin.

In sixth-grade Cox’s grandmother passed away, adding a layer of pain to her adolescent life.

“When she passed away, it was a very difficult time for me and my family,” Cox said. “She was an incredible woman. She raised 10 kids basically by herself.”

One night when Cox was grieving her grandmother’s loss, she lay in bed and couldn’t sleep. As she lay there, she imagined her grandmother was looking down on her.

Cox also imagined her grandmother knew every single thought she was having, including the thoughts she was having about boys.

“And in my mind, she was extremely disappointed in me having those thoughts,” she said. “I had learned in church that even the thought is a sin. And so, the idea of disappointing her made me not want to live. So, I went to our medicine cabinet, took an entire bottle of pills, and swallowed them. I went to sleep hoping not to wake up.”

When Cox woke up and survived, she promised herself she would suppress her feelings about boys to make her mother and grandmother proud.

According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 40 percent of transgender people reported having attempted suicide, nine times the national rate at the time.

In her efforts to suppress her gender and sexuality in middle school, Cox stayed busy and became an overachiever. She was a straight-A student, member of the National Junior Honor Society, countywide public speaking champion in eighth grade, and vice president of the student council.

“[Becoming vice president of the student council] still, to this day, is pretty remarkable because the student body voted for me and if you recall, they didn’t like me,” she said. “They bullied me, they made fun of me.”

Cox decided she wanted to go to the Alabama School of Fine Arts. She loved to dance, but her mother didn’t let her take ballet growing up, and the ASFA only offered ballet in their dance program. She knew she also needed a scholarship.

So, Cox got a scholarship through creative writing and later switched her major to dance.

While at the ASFA, Cox started being able to express herself more by customizing her own clothes she would find at Goodwill and The Salvation Army, and she started wearing makeup.

“I remember I had this pair of polyester leopard print bell-bottoms,” she said. “They were so cute. They pooled on the floor behind me as I walked down the hallway in the Alabama School of Fine Arts. They were quite the hit in homeroom.”

After she graduated from the ASFA, Cox went to Indiana University for two years with a dance and academic scholarship. She then transferred to Marymount Manhattan College in New York City.

During her time in New York City, Cox began to learn more about her sexuality and gender.

“I continued to be a pretty good student at Marymount, but my education really happened in the nightclub scene of New York City,” she said.

When Cox would go to the huge nightclubs in New York City in the 90s, there would be a line around the corner, and often people didn’t get in at all. Often you got to go in based on how you looked, Cox said.

Cox would go to the front of the line and never had to wait, pay to get in, and would often get free drinks even though she didn’t drink at the time.

“It was the first time in my life that my gender expression was looked upon as something that was valuable, that meant I should cut to the front of the line,” she said. “And it was an amazing, incredible time for me. And some of the people that I would meet in the nightclub scene would change my life.”

Cox became friends with Tina Sparkles, who she met in the city’s nightclub scene. When Cox first met Sparkles, she noticed the acne on her skin, but also said she was “one of the sweetest queens you would meet.”

“Over the next several years of knowing Tina Sparkles, I watched her transform. I watched her transition from a statuesque pain to a beautiful, elegant, sophisticated woman – with flawless skin, thank you very much. Flawless…. I remember saying to myself, ‘If Tina can do this, what can I do?’”

Cox said if it weren’t for Tina Sparkles and all of the transgender women she met in the nightclub scene of New York City, she might not have ended up going to get her first hormone shot to start her medical transition.

“I just got to a point where I was sick of lying to myself,” she said. “I was sick of not being in the truth. I think we all get to a point in our lives where we can no longer lie to ourselves, so we have to stand in our truths and begin to manifest that truth outwardly. I hope all of you are in that space now today, where you can live in your truth. And if you’re not there yet, you’ll get there. It’s a process, it’s a search.”

Cox reminded the crowd that not all transgender people are as celebrated as Cox was this night by the audience.

According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, trans women of color experience the highest rates of violence within the LGBTQ+ community.

“In 2017, we saw more reported homicides of transgender people than we ever have since we’ve been tracking the murders of trans folks,” Cox said.

The unemployment rate in the transgender community is three times the national average, and four times the national average for trans people of color, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.

According to the survey, 47 percent of all transgender people have reported experiencing sexual assault.

“If you are a transgender person in this country, far too often you are under attack,” she said.

She talked about the harassment she received on the streets and subways of Manhattan from people who could tell she was trans, including an incident when men yelled anti-gay and anti-trans slurs at her and kicked her.

“It has taken me many years to internalize that if someone can look at me and tell that I’m trans, that’s not just okay, that’s beautiful,” she said. “Because trans is beautiful.”

About eight months into Cox’s medical transition, she called her mother to tell her.

“It was really difficult for my mother for many years,” Cox said. “She had difficulty with the right pronouns. Now, pronouns are important and pronouns matter when we talk with and about transgender people. Pronouns matter.”

Cox feels proud now though, that her mother does use Cox’s correct pronouns.

“I’m proud to report now that if someone uses the wrong pronoun to refer to me in front of my mother, she now corrects them…. But that hasn’t always been the case,” Cox said. “It took us a really long time to get there. It took years of me sending her books, articles, videos to educate her, us having really difficult conversations across difference, having arguments, me insisting that if I’m going to be in her life that she has to use the right pronoun, she has to use the right name.”

After Cox’s medical transition, she booked the role of Sophia Burset on Orange Is the New Black. But Cox said she almost gave up and was going to go to graduate school before getting the role.  

“I was going to go to grad school and do something else, and then I got the audition and God had another plan,” she said.

After conquering — and continuing to conquer — setbacks and judgement, Cox became the first out trans person to be featured on the covers of Time and Cosmopolitan magazines, and the first openly-trans person to be nominated for an Emmy award in an acting category twice. She also holds two Screen Actors Guild Awards for her role in Orange Is the New Black.

Cox is also the first transgender person to win a daytime Emmy for producing her documentary “Laverne Cox Presents: The T-Word” about transgender youth in America. The documentary features two Towson alumni, Shane Henise and Jess Liberatore, whom Cox met when she spoke at Towson four years ago.

At the beginning of the night, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Santiago Solis presented the audience with a call to action.

“As global citizens, I urge you to consider: what is your personal role and responsibility in creating a more just society?” Solis asked the audience. “While many of you are allies, I would encourage you to become accomplices. Yes, you can retweet, and re-share, but also consider that you can always do more. An ally can engage in activism and solidarity with a marginalized individual, or group. An accomplice will focus on dismantling oppressive structures.”

Solis then introduced senior psychology major C’Erra Murray,  who has served as vice president of In the Life and a Pride Mentor, and who introduced Cox to the audience.

Murray spoke about her own challenges being a part of the LGBTQ+ community as a black woman, and she acknowledged Cox for being an inspiration to her.

“Growing up, I used to want to be an actress,” Murray said. “Theatre was my passion. But as I got older and started to see the people who were on TV, I realized there was no one like me. No one was openly queer. Or played openly queer roles. We didn’t see black trans women. Or trans people at all unless they played the stereotypical roles. Thanks to Laverne Cox, I now I have someone to look up to. Though she’s trans and I’m not, she still shows me how to be a strong black woman in this community.”

Cox said she was humbled by Murray’s characterization of her as an inspiring figure.

“Hearing C’Erra talk earlier when she introduced me brought tears to my eyes backstage. It’s very humbling and it’s a great and awesome responsibility,” Cox said. “It’s just a lot of gratitude that imperfect me can inspire somebody to be more themselves and to pursue their dreams.”

Members of Towson’s Student Government Association passed out pride flags before the event started. The stands of the SECU arena were packed, with some students having to sit in the upper deck of the arena after the lower area were filled.

The stands were filled with a range of people. From familiar faces of the president’s council including President Kim Schatzel herself, Vice President for Student Affairs Deb Moriarty, and Vice President for Inclusion and Institutional Equity Leah Cox, to students from other universities who came to hear Cox’s speech.

Bridget Lenord, a junior at Mount St. Mary’s University, traveled over an hour from Emmitsburg to Towson with a group of other peers to hear Cox speak.

“I loved every moment of it,” Lenord said. “Because, well, she means a lot to me because I’m part of the LGBT community too. And just seeing such an inspirational and powerful woman on that stage saying those things really inspired me.”

Before Cox’s introduction, members from LGBTQ+ student groups on campus also greeted the audience and told the audience what their student groups were all about and when and where they meet.

Students from groups including In the Life, Gender Blur, the PRIDE Mentor Program, and the Queer Student Union, all were present.

Theo Rinaldi, president of Towson’s Queer Student Union, was excited that the University brought Cox to campus to educate Towson about the LGBTQ+ community.

“I really love Laverne Cox and all her work,” Rinaldi said. “And I was really excited to see that Towson was bringing her to campus, that we were able to have her speak about her experiences with our whole campus community. And really bring some education about the queer community being a trans person of color. She’s an amazing person. She’s done so much. It’s just like, I just had to be here.”

Joshua White, president of Towson’s Black Student Union, attended the event to support other marginalized student groups on campus.

“I do want to support my other marginalized student groups … and different identities on campus. [I] definitely came in solidarity, but also, Laverne is amazing, and we want to showcase diversity and inclusion on Towson’s campus. Again, Towson must be the model for diversity and inclusion and not [just a] participant in the work. So, I do want to also be a model for diversity and inclusion in that same work.”

SGA Presdient James Mileo said the SGA wasn’t necessarily involved in the planning of Cox coming to Towson, but that they did plan Pride Fest week to coincide with Cox’s visit to campus.

Pride Fest, which was from March 2 to March 15, was a collaboration between the SGA and the Center for Student Diversity to create various events centered on LGBTQ+ students, according to Mileo.

“I’m also the second openly-gay SGA president,” Mileo said. “And I think it’s extremely important to have representation in our speakers that come to campus to show that our trans students matter and that there is a space for them here. And that the University acknowledges that and gives someone who is like Laverne Cox the platform to really reach these students.”

For Cox, one of the reasons she thinks she has been so successful is because she was privileged to earn an education.

“I think for me, I’ve been very lucky, and there’s some privilege that I’m working on with that that allows me to be where I’m at now,” she said. “But, part of my privilege and luck is that I got to go to the Alabama School of Fine Arts and I got to get a really good education. So, I think part of the reason that I’m enjoying the success I’m enjoying now is because of my education…. Education, I think, is crucial.”

Cox also believes luck and hard work helped pave her way to success.

“I’m obsessed with being a better actor,” she said. “I’m still trying to get better. I’m still trying to get better at the craft of it. I’m obsessed with that, I have been for years. And so, being committed to being really good at something and proceeding with passion. And I got lucky and I didn’t give up. So that’s why this black trans girl from a working-class background is here. A lot of luck.”

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