Those reverberating words were spoken by actress, producer and advocate Laverne Cox during the keynote speech hosted by the Otter Cross Cultural Center and the Otter Student Union at California State University, Monterey Bay on April 8. The event took an in-depth look into the life of one of today’s inspiring and prolific LGBTQ+ icons.
Cox grew up in Mobile, Alabama and shared some insight as to what her childhood was like. She grew up with a single mother and a twin brother, and stated her family was working class, where at times her mother worked two or three jobs to care for the family. Her mother became a teacher, thus making education important to the family.
Cox delved into her interactions with other children during daycare. “I was called sissy and the f-word,” Cox said. “I was bullied because I was very feminine.”
Cox was able to cope with the harm done to her because of her active imagination and her love of dance. She joined dance lessons when she was 8 through a program that provided arts education to low-income families.
Though she lived with a lot of internalized shame due to her bullying, dance and creative outlets provided Cox a strong sense of self and a reason to keep pursuing her dreams. Although her life was difficult at times, Cox stated she wouldn’t trade her experiences, as they made her into the strong woman she is today.
Cox had a one-track mind, and that track was to be a dancer and actor. She dreamt of living in New York City and that goal guided her through adolescence, college and adulthood.
“It literally took 20 years for me to have the breakthrough that would change my life,” Cox said. “The moral of the story is not to give up and to be prepared.”
The breakthrough moment manifested in the role of Sophia Burset on Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” in 2013.
She had trained her whole life for her big break, so when it appeared she was ready. Cox discussed her acting process, especially when it came to the filming of Burset’s stay in solitary confinement, revealing that she didn’t use coaching until season three.
“I did a bunch of research on solitary confinement and the psychological, emotional effects of solitary,” Cox said.
She came up with specific behavior to reflect the harmful effects solitary confinement can have on an incarcerated person. Cox advised any would-be actors on the importance of having an action coach to improve performance.
Cox discussed her working relationship with Brené Brown – an acclaimed lecturer and podcast host – as they were guests on each other’s platform. Cox said that Brown’s first Ted Talk “literally shifted all of [her] molecules.” Specifically looking at the internalizing of shame, this reframing had a profound impact on Cox and led to her recognizing that she was living as a shame-based person who internalized racism, classism and transphobia.
“You have to start telling your story,” Cox said. “Shame makes us feel that we are alone, and that we are the only one going through something. That is why empathy is such a powerful antidote to shame.”
Speaking about one’s shame in front of others helped Cox heal from hate she experienced interpersonally and systematically. Discussing what trans visibility means to her, Cox recognized that her own personal visibility as a trans woman and actor has led to the mainstreaming and humanizing of trans folks. However, more visibility leads to more violence against the trans community. In fact, 2020 saw the highest murder rate of trans people in the U.S.
Trans people are experiencing challenges in the U.S. legislature as well. There are currently 85 pieces of legislation targeting trans youth – specifically trans girls in sports – as well as access to gender affirming healthcare. Cox discussed the recent legislation passed in Arkansas that criminalizes doctors who provide gender affirming healthcare to folks. When discussing this legislation, Cox’s voice broke and she teared up, stating that it breaks her heart. She believes that the relentless attacks on the trans community are a backlash to the progress that the world has made regarding trans rights and increased visibility.
“It means we’re winning.”
When asked about who her icons are, she listed several notable women including Oprah Winfrey, Bell Hooks and Brené Brown, as well as her team and her twin brother. She’s most proud that throughout all the trials, tribulations and successes, she has maintained her sense of self. Though she has accomplished much professionally, she recognizes her proudest moment as the maintaining of her integrity.
“I’m most proud that I’m still here,” Cox said. “I’m proud that I’m still myself.”