Emmy-nominated actress and LGBTQ+ advocate Laverne Cox recounted the obstacles and triumphs on her path to becoming a transgender icon during her appearance at Rhode Island College on April 11. A star on the Netflix series “Orange is The New Black,” Cox is the first openly trans person to receive an Emmy nomination. Her lecture was sponsored by the college’s LGBTQ+ Office and was coordinated by Derek Sherlock, current program coordinator and incoming president of Pride Alliance; Emelia Orellana, president of Latin American Student Organization and president of the Class of 2020; and Haley Johnson, president of Programming Events Board.
“I come to you tonight as a proud African-American woman from a working-class background raised by a single mother,” Cox said. “I come to you as an artist, actress, sister and a daughter. I believe it’s important to name the various intersecting components of my multiple identities because I’ve not always been able to do so in public and because I’m not just one thing.”
Born in Mobile, Alabama, Cox said she was bullied from preschool to high school because she “didn’t act the way someone assigned male at birth was supposed to act.”
She pointed to the flawed logic of the gender binary model, stating, “We know that the reality of so many of our lives defy this binary model and conflation of sexual orientation and gender identity. If we’re really serious, as a country, about ending the bullying of LGBTQ+ youth – all of our youth, really – we have to begin to create safe spaces of gender self-determination for all of our kids.”
Cox cited the latest U.S. Transgender Survey which revealed that 78 percent of K-12 students who expressed a transgender/gender nonconforming identity experienced harassment or bullying.
For Cox, not only was she bullied at school but experienced a lack of understanding at home.
Dancing and acting became part of her safe haven to escape difficult times. She excelled at dance, winning trophies across the Southeast and earning her way into a state school for the artistically gifted.
Arriving in New York City in 1993, Cox said she began to erase misconceptions she had about the trans community, embrace it and find her place in it.
“For the first time my gender expression felt like something valuable and some of the people I met at that time would change my life,” she said. “I befriended Tina Sparkles, a six-foot-five trans woman. Over the next several years of knowing Tina, I watched her transform from a statuesque queen to a beautiful, sophisticated, elegant woman and I remember saying to myself, ‘If Tina can do it, what can I do?’”
Cox said the empowerment she found within the trans community offers a message for everyone.
“If we can look at people who are different than us and see people as people, misconceptions can melt away,” she said. “It took me many years to internalize that if someone can look at me and tell that I’m transgender it’s not only OK, it’s beautiful, because transgender is beautiful.”