A large queue of Tri-Co community members and interested locals waited patiently for an hour outside Marshall Auditorium on Friday night in anticipation of a talk by Emmy-nominated transgender actress and activist Laverne Cox, who plays inmate Sophia Burset on the popular Netflix series Orange is the New Black.
Cox was at Haverford to give a talk, organized by Haverford’s Students’ Council Speakers Committee and Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA). Her speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” was inspired by the words of African American abolitionist Sojourner Truth and was followed by a short Q&A session with the packed crowd.
Cox is a trailblazer, the first openly trans actor to be nominated for an Emmy and to be on the cover of Time magazine, as well as the first trans person of color to produce and star in her own television show (VH1’s TRANSForm Me) and appear on an American reality television program (VH1’s I Wanna Work for Diddy).
But her speech at Haverford was deeply personal, drawing on her journey growing up in Mobile, Ala., through her college days in New York City. She charted the emotions and challenges she encountered due to the overlap of her identities as a black woman and a trans person. “Pronouns matter, by the way, when we talk with and about trans community people,” she said. “Calling a transgender woman a man is an act of oppression.” She also drew on the works of a number of feminist and trans activists like Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinhem, Judith Butler, and Janet Mock to explore challenges facing the trans community, such as suicide, violence, and institutional marginalization in education and employment.
“These obstacles facing the transgender community are points of view which disavow our identity. Points of view that suggest that, no matter what we do, we are always, and only, the gender we were assigned at birth. Points of view that suggest that no matter what I do I will never be a woman. Yet, ain’t I?” she asked.
Cox ended her speech with a message to the community to be sensitive and aware of the diversity and uniqueness of each of our identities. She also encouraged the audience to create safe spaces and to have difficult but much needed conversations in order to reach a better understanding of each other.
“I charge each and every one of you to take risks and allow yourself to be vulnerable and make mistakes, and maybe even say the wrong things,” she said. “But to have those difficult conversations across difference… Have those conversations with real love and real empathy.”
—By Hina Fathima ’15
Photos by Abi Reimold.