Hundreds of GW students and members of the D.C. community packed into Lisner Auditorium Tuesday to celebrate International Transgender Day of Visibility with critically acclaimed actress, producer and transgender advocate Laverne Cox.
In the sold out event, a collaborative effort by several student organizations including Allied in Pride, Program Board, and Student Association, Cox narrated the challenging path toward owning her femininity in a speech entitled “Ain’t I A Woman? My Journey to Womanhood.”
“I am not one thing, and neither are you,” Cox declared at the beginning of her speech, establishing the inclusive yet serious tone of the conversation. “But today, I stand before you claiming my womanhood in a social context.”
The Emmy-nominee recounted her childhood growing up in Mobile, Alabama. Cox’s background is a crossroads of minority. Besides knowing she was a woman from an early age, Cox is black and was raised by a single mother in a conservative Christian, working-class neighborhood.
Cox reflected on the sense of shame she harbored throughout her youth as she tried to suppress her sexuality and true gender.
“People were telling me that I was a boy, but I knew in my spirit that I was a girl,” she said. “I have often carried tremendous amounts of shame about my identity.”
In attending the Alabama School of Fine Arts on an academic scholarship and eventually Marymount Manhattan College in New York City–where she studied dance and acting–Cox started to find momentum. She cited New York’s 90s club scene as a backdrop for learning to express her true self.
“I experienced an awakening during this time,” said Cox of the first years she spent in New York. “It was the first time I felt celebrated, important.”
Cox began officially transitioning in the late 90s. Despite moving beyond the shame she had known from childhood, she became increasingly aware of the injustices transgender people face in society. Condemning misgendering as “an act of violence”, Cox referenced personal instances of catcalling and name calling.
“I am still sometimes afraid to leave my apartment,” said Cox. “I wake up and think, ‘Will today be the day that I am a victim, a survivor?’”
Cox went on to speak of the need for “tough conversations” in order to create more “safe spaces” in society where all people are accepted. She concluded her speech by empowering the audience and encouraging them to have compassion.
“The antidote to shame is empathy.”