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Laverne Cox discusses transgender issues, race, class, gender and intersectionality to packed crowd

Michael Tabb | Student Life

Laverne Cox speaks to a packed audience in Graham Chapel on Nov. 21. Cox delivered her ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ speech as the capstone of Trans* Awareness Week, bringing in what Pride Alliance members said was the largest crowd for any of their events in recent memory.

Students filled Graham Chapel to see Laverne Cox deliver the keynote address for Trans* Awareness Week in one of the highest-turnout events Pride Alliance members say they have ever hosted.

Cox, advocate and actress in “Orange is the New Black,” spoke about transgender issues as well as the intersectionality of her identities and how they have affected her life.

Her speech on Nov. 21, entitled “Ain’t I a Woman,” was the capstone of Trans* Awareness Week, organized by Pride Alliance. The title was inspired by a speech of the same name noted abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth gave in 1851, later used as the title of bell hooks’ 1981 landmark work on how black women continue to be oppressed.

Cox took the stage to thunderous applause after being introduced by senior Vinita Chaudhry, former president of Pride, as “an inspiration to queer and trans people.”

“I stand before you this evening a proud, African-American, transgender woman,” Cox said. “I’m not just one thing.”

While she covered such weighted topics as racial tension, violence against members of the transgender community and her failed attempt at suicide, Cox mixed in some lighthearted remarks as well. As the bells in the chapel continually interrupted her, she pantomimed like a conductor and laughed along with the audience.

“As a kid, I loved to get up and speak in church. Not much has changed—full circle really,” Cox joked.

As the evening progressed, she traced her life from her childhood in Alabama, where she faced constant bullying, to her young adulthood in New York, where she decided to make her transition.

“Alabama has a rich history of racial oppression,” Cox said. “But it also has a rich history of resistance.”

The idea of resisting the pressures of conformity and oppression pervaded her speech, especially as she spoke about the ways in which society, in her opinion, tries to police gender identity.

“The reality is so many of us do not fit into this model, but the gender-binary polices do survive,” Cox said.

She argued, however, that college-aged students, as well as other members of Generation Y, are in a unique position to change policies—something Cox, too, is trying to accomplish.

“Now that I have this privilege and this platform, what am I going to do with it to help my people?” she asked during her speech.

Sophomore Danielle Blocker commented on Cox’s willingness to use her celebrity status to address difficult issues.

“It’s extremely important that popular media figures such as Laverne Cox don’t shy away from talking about controversial or uncomfortable issues of oppression, of race, of class, of gender and sexuality, and of intersectionality,” Blocker said. “So many people dumb down their views once they gain significant media attention and commercial success, which is unfortunate.”

Many students who attended the event particularly appreciated Cox’s frankness.

“Her story is inspiring but also so raw and real, and I love that she held nothing back,” Chaudhry said.

And the audience responded equally well to Cox’s lightheartedness.

“What I admire most probably is how strong and hopeful she seemed,” freshman Zach Hyams said. “I mean, even for me, coming from a place of privilege, it’s so easy to get fed up with all the injustice in the world…but Laverne Cox seemed so confident that the world was changing. She was a breath of fresh air.”

Cox’s successful appearance came at a price: Pride appealed Student Union Treasury $15,500 for her to speak—several times the group’s annual operating budget.

But Treasury encouraged Pride to bring in a big-name speaker so that the organization could gain more traction with the student body, sophomore Fabian Barch, activism chair for the group, said.

“Making time for someone who you do recognize is a really great way of getting people to listen to her story and hear the different things she’s faced not only as a trans woman but also as a woman of color and also as an actress,” Barch said. “It’s a really great way for people to hear her story [and] begin to learn about and empathize with trans identities.”

Reflecting on the event, Chaudhry echoed Barch’s opinion that bringing a big name would help bring awareness to their group’s mission.

“In my time on the exec board, I could only have dreamed that Pride would put on an event of that scale and attract that many people,” Chaudhry said. “We’ve worked for a long time to raise awareness and visibility to [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, ally] issues, particularly trans issues, and I am so glad that we were able to bring Laverne Cox to help us do that.”

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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878