The need for spaces for healing is one of the biggest needs of marginalized communities today, Laverne Cox said at a discussion on campus on Tuesday.
Cox spoke as part of an event titled “Ain’t I A Woman,” an event that also included a conversation between Cox and Jill Dolan, the dean of the college at the University.
Cox said she believes a large challenge that transgender women face is the point of view that people can only identify as the gender they were assigned at birth. She added that the transgender community faces big problems today, noting that 41 percent of transgender Americans have attempted suicide, compared to only 2 percent of the rest of the population.
Cox cited the work of Judith Butler, bell hooks and Simone de Beauvoir as feminist influences. She noted Judith Butler’s point that when Simone de Beauvoir said that one becomes a woman rather than being born a woman, nowhere was it said that the one who becomes a woman is necessarily female.
Cox spoke about the bullying she experienced as a child and explained that when her mother found out that she was being bullied, her mother asked her what she was doing to make her classmates bully her and why she wasn’t fighting back.
“I started internalizing a tremendous amount of shame about that,” Cox explained. “I felt like it was my fault.”
Cox said that she attempted suicide when she was in the sixth grade, because she was starting to be attracted to other boys and was afraid that she would disappoint her grandmother, who had just passed away. She also noted her background as the daughter of a single, working-class mother in Alabama and noted the difficulties she had reconciling the way she felt with the societal attitudes in her community.
Cox explained that she began to change her own misconceptions about transgender women when she arrived in New York for college, particularly in the club scene in New York City.
“It was the first time in my life that my gender expression was looked upon as something that was valuable,” she said.
She also explained the importance of intersectionality, the study of overlapping social identities, noting that there was not a universal experience of being black, of being transgender or of being a woman.
“I stand before you casino here tonight a proud African American transgender woman, from a working-class background, raised by a single mother,” she said.
Cox noted that the flawed logic of the gender binary, or the classification of gender into two distinct forms of masculine and feminine, could not exist without gender policing, adding that there was an institutional pressure on people in society to police other people’s gender. She also noted that when it comes to activism, it is important to remember to target systems and not individuals, and cited a quote by Cornel West ’80, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”
Cox added that far too many transgender women experience the intersection of identity and oppression, noting experiences in her life when she was catcalled, and the men who catcalled her subsequently realized that she was transgender. While she noted that she felt unsafe, she also said that she was very lucky that that was the worst of her experiences, adding that many transgender women experience far worse on a daily basis.
Cox also emphasized the importance of Brené Brown’s concept of resilience to shame.
“If someone can look at me and can tell that I’m transgender, that’s not only okay, that’s awesome, because transgender is beautiful,” she explained.
Cox said that most of the bullying she experienced growing up came from members of the African American community, but emphasized that this was not because African Americans were more homophobic or transphobic. Rather, Cox explained that she believes that marginalized people tend to police each other, noting the adage, “hurt people hurt people.” Cox also noted the history of emasculating African American men during the era of slavery and explained that her bullies may have believed that she was both the result and a reminder of this emasculation.
Cox added that the bullying she experienced as a child emphasized the need for spaces for people from marginalized communities to heal.
“For me, the question becomes, ‘How do we begin to create spaces of healing so we don’t take our pain out on each other?’” she said. “If we just get to know people as people, all those misconceptions will melt away.”
Presented by the Carl A. Fields Center, the Women’s Center and the LGBT Center, the event took place at Richardson Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday.