Ain't I a woman?

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Ain't I a woman?

“Orange is the New Black” star Laverne Cox discusses her journey to womanhood and the unique challenges facing the transgender community today

by Mayukh Sen on Tuesday, July 7, 2015 - 11:24pm

Laverne Cox didn’t get her education in school. She got it in nightclubs.

She moved to New York City for college in the early 1990s, where she frequented LGBTQ clubs. To the outside world, Cox—a tall, caramel-haired, African-American male-to-female transgender woman—was a total foreigner, a deviation from the heteronormative white male paradigm. Put simply, she didn't fit in.

Laverne CoxIn the LGBTQ clubs, though, Cox was appreciated and loved for the very traits that made her an object of discrimination and disrespect in the outside world. She was welcomed with open arms by bouncers and fellow patrons who admired her beauty and appearance instead of rejecting them. She found role models in fellow trans women who carried their bodies with confidence and grace, gradually inspiring her to do the same.

Today, Cox is one of those women, speaking with poetic, self-assured wisdom. Yet her story is also one of petty injustice, hardship and resistance, filled with more trauma than many bear in a lifetime. Cox shared her story in a keynote address during Stanford's Transgender Awareness Week, an annual student-run event that hosts seminars and discusses issues affecting trans people.

Cox has channeled her storied life into her work as an actress, writer, producer and transgender activist. After becoming the first trans woman to produce and star in her own reality television show, VH1’s 2010 “TRANSform Me,” Cox went on to become a household name when she played Sophia Burset, a trans woman incarcerated for credit card fraud, in Netflix's acclaimed series “Orange Is The New Black.” Since the show’s explosion in popularity, she has become something of an icon for trans people of color and is now one of the most visible and public faces of this underrepresented group.

Trangender Awareness Week flyer

A childhood of shame and grief

“I stand before you, African-American transgender woman from a working-class background, raised by a single mother,” Cox proclaimed at the beginning of her talk with poise and defiance. “I believe it’s important to claim the various things we are with pride in a public way, because we haven’t always been able to do so. I have carried tremendous shame regarding aspects about who I am throughout my life.”

Cox continued by citing statistics affecting the transgender community in the United States, noting that, for example, the unemployment rate for trans people is twice the national average. For trans people of color, it's four times as high. The homicide victim rate for those in the LGBTQ community is highest among trans women. And the incarceration rate for trans people is at 16 percent.

Cox was born into a long history of oppression and resistance as an African-American in Alabama. She and her twin brother were raised by a single mother. Cox experienced varying degrees of intolerance beginning in kindergarten as she gradually began to express herself in non-gender-conforming ways.

She recalled, for example, a moment during which her third grade teacher called Cox’s mother into school because Cox, who had just seen “Gone With the Wind,” began fanning herself to mimic Scarlett O’Hara. The teacher urged her mother to seek therapy for Cox.

Classmates and teachers alike hurled derogatory words at Cox, words she didn’t understand. This experience gradually became a day-to-day reality for her as an adolescent, so much so that she attempted suicide in sixth grade.  She downed a bottle of pills one night, praying that she’d fall asleep forever.

She lived.

Rebirth in New York

By her early teens, Cox was attending a performing arts school close to home to study ballet. In this world, she had assumed her gender non-conformity would be a non-issue. Instead, as one of the few people of color who attended the school, she suffered racist taunts.

Even so, things began to turn around for her as she immersed herself in ballet, an artistic practice she hadn’t been able to explore in the public school system. She continued to study ballet at Marymount Manhattan College in New York, a city she described with youthful, vigorous joy.  

“New York was, in my imagination, the place I had to live given my career aspirations in dance and art,” she explained. “And no matter how much bell hooks and Foucault I read in my classes, the education I really relished was in the nightclub scene.”

Cox’s time in New York—and her encounter with positive, healthy non-gender-conforming role models—inspired her to jumpstart the process of transitioning. She began her process 16 years ago.

Soon, Cox would parlay her fine arts degree into acting, attending casting calls that would lead to her break-out role in “TRANSform Me,” along with roles in independent films such as “Musical Chairs” and ultimately, “Orange Is the New Black.”

Cycle of violence

The reality of transitioning has been difficult for Cox. “One of the biggest issues facing the trans community is the prevalence of points of view that disavow our personhood,” she stated. “These are points of view that suggest that no matter what we do, we are only the gender we were born into.”

"Calling a trans woman a man constitutes an act of violence."

Cox noted that she had experienced significant emotional trauma from members of other underprivileged, oppressed groups. It was a reality that was shocking even to her: that those who have been wounded by the dynamics of power structures could often be the orchestrators of violence against others.

“Hurt people hurt people,” said Cox. “Most of the bullying I’ve experienced has been from fellow black people. Marginalized peoples police others who have been marginalized.”

Cox urged members of the audience to be as intentional as possible about preventing the violence that plagues the trans community. This violence is not purely physical; emotional and mental attacks can be just as damaging.

“Calling a trans woman a man constitutes an act of violence,” said Cox. Misgendering a trans person legitimizes the spectrum of discrimination and hate they face, including physical violence. Cox noted that there are too many homicides of trans people that go unsolved.

“I am lucky,” she smiled. “Someone calling me a man is, essentially, the worst that has happened to me.”


Ain’t I a Woman? My Journey to Womanhood” was sponsored by Stanford Students for Queer Liberation (SSQL) as part of SSQL’s Transgender Awareness Week 2014. Transgender Awareness Week 2014 was organized in collaboration with Stanford Speakers Bureau; Stanford First-Generation Low Income Partnership (FLIP); Stanford Spoken Word Collective; La Familia de Stanford; MEChA de Stanford; Latinos Unidos; Sigma Theta Psi Multicultural Sorority, Delta Chapter: Stanford University; OUTLAW; Safe and Open Spaces at Stanford; Community Academic Support & Advising; Black and Queer at Stanford; and TGI Justice Project (TGIJP). Transgender Awareness Week 2014 was co-sponsored by the Program in African & African-American Studies; Stanford Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; Program in American Studies; Stanford CSRE; IDA- Harmony House; the Clayman Institute for Gender Research; Education and Society Theme House; Residential Education; Queer Events and Services Team; ASSU Senate; Stanford NAACP; Stanford QSA; Students for Reproductive Justice; Stanford American Indian Organization; SHPRC; MEChA de Stanford; Stanford Athletes and Allies Together; Stanford University Women's Coalition; Stanford Women's Community Center; Stanford Asian American Activism Committee; and Cardinal Nights.

Mayukh Sen

Mayukh Sen earned a BA from Stanford in 2014 with a double major in history and communication. He is an alumnus member of the Clayman Institute's student writing team. 

Laverne Cox

Laverne Cox is an actress, writer, producer, and transgender advocate. She can currently be seen portraying Sophia Burset, an incarcerated trans woman, in the critically acclaimed Netflix original series “Orange Is the New Black.” She is the first African-American trans woman to produce and star in her own television show, VH1’s “TRANSform Me.” She has received GLAAD’s 2014 Stephen F. Kolzak Award and the Anti-Violence Project’s 2013 Courage Award. She is co-producing the upcoming “Free CeCe” documentary, featuring CeCe McDonald.