“Orange is the New Black” star Laverne Cox visits UNC-Chapel Hill

Nov. 19, 2013 @ 09:49 PM

In third grade, Laverne Cox brought a handheld fan into the classroom and began fanning herself like Scarlett O’Hara of “Gone with the Wind.”

Her teacher called home that day, telling Cox’s mother that her son would end up in New Orleans, wearing a dress. Cox was a boy, and she had better act like one. They sent her to therapy, the therapist asking her if she knew the difference between a boy and a girl.

“‘There is no difference,’” Cox had said. “The way that I rationalized it in my head, what everyone was telling me was that I was a boy, but I knew inside that I was a girl.”

Cox, who currently plays incarcerated hairstylist Sophia Burset on the hit Netflix original series, “Orange is the New Black,” is the first trans woman of color to have a leading role on a mainstream, scripted TV show. She visited UNC-Chapel Hill on Tuesday, talking with hundreds of students in the Student Union about being allies to transgender men and women, the deeply rooted equality issues that still exist today, and her own journey of becoming a woman.

“Ain’t I a woman?” she asked the audience, quoting one of her idols, abolitionist and civil rights activist Sojourner Truth. Those words, spoken at a Women’s Convention in Ohio in 1851, at a time when black women weren’t considered equals in the women’s rights movement, still ring true for transgender women.

At a young age, growing up in Mobile, Ala., Cox remembers wanting to dance, the only form of expression in which she truly felt like she could be herself, but taking ballet was considered “too gay” by her single mother. Children at school would bully her, calling her anti-gay slurs. She didn’t conform with the boys, nor the girls.

Her mother would ask why she wasn’t fighting back, what she was doing to make the other kids torment her.

In church growing up, she was making speeches. She sang in the choir and served as an usher. Church was her stage, a place where she could perform. But when she hit puberty in sixth grade and started realizing she liked other boys, the church always said that was a sin, an abomination.

“My grandmother died when we were in sixth grade ... I was up one night and I was having all these thoughts and feelings about liking boys and I felt like I was going to hell, and I felt like my deceased grandmother was looking down on me just utterly disappointed at these thoughts and desires I thought I was having,” Cox said. “I went to the medicine cabinet and grabbed a bunch of pills and swallowed them. And I went to bed that night hoping not to wake up.”

But she did. She decided to hide her desires and instead began focusing on school. She made good grades. She became vice president of the student council.

In high school, Cox shaved her head, wore fake eyelashes every day and rocked leopard-print bellbottoms, clothes she’d find at Salvation Army or Goodwill.

“I would call it my Salvation Army couture, my Salvation Armani,” Cox said.

She studied creative writing and dance at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, then eventually went on to New York City, where she finally felt like her gender expression was celebrated. She met trans women and drag queens, including one of her role models, Tina Sparkles.

She took her first hormone shot 15 years ago, beginning her transition. She still dealt harassment, which reminded her of the school bullies that used to pick on her. “That’s a man!” people would yell loudly when they passed her on the street.

Cox said Transgender Day of Remembrance today, in which people remember the trans people who have been killed the previous year due to anti-trans violence, is an intense day for the trans community. It’s an intense day for her.

She said by playing an incarcerated African-American trans woman, she thinks of the trans women who have to end up serving time in a men’s prison. She thinks of CeCe McDonald, a trans woman who was sentenced to 41 months in prison after she and her friends were accosted in a trans-phobic and racist attack.

Cox said she met with the UNC Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA) earlier on Tuesday, when some students said they didn’t feel fully accepted into the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“When we celebrate Transgender Day of Remembrance tomorrow, as we mourn,” she said, “... I want to charge each and every one of you to find ways you can resist and raise awareness in your own lives to make the lives of trans people better and to create more gender self-determination and gender freedom for yourselves.”