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10 Teachable Moments From Laverne Cox’s Incredibly Inspiring Talk At WorldPride

10 Teachable Moments From Laverne Cox's Incredibly Inspiring Talk At WorldPride

As part of the World Pride celebrations that are taking
place in Toronto this year, TIFF and the Inside Out
LGBT Film Festival are hosting the Bent Lens: Pride on Screen series. One of
the many great offerings of this program was a live Q&A with Orange is
the New Black
star, trans advocate and TIME cover woman, Laverne
Cox. The “In Conversation With…” event was held at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on
July 25 and was hosted by none other than Wilson Cruz (GLAAD national
spokesperson and loved by all 90s TV fans for his role as Rickie Vasquez on My
So Called Life
).

Here are 10 highlights from an
event that was brimming with insight, laughs and “teachable moments.”

On how growing up in Mobile,
Alabama has shaped who she is today:

“We
were poor, raised by a single mother, I was bullied—that part was hard. Being
poor was hard, being black in Alabama is deep. A lot of that was
difficult,” she said. “The funny thing is, I always feel like I was in Mobile,
but I was never of Mobile. I was always in my imagination.” Cox said she
spent most of her childhood dancing and performing, and escaping through
television. “I understand now that there was a lot of
trauma and a lot of shame and that I did not have the tools to really deal with
that,” she said. “I also disassociated. It was years later that I was able to,
in therapy and safe spaces, actually feel the pain that I didn’t have the
facility to feel as a child. It was deeply, deeply painful. I still have
tremendous amounts of trauma and PTSD around my childhood, where I don’t often
feel safe. That is a tricky thing to experience now that I’m kind of famous.
People running up to me in the street are excited to see me, but I experience
someone running up to me on the street as they’re attacking me.” 

On culottes:

Cox came out as gay in her junior year of high school. “For
me, gay was like, I liked to wear makeup. I started wearing makeup in high
school and I started wearing girls clothes, but not dresses and skirts because
I had a whole thing about that.” This thing was caused by her third
grade teacher, Ms. Ridgeway, who told her mother that her “son” was going to
“end up in New Orleans wearing a dress” if she wasn’t immediately put into
therapy. “For me, what Ms. Ridgeway’s prediction was about was me ending up as
some sort of degenerate on the streets of New Orleans, homeless and in a dress.
That’s what I thought in my head. I was a kid. It was like the fear of God was
put in me around wearing dresses.” So, instead, she turned to culottes, which
kind of look like skirts but aren’t. “I was really a big fan of culottes,” she
said. “I needed to express my femininity. So in high school I became a frequent
shopper at Salvation Army and Goodwill—I would call it my Salvation Army
Couture, Salvation Armani, if you will.”

On accepting herself as a trans woman:

After a stint at Indiana University, where she was involved
in the LGTB organization on campus and where she broadened her aesthetic
choices, Cox transferred to Marymount Manhattan College to do her fine arts
degree in dance. “When I moved to New York, I was very much in a gender
non-conforming space. I had my shaved head and my lashes and my Salvation Army
Couture and then it just sort of evolved and got more feminine. Really, getting
to know trans people in the club scene in New York was pivotal for me because I
had all these misconceptions about who trans people were—based
on the media, based on Ms. Ridgeway’s predictions. It wasn’t until I actually
got to know trans people as people that I was able to accept them and then
accept myself.”

On how Candis Cayne changed her life:

“In
2007, Candis Cayne became the first trans woman to have a recurring role on a
prime time television show. It was a show called Dirty Sexy Money. And
when that moment happened, I said to myself—I had
been acting for years and not really getting anywhere—I
said, ‘This is the moment.’” She mailed out hundreds of postcards, found
herself an agent, and was attending casting calls when she eventually met a
casting director who thought she should audition for VH1’s I Want to Work
for Diddy,
a 2008 reality TV show that had contestants competing to become
celebrity’s assistant. After her third audition, she was hired. “I remember
saying to them, point blank, ‘I think I might want to do this, but I do not
want to be exploited. I do not want you to sensationalize my identity on this
show.’” Cruz, a fellow actor, was clearly impressed with this. “So you’re telling me that, on your first
big opportunity in the entertainment industry, you told the producers what you
wanted?” he asked. Yes, she did. “It wasn’t like I just wanted
to be on TV just to be on TV, just to be exploited and treated like crap. I
thought that this could be an historic moment, particularly for the black
community to have this hip-hop mogul embrace this trans woman on national
television. This is a moment for history, this is a moment for representation.
I do not want to be exploited in this moment.” Though she wasn’t chosen to work
for Diddy, she was approached by VH1 to do her own show. With her
then-producing partners, she pitched a “sort of trans Queer Eye” makeover
show. She told her partners that she thought the network would go for it
because it wasn’t about the trans women conducting the makeovers, it was really
all about cisgender people “and they want it to be all about them.” And they
did go for it. TRANSform Me was born and Cox became the first trans woman of
colour to produce and star in her own TV show.

On what she learned from TRANSform Me:

“At the
end of the day, what I was really interested in was getting trans people in the
homes of people in Middle America. That’s what I really wanted,” she explained.
But the show was highly criticized by the trans community and wasn’t successful
with mainstream audiences. For Cox, it was clearly a learning experience. “I
thought that all of these big lofty ideas about gender and intersections of
race, that it was too much for the mainstream. I thought that, so I dumbed myself
down. I think that I did myself a disservice, I did the community a
disservice.” To this Cruz quickly responded, “You did not do a disservice to
yourself. You held yourself very well. You had great dignity throughout all of
that. You did no disservice to the community. You allowed people to see trans
women as people who are part of the community. That alone was a reason to do
it.”

On trans people being cast as sex workers

Several clips from Cox’s pre-Orange career were
shown, including footage from a 2011 film, Carla, which has yet to be
released. In the film, Cox plays Cinnamon—her seventh and final role as
a sex worker. Cruz, who played a trans sex worker in Ally McBeal, asked
Cox why sex workers have become such stock characters—there are other stories
to be told, he said. “To be real about it, most folks, particularly straight
men, come to know trans women through the sex industry,” she said.
“Disproportionately, because of the unemployment rates, folks don’t want to
hire trans folk to do work outside the sex industry, because of homelessness,
because of trans folks being turned out of their homes as teenagers, they’re
almost sort of trafficked into sex work. When you’re homeless and can’t eat,
what are you going to do to survive?” She also argued that many (but not all)
trans women find a sense of empowerment in the sex industry. Through their work
they can fund transitions, be self-employed and have a sense of
self-determination. She added: “When I talk about sex work I think it’s really
important to note that for trans folks, we live in a world that tells us that
our lives don’t matter, that we’re unattractive, that we’re disgusting and
gross. And then there’s an industry that says here’s several hundred dollars,
here’s thousands of dollars, for your body.” 

On Orange is the New Black (briefly, since the show
has, rightly so, already been discussed exhaustively):

In 2011, Cox had done six or seven indie films, but in 2012,
after months of auditioning with no call-backs, she was thinking about quitting
acting. She thought maybe she’d go to grad school—she even bought the GRE
materials from her friend (at a discounted rate). But after vacationing with
her mom and these books, she decided grad school wasn’t for her and recommitted
herself to auditioning. When she got the Orange audition, she did scenes
from episodes one and three and was cast from the tape. “I was excited to be
working. I knew it was recurring. I never had a recurring role on a television
show. That was actually one of my goals for 2012. So that felt amazing.”

On that infamous Katie Couric interview:

On August 17, 2013, Islan Nettles, a trans woman of colour,
was beaten into a coma. She died five days later. The day before her Katie interview,
Cox learned that the charges against Nettles’ attacker had been dropped (still
to this day, no one has been charged for her murder). So Cox came to the taping
of Katie with an agenda: to “school the children,” as Cruz put it, on
the violence experienced by trans women, particularly trans women of colour.
Some background on the interview: in a previous segment, Couric asked Carmen
Carrera, a famous trans model, if her “private parts are different now.”
Carrera refused to answer, saying that it is a private matter. “I have sat and cringed at home when
reporters ask these kinds of questions and trans folks have felt obliged to
answer them,” Cox told the TIFF audience. She said she was proud of Carrera for
refusing. Then Couric broached the question with Cox—and you should
really watch the response here. Five
days later, Couric announced on national television that the interview was a
teachable moment for her. She also invited Cox back on the show to talk more
about trans issues. “There are folks out there who are willing to be [taught],
who are willing to be open and to learn things that they might not [otherwise]
learn,” Cox said. “It was really beautiful and, for me, it’s a model of how we
can have these teachable moments with a lot of love and empathy without
attacking each other.”

On that TIME cover story you may have heard about:

Cox said she’s excited that trans folk will see the magazine
and think that their “stories and lives and voices matter,” but she stressed: “Just
because a black trans person is on the cover of TIME magazine does not
mean that trans people are not still fighting for their lives all across the
world.”

On her upcoming documentary, Free CeCe:

On June 5, 2011, CeCe McDonald, a black trans woman, was
attacked outside of a bar and was ultimately charged for the accidental
stabbing death of Dean Schmitz, her assailant. She was sentenced to 41 months
in a men’s prison. McDonald was released in January, but is still on parole.
Cox’s documentary, which is still in production and currently scheduled for a
2016 release, tells CeCe’s story, but also discuss the culture of violence
against trans women. When asked about what viewers can learn from CeCe’s story,
Cox said: “This
was not her first time being attacked and being a survivor of violence. She’s
this remarkable young woman, but there are just so many CeCe McDonalds out
there. There are so many more that we don’t know about who are fighting for
their lives, who are being criminalized because of it.” She added: “The
homicide rate in the LGTBQ committee continues in 2013 to be highest amongst
trans women – 72% last year of all LGTBQ homicides were trans women, 67%
were trans women of colour. I have said it is a state
of emergency repeatedly because it is. I try not to get heated about it, but
it’s like what the fuck is going on?”

Plus: one extra highlight (because it’s important and
impossible to focus on just 10 things from this talk).

On what needs to be done for the trans community right now:

After discussing several recent cases of trans women who
have been killed, Cruz urged the audience to attend a Trans Day of Remembrance.
Cox responded: “Until recently, so many of these trans women were only
remembered in death. It’s like, okay, now they’re dead, now we can name their
names. What do we do about them when they’re alive, when they’re here? What are
we doing for the folks who are here right now?” Underlying all the
issues affecting the trans community, she said, is a widely held belief that
people can only be the gender that they were assigned at birth. She told the
audience that she receives letters telling her that she, and other trans
people, are mentally ill. “When we can begin to dismantle that misconception,
then we can begin to extend healthcare, then we can begin to employ transfolk,
then we can have housing and bathrooms and accommodations that are appropriate
for trans people. There’s a basic assumption that we need to challenge around
binary gender and then we need to look at the intersections of race and class
with that,” she said. “We need to fight racism, classism and patriarchy along
with
transphobia.”

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