People and pronouns: Laverne Cox speaks at Pitt

Laverne Cox’s identity — and her pronoun — are feminine, and she’s proud of both. 

Cox, an activist and actress on the hit Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black,” spoke to about 500 attendees at Alumni Hall about her experiences as a transgender black woman Monday. Pitt’s Rainbow Alliance hosted the event that drew crowds of students outside the building more than two hours before its 7:30 p.m. start.

Cox spoke about her experiences from childhood to adulthood, including her time in school and church. She also discussed her spirituality, her gender transition and dealing with her mother’s acceptance of her gender.

“My femininity could not be contained,” Cox said, referring to her time in school.  

One of Cox’s idols is abolitionist Sojourner Truth, who declared in her historic speech at the 1851 Women’s Convention, “Ain’t I a woman?” Cox repeated those words Monday as her own rally for her femininity. 

Allie McCarthy, president of the Rainbow Alliance at Pitt, said they booked Cox to speak because of her role as an LGBTQ activist.  

“We chose Laverne Cox because she has done a tremendous amount of activism for the trans community,” McCarthy said. “Although our mission is primarily to serve the queer community at Pitt, it is extremely important to us that all people hear about struggles that queer people have so that we can make an inclusive environment for all.”

Sounds Like Treble, a female a capella group on campus, Sarita Brady, a Pitt student reciting their own poems, and performers from the Vagina Monologues, a production the Campus Women’s Organization hosts annually, opened with performances before Cox greeted her audience.

As a child, Cox hadn’t discovered her true self, she said, and was bullied in school regularly.

“From preschool up until high school, I was bullied every day,” Cox said. “It was terrifying. I was scared out of my mind.”

Cox had a tremendous amount of shame about who she was. 

Her teachers exacerbated the problem, she said. One teacher told Cox’s mother that “her son [was] going to end up in New Orleans in a dress if we [didn’t] get him in therapy right away.”

Her teacher was partially right — Cox sported a vibrant blue dress while addressing the audience.

“I didn’t feel safe at school, I didn’t feel safe at home, but where I did feel safe was my imagination,” Cox said. 

In her imagination is where she began to discover her love of dancing, she said, which, starting when she was young, helped her discover her femininity even more. 

Once she felt comfortable enough, Cox’s talent for dancing led her to dance studio, where she studied hip-hop and tap dance, rather than ballet, which her mother said was “too gay.” 

“I believe that if we can find something we are truly passionate about, it can save lives,” Cox said.

Cox then spent time at the Alabama School of Fine Arts before eventually moving to Marymount Manhattan College in New York City, a place where she grew into herself.

“For me, New York City represented a place of ultimate possibility, not only for my professional aspirations, but in pursuit of becoming more myself,” Cox said.

As Cox talked about her experiences from childhood to adulthood, applause shook the auditorium. Cox balanced her discussion of serious issues by also making light of her negative experiences, evoking smiles and laughter from the crowd.

“I bought my clothes from Salvation Army or Goodwill because it was all I could afford,” Cox said. “I called it my Salvation Army Couture, or Salvation Armani.”

Jokes aside, Cox also spoke about a need for transgender equality. Freshman Caroline Krueger said this is why she went to see Cox. 

“I’m a huge fan of Laverne and ‘Orange Is The New Black,’ and since I’m also taking a Sociology of Gender class this semester, I really wanted to hear Laverne’s opinions,” Krueger said. 

Cox educated the crowd about the distinctions and differences about gender identity and sexuality, as well as advocated for justice for all oppressed social groups, not only transgender people.

Despite her oppressors and those who have insulted her in the past, Cox said she has finally realized that if someone can look at her and tell that she is transgender, it is not only a good thing, it is beautiful.

“Success really is the best revenge,” Cox said. 

Editor’s Note: In a previous version of this article, The Pitt News used the pronoun “her” to identify Sarita Brady, a transmasculine, non-binary student. Brady’s preferred pronoun is “they.” The Pitt News regrets this error.