Updated: Apr 1, 2021
Photo by Britt Donahue
In celebration of Campus Pride Month, Laverne Cox,
LGBTQ+ activist and well known actress from Orange is the New Black, came to Rhode Island College on April 11 to discuss her journey as a transgender woman of African-American descent. Cox claims her place in society as an artist, actress, sister, and daughter, saying, “I am not just one thing, and neither are you.”
Cox set the tone of her lecture to focus on a strong sense of self and mental well-being. She rose from a place of deep shame, coming from the small religious city of Mobile, Alabama, to a place of self-love. Born to a single mother who valued education, Cox believes that she is where she is today because of her schooling. As a child, she was bullied and traumatized for her gender expression.“Everyone was telling me I was a boy, but I knew in my heart and my soul I was a girl.” She was taught early on to suppress her natural instinct of femininity by her teachers and family. This caused her to feel deep shame in her early adolescence. She soon discovered her only safe place was in her imagination, most specifically when she was dancing. Cox stated that “when you are truly passionate about something, that something can be lifesaving.” She was sent to a therapist when she was in third grade after a church trip to Six Flags where she purchased a peacock fan that she used to fan herself like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. This raised concern among her teachers and her mother. She began to internalize her pain. Later, she almost succeeded in taking her life by swallowing a whole bottle of pills. Following this attempt on her life, she channeled her energy into her success.
When she initially arrived in New York City in 1993 for college, she started doing her own thing and became one of the “club kids.” The grit and glamour of club life was the first time she felt her gender expression was valued, understood, and appreciated. She was able to get to know people as people and began to internalize that trans is beautiful.
It wasn’t until 2012 that her acting career became a ticket to fame. Cox believed that being successful would solve her problems, but she was actually internalizing racist ideas and her feelings of being less than. Eventually, her childhood trauma came back to haunt her.
Shame is a deep-rooted emotion that Cox was eager to talk about, stating, “Nothing externally will heal me. I need to heal from the inside out.” Her healing from trauma continues; she still practices somatic therapy, where she visualizes her negative energy and pushes it out through different areas of her body, thinking “I am beautifully and divinely made.”
Her message of love and acceptance was well received by Rhode Island College students at this event. Student Nate Banx stated, “Laverne Cox’s presence here is unbelievable, and fans the flame of students.” “This is more than I was expecting. It was awesome to hear about her hopes for society,” said junior Ashley Blake.
“She is really great and how she wants to spread her message down to the soul is great,” said Zachary Smith, also a junior. Nicki Joseph, a 16-year-old student from Connecticut one month into her transition stated, “Laverne is opening my mind to the endless possibilities of life. Seeing someone from her generation going through transition is powerful to me. At a young age and being raised creatively, I don’t like everything set in stone.”
Cox’s message of self-care, coming together, acceptance, and love is being carried forward by the members of the audience. “Surrender, let the universe do what it is going to do…what is supposed to happen will come to us… we have to be of service… never attack but be lovingly critical” are life lessons that Cox learned throughout her journey. In her closing she said, “I love you, and let’s find a way to walk through this together.”
Abigail Nilsson is a junior at Rhode Island College studying journalism. She is also a ski instructor and has an extensive background in health and wellness. Her 12-year-old husky Stella has accompanied her on many skiing and hiking adventures around the country.