By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter
A crowd of 1,200 people greeted transgender actress and advocate Laverne Cox with a standing ovation during her recent appearance at San Francisco’s Nourse Theater for her first Bay Area speaking event entitled, “Ain’t I A Woman? My Journey to Womanhood with Laverne Cox.”
As part of an ongoing series to host conversations about race, class, and gender, the California Institute of Integral Studies sponsored Cox’s program during which she used her story as an African American transwoman from a working class background to illuminate how the intersections of race, class, and gender shape the lives of trans women of color.
“In terms of lectures, Laverne was definitely one of the more high profile programs we’ve had,” Karim Baer, director of public programs at CIIS, said following the March 19 event. “Feedback has been very positive both at CIIS and from the public. Everyone is still pretty high.”
Cox is best known for her portrayal of Sophia Burset, a transwoman incarcerated for committing credit card fraud, in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, which is set to return for a second season June 6. In addition to her on-screen star quality, Cox’s dynamic storytelling ability combined with her scholarly knowledge is quickly becoming recognized as central to her talent repertoire.
“Storytelling is vital activism,” Cox told the Bay Area Reporter in an email. “It’s so important for people to see folks they can relate to in the media and also, for me to tell my truth, and to amplify the voices of other trans women whenever I can.”
Before Cox began her story, she paid special tribute to two people.
“I have to be completely honest,” she told attendees, “I’m a little emotional, a little nervous tonight because there’s a couple people in the audience who are major for me, and I just want to acknowledge them.”
Transgender activist Cecilia Chung, a senior adviser for the Transgender Law Center, a health commissioner at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, and recent honoree of the California State Assembly’s Woman of the Year Award, received the first shout-out. The second special recognition went to transgender activist, community elder, and current executive director of the Transgender GenderVariant Intersex Justice Project, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy.
“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her and people like her,” Cox told the audience. “She’s a living legend.”
In an interview with the B.A.R., Miss Major, as she is known, said she felt “thrilled” that Cox looks up to her, and glad to see a public gesture of appreciation toward elders despite not living in a society that caters to that.
“When you do this kind of work, those moments don’t come along often,” Miss Major said. “I was so enamored and honored by her, for who she is and how she got there. She really is a beacon.”
Cox detailed her story – born a twin to a single mother in Mobile, Alabama, she was aware early on of the intersecting oppressions she would grow up experiencing. Her family was working class, African American, and the kids at school accused her of “acting like a girl.”
“From preschool to high school I was bullied pretty much everyday,” Cox told the audience. ” … Everyone’s gender is being policed in this society and if each of us decides today, ‘I am not going to be the gender police,’ then we can begin to create spaces of gender self-determination.”
After graduating high school, Cox moved to New York City to attend Marymount Manhattan College. At the time, Cox self-identified as gender nonconforming and stepped into the nightclub scene, a space she used to openly explore her gender. Almost 16 years ago, she began her transition and stepped into womanhood.
She also talked about experiencing transmisogyny through street harassment saying, “I’ve come to believe that calling a transgender woman a man is an act of violence,” a conversation point she used to pay homage to Islan Nettles, a 21-year-old African American transwoman beaten to death by street harassers in Harlem last year.
“There are so many messages that trans people receive that tell us we should not exist,” she continued. “To be here tonight in front of you, a proud transwoman proclaiming my identity, for any trans person to proclaim their identity – is a revolutionary act in a world that says we should not exist.”
After Cox closed with an encouraging message to continue having community conversations “across difference with love and empathy,” a question and answer segment was opened, which provided the space for a memorable moment.
Moderator and CIIS Dean of Alumni Richard Buggs was passed a hand-written question that read: “I’m 6, and I get bullied. Since I get teased at school, I go to the bathroom in the office. What can I say to the kids who tease me?” Cox invited the student to the stage while explaining that teachers and parents should, instead, be having the hard conversations.
“You’re perfect just the way you are,” Cox told the youngster once he arrived on stage accompanied by his mother and uncle, Ryan Li Dahlstrom. “I was bullied and called all kinds of names, too. And now I’m a big TV star … Just know you are amazing and that you are chosen.”
“It was a really powerful moment,” Dahlstrom, a self-identified mixed-race genderqueer trans person, said, “a sweet way to highlight alliances across different generations, races, and gender identities. One thing I love about Laverne is that she grounds spaces she speaks in by honoring the legacy of trans people, especially trans women of color, who’ve made it possible for us to be here today.”
A reception with Cox following the program was attended by 110 people, including Miss Major and 16-year-old Jewlyes Gutierrez, a transgender student at Hercules Middle/High School. Gutierrez was charged with battery after a fight related to long-term bullying broke out late last year. Charges were not brought against her alleged attackers. Prosecutors and defense attorneys last month agreed that Gutierrez could enter a restorative justice program.
Cox visited with Gutierrez at the reception, a “heartwarming” moment, according to Miss Major.
“That’s something that Jewlyes will always have in her memory if she ever needs the strength to get through something,” Miss Major said. “That will back her up.”
Cox is writing a memoir set for release in 2015, and is currently raising funds to create a documentary about the incarceration of Chrishaun Reed “CeCe” McDonald, an African American transwoman who, in 2011, fought back against attackers, which ended in an accidental stabbing death of one. McDonald spent 19 months in a men’s prison and was recently released.
The Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign closes at 11:59 p.m. March 29. To donate, visit http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/free-cece-documentary.