Laverne Cox delivers message of empathy

By: Linda Shepard | Rochester Post | Published October 13, 2015


ROCHESTER HILLS — Transgender actress Laverne Cox is best known for her role on the television program “Orange Is the New Black.”

But as an advocate to the transgender community, Cox is dedicated to a message that asks society to move beyond gender expectations to an authentic life.

“I am not just one thing,” Cox said to a packed audience Oct. 8 in the Oakland University O’Rena. “And neither are you.”

Cox, who was welcomed to OU by the school’s Student Life Lecture Board and Gender and Sexuality Center, spoke about growing up in Alabama as the child of a single mother.

“Everyone was telling me I was a boy when I knew in my head I was a girl,” she said. Opposition from her mother, grandmother, church and school ensued — along with therapy.

“There was talk of injecting me with testosterone,” she said. “That therapy was discontinued.

“It took many years with my mother,” Cox said. “Difficult conversations. She always wanted me to be happy. My mother now corrects people who use the wrong pronoun.”

Cox urged her audience to “go out and have those difficult conversations. Listening is the best thing to do. Don’t make it about you. Make it about them.

“Empathy is the antidote to shame,” she said. “I believe we have misconceptions about people. If we just get to know them, the misconceptions will melt away. I accepted my womanhood finally; it took many, many years. It is about celebrating things that are unique. I think misgendering a transgender person is an act of violence.”

Cox has also been vocal about examining the “culture of violence” experienced by transgender women of color. “Far too often, the deaths of transgender people go unsolved,” she said.

“Ms. Cox is one of the most prominent transgender voices of our time, and her message will resonate with anyone committed to justice and equality,” Grace Wojcik, coordinator of OU’s Gender and Sexuality Center, said in a statement.  

Her role as an actress is something Cox said she worked hard for and values highly.

“I can’t believe I am a working actress,” she said. “I was about to go to graduate school before ‘Orange’ because it was so hard. But I didn’t give up. I continued to be humble and teachable.”

“Being an artist has cured so much of my pain,” she said. “Just the art of it.”

She advised acting students to look closely at the profession.

“You have to love it. Ask yourself if you will be happy if you only get as far as a podunk theater in Idaho,” she said. “If that is a ‘no,’ don’t do it.”

Jeffrey Edwards, an OU junior who attended the lecture by Cox, said, “She really is as fabulous as she is on TV. Her themes and the moments she had to internalize really connected with me.”

Edwards attended the event with his mother, Judith Edwards.

“She talks about the safe zone,” Judith Edwards said about Cox. “Respecting people and getting to know them. Everything else is immaterial.”

When asked for advice for transgender people finding a lack of support at home, Cox said, “Sort of gauge your parents and connect with others over the Internet. Trans people are coming together all over the world. You don’t have to do it alone.

“And stay in school,” she said. “Tell yourself that all your dreams are going to come true.”