Actress/Activist Laverne Cox Speaks on her Career and Fight for Equality

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Actress/Activist Laverne Cox Speaks on her Career and Fight for Equality

 Laverne Cox speaking at the New York Times' TimesTalks at the TimesCenter in Midtown Manhattan. (PHOTO BY ALEX MCMENAMIN/THE OBSERVER)

Laverne Cox speaking at the New York Times' TimesTalks at the TimesCenter in Midtown Manhattan. (PHOTO BY ALEX MCMENAMIN/THE OBSERVER)

Laverne Cox speaking at the New York Times' TimesTalks at the TimesCenter in Midtown Manhattan. (PHOTO BY ALEX MCMENAMIN/THE OBSERVER)

Laverne Cox speaking at the New York Times' TimesTalks at the TimesCenter in Midtown Manhattan. (PHOTO BY ALEX MCMENAMIN/THE OBSERVER)

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By ALEXA MCMENAMIN
Opinions Co-Editor

When I told my friends that I was seeing Laverne Cox – simply that I’d be breathing the same air as Laverne Cox without giving any further context – I was immediately met with jealousy and attempts to barter for my ticket. I was, of course, equally as enthused about the opportunity. Anyone who’s seen Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black,” and Cox’s performance as (in Cox’s words) “the hairstylist” Sophia, would be thrilled to see Cox in person.

On Aug. 25th, Cox participated in the New York Times’ TimesTalks at the TimesCenter, across the street from the Times’ headquarters. She was interviewed by Times Senior Culture Editor Erik Piepenburg about, among other things, her role in the upcoming film Grandma, her documentary FREE CeCe (set to be released in 2016) and “Orange Is The New Black.”

Over the roughly two hours of conversation, Cox ran the gamut of topics. She discussed inspirations from Janet Mock to Marsha P. Johnson to James Baldwin, informed the crowd of her favorite Beyonce song (her answer: “Get Me Bodied” and “Flawless” – “But don’t sleep on B-Day!”) and even told her coming-to-New York story, one that I’m sure many in the audience (and many Fordham students) could identify with. But by the end of the talk, though I was even more enamored by Cox than I was before, I was left with a nagging discomfort.

While Cox spent a lot of time discussing her work in television and film, what was equally intertwined in her talk (as with her work) was her activism as a black trans actress advocating for herself and others like her in a time period when black trans lives are experiencing what many have referred to as genocide. “There’s just so many stories that need to be told,” Cox lamented, while discussing the portrayal of trans lives in the media, which is a conversation that Cox has brought to the forefront with her work.

Cox produced the documentary FREE CeCe, about CeCe McDonald, who was incarcerated for killing a man in self-defense who attacked McDonald in an incident widely regarded as racist and transphobic. McDonald was held in two different men’s prison facilities despite being a woman, putting McDonald in a position of extreme danger. Released from prison in 2014, McDonald is now an advocate for trans rights and was awarded the Bayard Rustin Civil Rights Award by the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club. Cox repeatedly teared up while discussing McDonald, describing her as a “survivor,” despite existing in a world that seems to constantly call for her demise. In honor of McDonald, Cox read aloud the names of the twenty-one trans women who, as of Aug. 25th, had died in 2015, in an oral continuation of the hashtag #SayHerName, which acknowledges that the experiences and deaths of “these women [who] exist at the intersection of multiple identities” are silenced in the media.

Acknowledging that I am a cisgendered (according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “Denoting or relating to someone whose sense of personal identity corresponds with the gender assigned to them at birth”) white woman, I came to Cox’s talk curious as to whom it would be accessible to. Cox uses her privilege of fame on social media and in other spaces usually unavailable to trans women of color to advance important dialogue. I wondered if the marginalized communities she lends her voice to and draws attention to would be able to come out to her talk. As a white woman of relative socioeconomic privilege, while I was excited to cover this event for the Observer, I feared that my presence would be occupying the space of a person who perhaps needed to hear Cox’s powerful and inspirational words but who, perhaps lacking certain privileges I have been afforded, would not get to have that experience with Cox. I was disappointed to see that the audience was filled mostly with cisgender-appearing white people who seemed to be of the upper-middle class.  

One the one hand, arguably this is the group who is particularly ignorant to the issues affecting the trans community and would therefore benefit especially by being educated by Cox’s talk. However, Cox said point-blank during the talk (in a statement consistent with her public persona) that she is focused on reaching and uplifting LGBTQA+ people, people of color and the intersection of those marginalized groups, most importantly trans women of color. Unfortunately, due to the very systems of oppression she spends much of her time discussing, those same marginalized groups were unable to see her talk. Hopefully those who saw her talk who are more privileged will make that experience worthwhile by uplifting Cox’s voices among their peers.

After leaving the talk, after basking in Cox’s  inspiring presence, her relentless intellect and uncompromising work ethic, I couldn’t articulate exactly why I felt upset. At FCLC, we have strident advocates for our trans classmates, who in this past year alone launched an uphill battle to get gender-inclusive bathrooms so that they would be able to comfortably use school facilities. Such a fight is simultaneously impressive and depressing: our student body should be congratulated for their efforts and willingness to work with the administration to effect change, and so should those members of the administration that have helped and supported those student activists; but what does it say about our administration and campus culture that activism is needed to ensure all members of our student body can simply use the bathroom in safety?  While this process is ongoing, perhaps my disappointment lay in the realization that while I wish I could’ve brought Cox to Fordham, our community may not have even been ready for Cox’s talk, for Cox’s truth and her push for justice. However, my hope is that our campus’s own recent push for justice will force our community as a whole to be ready.

Cox’s TimesTalks is now streaming online on timestalks.com.