by Lindsey Castille
In my junior year of high school, I was involved with a group of people trying to start a gay/straight alliance club. Ultimately, we were shut down by the principal, who was seemingly homophobic. This is not a strange occurrence, at least where I live in “the Bible Belt,” where people look forward to their Wednesday night services and where being Christian is not only normal, but expected. I believe the younger generation at least is generally more accepting than the older generation, but we do gain knowledge from our parents. People pass down intolerance through bloodlines.
To protest not being able to form this organization—on a campus, I would like to mention, that had a debate club, a young Republicans club, a golf club, and a fencing club—we all decided that we would not stand for the pledge of allegiance one early spring morning. Although we all ended up in detention for the day and unfortunately gave up on our own version of a silent protest, our main goal was to point out that there is not “liberty and justice for all” in this country. LGBT people—especially the “T,” for transgender—are often left out of the conversation when it comes to equal rights. The main focus of the LGBT community has been gay marriage, and they are finally winning. 37 states and the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage and another 8 states are in court proceedings and appeals are in progress.
But there’s a more prominent and dangerous problem that persists in the LGBT community, and it’s something Laverne Cox wants to put a stop to. Laverne Cox is most known for her role as Sophia Burset on the Netflix Original Series Orange is the New Black. What some people might not know about her is that she not only plays a trans woman on the show, she is also transgender herself and is an advocate for trans people, particularly trans women of color. Laverne has used Orange is the New Black as a platform to confront transphobia and issues that trans people face. She understands how transphobia is related so closely to sexism and racism, and she is trying to change the conversation and make it more inclusive with the ever-growing abbreviation LGBTQAI+.
Laverne Cox and her twin brother grew up in Mobile, Alabama. For a long time she felt a tremendous amount of shame about the bullying she experienced as a child. After noticing that she had feelings of being in the wrong body and also emotions for other male students, she attempted suicide at the age of 11. She believes that her mother allowing her to pursue dance saved her life. She went on and graduated from the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham. There, she studied creative writing before switching to dance. She began transitioning while attending Marymount Manhattan College in New York City and never looked back. It was also at Marymount College where she switched from pursuing a degree in dancing to acting instead.
Laverne Cox is finally getting the attention she deserves, both for her acting and performing skills and also for her transgender advocacy. She has been featured on major news networks, such as CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NPR, and HLN, where she has talked both about her acting and transgender issues. Her editorials have been featured on The Huffington Post and The Advocate. She has been on the cover of TIME magazine and was named by it as the fourth most influential fictional character of 2013 for her role as Sophia in Orange is the New Black. Laverne is the first trans woman of color to have a leading role on a mainstream scripted television show. She is also the first trans woman of color to produce and star in her own television show, VH1’s TRANSForm Me, which was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award. In 2015 alone, Laverne has picked up a spot on a highly anticipated TV pilot, Doubt, and has been named “Woman of the Year” according to Glamour magazine. Laverne knows this is an uphill battle, but she is fighting this battle courageously, standing up and giving other trans people, particularly trans women of color, a voice.
It would be a shock to her younger self, but she has become a figurehead of the movement. A moment in the third grade had an extreme impact on her gender identity as a child. In her interview with TIME magazine Laverne stated, “My third grade teacher called my mom and said, ‘Your son is going to end up in New Orleans wearing a dress.’ Up until that point I just thought that I was a girl and that there was no difference between girls and boys. I think in my imagination I thought that I would hit puberty and I would start turning into a girl.” As children, she and her brother, M Lamar, were bullied mercilessly because Laverne didn’t act “the way someone assigned male at birth was supposed to act.” She recalls both of them always running home from the bus stop to avoid being beaten up. Part of the reason she believes this to be true is because there was not a community that she could connect with in her hometown in Alabama as there is today. The online trans community is reaching out to relate with one another and teach others about the trans experience. This allows the trans narrative to be widely described and far-reaching. Laverne believes “[t]here’s not just one trans story. There’s not just one trans experience. We are the reason. And we are setting the agenda in a different way.”
Laverne is helping to set that agenda by fighting for the rights and freedom of individual trans women of color. She has been gaining significant traction in the “Free CeCe” campaign. CeCe McDonald is a trans woman that was formerly and unfairly imprisoned and put in a men’s prison for defending herself. Laverne is currently co-producing Free CeCe: A Documentary, reporting the not-so-uncommon plight of the trans woman of color in America. She is also working with L'lerrét Jazelle Ailith, another fellow trans woman of color, who participated in The T Word, an MTV and Logo TV production documentary that highlights the stories of young trans women of color.
Laverne is breaking down the so-called “trans glass ceiling,” but there is still work to be done. Trans discrimination is still legal in 35 states. If you don’t think transphobia exists, look no further than how the media has been portraying Bruce Jenner’s transition from male to female. Trans people are made a mockery to Photoshop and plaster on the headlines. If you think that is hard, just imagine life as a normal and non-famous trans person.
Transphobia is an epidemic that is causing violence and death in many cases worldwide, yet it is particularly prominent in the black community. Laverne describes this as a “collective trauma” that has carried over from times of slavery where black male sexuality was feared and policed. She has publically claimed, “Most of the street harassment that I get is from other black people.” Trans women of color are the most targeted victims of violence in the LGBTQIA+ community. Trans women make up 72% of people on the spectrum of LGBT homicide victims, and 89% of these murders were people of color. Between 2011 and 2013, the number of homicides in the LGBT community jumped from 43% to 54%. Of those murders most were transgender, and the majority were of trans women of color. In 2013 alone, 11 African-American trans women lost their lives. As a trans woman of color, Laverne is “acutely aware of how sexism and trans misogyny intersect with racism to police [her] now black trans woman’s body in public space.”
To have literal “equality and justice for all,” we need to make sure that trans people are not excluded from the conversation, both in the LGBT community and in the larger community. Trans women are women. Period. We should treat them as such. Laverne is now one of the people leading a movement of understanding and acceptance of people who are often overlooked. She is not only helping the transgender community, but reaching out to the larger community as well through both her acting and activism. I think Laverne Cox herself said it best: “If we can love transgender people, that will be a revolutionary act.”
Lindsey Castille is currently a sociology major attending the University of North Georgia in Gainesville. She is the creator and president of UNG Gainesville’s Gender Equality Club. In her first year of the club she ran several events, including a now annual drive called Lady & the Tamp, which collects women’s and children’s products for a women’s shelter. She considers herself an intersectional feminist and enjoys studying about social problems, body positivity, sex positivity, gender, and many other things considered feminist issues. In her free time she enjoys reading the classics, and her recent literary hang-up is bio-comedies. She is also interested in organic gardening, eating sushi, and petting other people’s dogs and cats. She is a vegetarian, concert enthusiast, and rabid fan of the Harry Potter series. Her future college plans include either staying on the UNG campus and pursuing a social work degree with a minor in gender studies, or attending the University of Georgia to pursue a degree in gender studies. She wants to continue in a career that helps women, however that may be.
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