Two hours before actress and equal rights advocate Laverne Cox took the stage for the Big Lecture at California State University, Northridge, De’zha Boynton and her friends were first in line, sitting right outside the doors of the University Student Union’s Northridge Center. Boynton, a second-year journalism student, was eager to hear Cox’s lecture.
“Laverne’s fabulousness and graciousness brought me here,” Boynton said, smiling. “I expect a great lecture and to be in awe of her. I’m excited to learn about her journey as a trans woman.”
Boynton was not the only student eager to see the sold-out lecture. Hundreds of Matadors stood in line in chilly weather to see the actress and producer. Five minutes before doors opened, the line went through the USU, past the Student Recreation Center and extended to the G3 parking structure.
Cox walked on stage after an introduction from Associated Students President Jonathan Goldenberg and Vice President Zahraa Khuraibet. Best known for her role as Sophia Burset on Netflix’s critically acclaimed Orange is the New Black, the crowd of about 800 greeted the actress with loud applause and a standing ovation.
After a quick hello, Cox kicked off her lecture with a simple declaration.
“I am a proud, African-American, trans woman,” Cox said.
Later, she quoted famous words of abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth.
“I believe it is important to claim the multiple intersections of our personalities with pride and in public because I haven’t been always able to do so,” Cox said. “It is my belief that the greatest obstacles facing the transgender community are points of view which disavow our identities … points of view that suggest no matter what I do, I’ll never be a woman.
“Yet, ain’t I a woman?”
The first years of her transition were very difficult for her, Cox said. After finally accepting that she was a woman and taking the steps to live authentically, the world wasn’t reflecting her true image.
“It was incredibly painful and I often had moments where I asked myself, ‘What am I doing wrong? Why aren’t they seeing that I’m a woman?’” she said. “It took me many, many years to internalize that if someone can look at me and realize that I’m transgender, that’s not only okay, that’s beautiful. Trans is beautiful.”
During her hour-long lecture, Cox also talked about her identical twin brother, her mother and growing up in her hometown of Mobile, Alabama.
“My mother worked three jobs to take care of my brother and me, but she eventually became a teacher, so education was really important in our household,” Cox said. “My mother was keen on making sure that my brother and I were aware of the rich history of racial oppression we were born into, but she also made sure that we were aware of the rich history of resistance to that racial oppression.”
The Alabama native also shared childhood experiences, including how she was bullied as a kid. In grade school, Cox would often be chased home by four or five boys who wanted to beat her up. From the second the school bus pulled over, she would run home as fast as she could to avoid them, she said.
As a teenager, Cox got a scholarship to study creative writing (she planned to switch to ballet two years later) at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham. Then, in the early 1990s, she earned a dance scholarship to Indiana University.
Two years later, she transferred to Marymount Manhattan College in New York, where she studied dance. Cox said New York City was the first place where her gender non-conformity was looked at as something special. Her “real education” came from the New York nightclub scene, Cox said. There, she met people who inspired her to be herself, most notably a woman named Tina Sparkles.
“Over the years that I knew Tina Sparkles, I watched her transform,” Cox said. “I watched her transition from a statuesque queen to a beautiful, elegant, sophisticated woman. And I was like, ‘If Tina can do this, what can I do?’”
Cox said meeting and getting to know these incredible women erased the misconceptions she had internalized about trans people.
“I associated being transgender with being destitute and not being successful,” Cox said. “Then I met real-life trans people. I got to know them as people and eventually, all the misconceptions that I had about who transgender people were melted away. And I believe that can be the journey for each and every one of us.”
A brief question-and-answer forum followed Cox’s lecture. One student stood up in the back row, phone in hand, and walked toward the stage to ask Cox a question.
“I have a friend in Washington, D.C. His name is Shane. He’s transgender and is still going through transition at the moment. He wants to ask about dysphoria and how you dealt with it,” the student said. Dysphoria is the distress a person feels when their sex and gender do not match their gender identity.
“That’s gotten better [for me],” Cox said. “In the early years of my transition, it was really rough. I wanted to be ‘there’ already and kept asking, ‘Why aren’t I there yet?’ But what I’ve learned is to try and love myself the way I am right now.”
In a warm reflection of the Big Lecture, Cox shared a video on Facebook on March 2, with a caption that read, “Thank you to the #CSUN community for showing up and showing out last night. You gave me so much love and reminded me of what’s important … You make me want to live up to the hope and possibility I saw in your eyes last night.”