Delivering personal messages of hope and empowerment for the future to University of Michigan students was “Orange is the New Black” star Laverne Cox, who took the stage of Rackham Auditorium Wednesday night.
Around 600 people gathered to watch Cox, a transgender, African-American actress and activist, deliver her speech “Ain’t I a Woman? My Journey to Womanhood” to conclude the 2017 Center for the Education of Women Spectrum of Advocacy and Activism Symposium. Hundreds more tuned into the livestream of the speech, shown at various locations around campus.
Before the event, due to its popularity, students gave out their tickets to Black women on campus so those who could benefit most from listening to Cox could take advantage of the opportunity to hear her.
“It’s a horrible thing that you don’t expect people to support you, but being Black on this campus, you don’t expect it because of the way that a lot people act and what a lot of people do — you just don’t expect people to care,” LSA junior Mayah Wheeler said in October regarding the generosity of ticket givers.
Anna Kirkland, director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, began the night by describing the unusual political circumstances of the past year — especially pertaining to women’s rights.
“It has been an extraordinary year to be a scholar of gender in this country, and by that I mean well beyond the ordinary, and not in the sense of good,” she said. “Laverne Cox sits here when we need her most.”
Cox spent a large portion of her speech describing her childhood in Mobile, Ala., and the various experiences that have influenced her identity as a transgender Black woman.
She described the intense shame she experienced as a child resulting from her confusion regarding her love for boys — a feeling only compounded by the teachings of her church. Due to such intense feelings of loneliness and identity confusion, Cox noted, 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide at some point over the course of their lives.
However, after spending time in New York City amid confident and beautiful transgender women, Cox said, she began addressing her own inner misconceptions about the transgender community. During this time, she began to embrace her own unique qualities.
“All of the things that make me noticeably trans … I am not beautiful despite these things, I am beautiful because of these things,” she said.
Cox emphasized the importance of using compassion in discussing issues across different communities, urging the audience to strive for equality and social justice within their own spheres of influence. Furthermore, she discussed the concept of allyship, and the power of white cisgendered individuals to serve as “accomplices” to the transgender community.
“I implore you to go back into your communities and to have those conversations with love and empathy,” she said.
Students and community members said they were initially drawn to the event after watching Cox act in “Orange is the New Black.” Kalyn Sanderfer, a recent School of Social Work graduate, said she made it a priority to attend the speech after hearing of the opportunity.
“I’m definitely a fan of Laverne’s work, her writing, and I saw her on ‘Orange is the New Black.’ So when I saw she was coming here, I immediately made it a priority to be here,” she said. “Everything she said was super powerful, I liked how she kept referring back to the Sojourner Truth ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ post. I just thought that was a good metaphor, even though the world will put you through all of these things that you don’t deserve to go through, you can still be who you are.”
Sanderfer also emphasized how Laverne’s message had the potential to resonate within multiple communities — further augmenting its influence.
“I also liked how she focused on intersectionality of identities; it wasn’t about just being trans. I personally don’t identify as trans and I was still able to relate to a lot of the things she said. I feel like it was powerful, and informative and will reach a lot of audiences,” she said.
After her speech, Cox answered a question from the audience regarding her thoughts on noted white supremacist Richard Spencer’s request to speak at the University of Michigan. She remarked students and community members must peacefully protest Richard Spencer’s white supremacist views.
Spencer has attempted to speak his beliefs on college campuses across the country, yet several university administrators, including those at the University of Florida, Texas A&M University and Michigan State University, have attempted to bar him from speaking due to safety concerns.
The University has not yet released a decision on whether it will allow Spencer to speak on campus.
“I think it becomes a microcosm of the white supremacy that is happening on a federal level,” Cox said. “This is the straight white man’s last stand, and they’re going hard.”