Ain’t I a woman, asks Laverne Cox

A while ago, I attended a talk by Laverne Cox, whom I can only describe as fabulous. She is an African American trans woman, an actress, producer and LGBTQ activist. I came to know her as Sophia Burset in the Netflix prison drama Orange is the New Black, and following some intense internet stalking, I decided I liked her a little too much. She is openly transgender, and plays a similar role in the TV series.

There is one scene I find memorable: Sophia teaches some of the other women inmates about their genitalia. She tells them they can look at themselves with a mirror and understand how the parts work. One of the women asks her how she knows all of this information that wasn’t ever explained to them. She says she should know all of this since she basically designed her pussy. I have always felt this scene resonated quite a bit with me, considering we are never taught anything that is vital to our sexual health. Our society likes to operate on the belief that girls are never curious about such things, until the time they have to copulate and reproduce, and by then they have to miraculously know everything.

Laverne Cox spoke about her experiences growing up as a black trans person, with a twin brother and a single mother. She touched upon trying to come to terms with the reality of her existence and how other people saw her. She was beaten up regularly, bullied constantly, called a sissy for acting like a girl. She spoke of how the average trans person internalizes a strong sense of shame for being different. I thought back to the times I made insensitive comments – wondering out loud if the person in front of me was a man or woman, without pausing to think what they must be going through, or what they will go through every time they hear a comment like that.

But she was an ambitious and determined young person, who did everything she set out to do, even better than in her imagination. Her speech was inspirational, with many lines that elicited applause.

Hurt people hurt people.

Empathy is the antidote to shame.

She made several interesting points, some of which I hadn’t thought of.  There is a history of emasculating the black man in America, she said, and this is one of the reasons for the perpetual violence black trans people face at the hands of black men. Black trans women are often considered to be the embodiment of that emasculation by other black men, she argued.

Marginalized people discriminate against other marginalized people. 

Ain’t I a woman, she asked us. We cheered in response.

She quoted Simone de Beauvoir: One is not born, but rather, becomes a woman. She became.

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