A line of Tri-Co students, faculty, staff and community members stretched out the doors of Marshall Auditorium last Friday night for a speech by transgender actress Laverne Cox, who plays Sophia Burset in the hit Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.”
Cox’s speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” drew from the writings of trans* activists like Janet Mock and Cox’s own experience as a transgender woman growing up in Alabama. While she addressed a range of issues including violence against trans* people (trans* refers to anyone who does not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth), the intersection of being black and trans*, and the shame felt by many who identify as LGBTQ, the main theme of Cox’s speech was mutual understanding and dialogue.
“If we just get to know people who are different than us as people, then all the misconceptions will melt away,” Cox said.
Cox’s message resonated with Haverford’s LGBTQ students, many of whom face discrimination from faculty and other students who remain willfully ignorant of their differences. One of the most common problems is misgendering, according to Robin Banerji, ‘15, co-head of Haverford’s Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA) and a member of the Trans* Inclusivity Committee. Misgendering is calling someone by a non-preferred gender pronoun. In the past, news articles have referred to Cox as a “he” despite her preference for “she.”
“Pronouns matter when we talk with and about trans* people,” Cox said in her speech. “Calling a transgender woman a man is an act of oppression.”
To avoid misgendering someone, one should simply and politely ask which pronouns they prefer. Cox prefers she/her, but it is not uncommon for people to prefer pronouns such as “they,” which eschew the gender binary.
Cox told the story of a recent doctor’s appointment where a nurse introduced himself to Cox by saying “Hi, I’m David. My preferred pronouns are he and him. What about you?” Cox said this openness made her feel more comfortable, and she wishes more people would introduce themselves like that.
Cox said it took her mother years to learn the right pronouns after Cox told her that she was transitioning. Now her mother corrects others who make the same mistake.
Cox added that this understanding starts through education. In response to a question from a high school student in attendance about the best way to teach gender acceptance, she said, “we need to have a basic understanding of gender and a more sophisticated discussion…Gender is deeply personal. Each of us probably experiences our own gender in a different way.”
Not only is education important, said Banerji, so is student interaction.
“If someone confronts you, listen,” he said.
In an op-ed for The Clerk in April 2013, former co-head of SAGA and member of the Speakers Committee Kenzie Thorp ‘15 wrote, “It seems that we’ve decided to never talk about difference…Not only does this ignore the great deal of alienation that minority students often go through, it also denies the fact that differences don’t divide us, they make us stronger.”
Cox addressed this lack of dialogue directly.
“We don’t know how to have conversations across difference,” she said, adding that oftentimes conversations never get started because people are so afraid of saying the wrong thing. Cox drew a solution from her own experience meeting transgender women in the New York nightclub scene.
“By getting to know all these amazing transgender women I was able to accept them as people and eventually accept myself,” Cox said.
“Any viewpoint can and should be heard,” said Banerji, adding that trans* and queer-identified students often feel as if they don’t have a community, and that promoting queer and trans* voices was one way to make students feel more comfortable and welcome.
It was out of this desire to promote minority voices that Cox was invited to Haverford. “She will be able to reach members of the community that a more traditional speaker may not,” said Madeleine Durante ‘16, a member of the Speakers Committee.
“Her message is important,” Durante added. “We should let people decide who they are for themselves, and it’s important to understand that as we interact as a community.”
She also said that Cox’s celebrity status drew many students and community members who otherwise would have stayed home, allowing Cox’s message to reach a much wider audience.
The audience was very receptive to Cox’ message. “I feel as if we’ve been graced by a goddess,” said one student as he was exiting the auditorium Friday night. One Haverford alum asked Cox during the Q&A session how she felt about frequently being called “flawless” by the media.
“I certainly don’t feel flawless,” replied Cox. “But it’s my flaws that make me unique and beautiful. It’s our flaws that make us human.”
Cox ended her speech with a call to action.
“I challenge each and every one of you to be vulnerable, even make mistakes, and have that conversation across difference,” she said. “You will gain a better understanding of who the other person is, and by doing so, who you are.”