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PHOTO: Speaking at ‘Aint I a Woman: My Journey to Womanhood.’  Photo by Emily Lewis for The Current 2014 ©

By Michael Holmes, Staff Writer for The Current

On October 21, 2014, Laverne Cox, best known for her performance as series “Orange is the New Black,” came to UMSL to speak about her journey to womanhood.
Cox was born in Mobile, Alabama, seven minutes before her twin brother, to a single mother working as an educator. Her mother stressed the importance of an education to her children from the very beginning. She began the sold out “Ain’t I a Woman” talk by discussing her childhood and the obstacles that she grew to overcome in her journey to womanhood.

“I stand before you today, a proud African American transgender woman.” Despite standing ovations and exuding a was not simple and her identity was not so easily constructed or claimed. In fact, Cox recounted several times in her life in which she felt misunderstood and mislabeled. She alluded to homophobic slurs such as “sissy” and the “f word” being hurled at her at an early age because she “acted like a girl”. Cox stated that 78 percent of transgender students in the K-12 system experience some form of harassment.

Ain’t I a woman? Am I born a woman, or is it created? These ideals stem from Cox’s extensive background in feminist theory. Cox is a graduate of the Alabama School of Fine Arts where she focused on dance. While in college, Cox studied the works of notable feminist writers such as Judith Butler, author of “Gender Trouble,” as well as “The Second Sex” author Simone de Beauvoir. Cox says that it was through these feminist readings that she began to learn how the concepts of sex and its gendered expression are socially constructed. De Beauvoir says, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Cox continued by explaining that the sexual-orientation, gender-identity binary is conflagrated due to the fact that the reality of gendered expression will always conflict with its expectation. This contradiction is the very root of the “gender policing” that Cox believes prevents many of us from being honest about who we are and accepting those around us.

She discussed a time in which she explained to her mother how the bullying she experienced from her classmates was causing a negative effect, only to hear her mother ask, “What are you doing to make them treat you that way?” She said that she started to believe that she was responsible for this negative treatment and that something must have been wrong with her to deserve such harassment. As a result of her own internalized shame, she encouraged others to develop a positive “self-talk” so that others will learn how to be proud of their authentic selves. Cox believes that society could put an end to bullying by creating gender self-determination spaces.

Cox then held a question and answer session with several members of the audience, including one lucky person that managed to take a very coveted selfie with the Emmy-nominated actress. Many students expressed how grateful they were for Ms. Laverne Cox agreeing to come and speak at UMSL.

© The Current 2014