"Ain't I a woman."
A couple of weeks ago, Cal Poly had the honor of having the one and only Laverne Cox speak to us on her Ain't I a Woman College Tour. Looking back at the experience, it was truly one of the most powerful and inspirational speeches I've ever witnessed in person. Despite her Hollywood fame, Laverne spoke to us from the perspective of a human being - a woman who struggled her whole life to come to terms with her identity, fit into the world, and create for herself a life she's always dreamed of.
Laverne started off introducing herself, claiming her many identities, as an Emmy Award nominated actress, a openly transgender woman of color, a gender non-conforming LGBT activist, and so much more. However, despite her numerous titles, she proved she's only human just like the rest of us. Throughout her talk, she repeatedly emphasized the importance of having a dream. "Find something that you like to do and cling to that for dear life," she told us. "If you can find something in this world that you are truly passionate about, it can be life-saving." She talked about how she had always wanted to be an entertainer, and how expressing herself in dance classes and setting goals for her future pulled her through all the hardships she faced. Dreaming about New York and her future got her through the bullying, and her success story is beyond empowering.
A lot of her stories involved dealing with traditional socially-constructed beliefs and close-mindedness throughout her life. She told her heartbreaking life story growing up in Alabama and the shame she felt for not acting the way someone assigned male at birth was supposed to act. At the end of her talk a student asked Laverne for advice concerning his dad's disapproval of his daughter's changing sexual orientation. Laverne responded with something that brought me to the verge of tears: "Pain will kill you, but ignorance will kill your daughter."
"Hurt-people, hurt people."
Those four words still ringing in my ears weeks later. As Laverne told us stories about her encounters with ignorant people on the streets and interactions with strangers on the subway who actually told her to go die, she made it clear that the people who hurt each other the most are the ones most hurt themselves. This gave me a whole new perspective concerning the root of criticism, hatred, and oppression. It's the troubled people who need the most help and the most love. "Empathy is the anecdote to shame," she stated. Loving and understanding the ones who are hurt can and will distill the dangerous concept of shame.
Laverne spoke with so much strength, dignity, and courage. She is so strong in heart and soul, and radiates unwavering confidence about her own identity and her passion for encouraging others to live authentically. She taught us how to be a woman and claim our identities. (You cannot just be born a woman; you have to become one.) Watching Laverne speak to a crowd with so much ferocity was empowering, but seeing her listen to and talk to individuals afterward with so much genuineness and wisdom touched my heart.
At the end of the night, I had learned so much about transgender issues and LGBTQIA misconceptions. I was glad so many people Cal Poly were able to listen to Laverne open their minds. Thank you, Laverne, for being so insightful and inspiring. Thank you for using your fame to educate young people, showing us the importance of knowledge in creating a safe world, and being a role model for us all. Thank you for staying after to meet us and listening to me and answering my questions with so much honesty. Most of all, thank you for fearlessly sharing your life story with the world. Trans is truly beautiful.
*Disclaimer: I am in no way an expert on trans issues and social justice. These were just some of the things I took away from watching Laverne speak, and tried my best to reflect upon in this post. Please utilize hotlines and resources if need be and pass them onto others in need.