Ainâ€™t I a Woman? My Journey to Womanhood Laverne Cox
Ainâ€™t I a Woman? My Journey to Womanhood Laverne Cox University of North Texas February 24, 2015
I stand before you this evening a proud African American transgender woman. From a working class background, raised by a single mother. I stand before you an artist, and an actress, a sister, and a daughter. And I believe it’s important to name the various intersecting components of my multiple identities because I’m not just one thing. And, neither are you. I believe it’s important to claim the various intersecting components of my multiple identities with pride, in public, because I’ve not always been able to do so. I’ve often carried tremendous amounts of shame about various aspects of who I am. And let’s face it, folks, being a black working class transgender woman isn’t necessarily a celebrated class in society. It’s quite the contrary. According to the National Coalition of AntiViolence Programs, the homicide rate in the LGBTQ community is highest among trans women. In 2013, over 72% of all LGBTQ homicides were trans women; over 67% were trans women of color. According to the Injustice at Every Turn National Transgender Discrimination Survey, the unemployment rate of the transgender community is twice the national average, four times that for trans people of color. 16% of the transgender population has experienced incarceration, compared to 1% of the rest of the population.
And 78% of all students in grades K-12 who express a transgender or gender non-conforming identity experience harassment or bullying. 78%. It is a state of emergency for far too many trans people across this nation. But as Dr. Cornell West reminds us, justice is what love looks like in public. That’s good, right? Justice is what love looks like in public. And trans and gender non-conforming people can use some justice, can use some love today. Poor and working people can use some justice, some love today. People of color can use some justice, some love today. People with disabilities can use some justice, some love today. And ain’t I a woman. It is my belief that one of the biggest obstacles facing the transgender community are points of view which disavow our identities, points of views that suggest that no matter what we do, we are always and only the gender we were assigned at birth. Points of view that suggest no matter what I do, I’ll never be a woman. And yet, ain’t I a woman.
Ain’t I a woman. We’ve all heard of Sojourner Truth here, yes? Sojourner Truth, the legendary abolitionist and women’s rights activist spoke those powerful words in an iconic speech on May 29, 1851. That happens to be my birthday. Diﬀerent year, though. I’m not quite that old. Sojourner Truth spoke those powerful words in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Convention. She spoke those words in the context of a women’s liberation struggle that suggested she wasn’t really a woman, because she was black. She spoke those words in a social context that denied her very humanity, because she was black. There’s a famous story about Sojourner Truth in 1858. She was giving a speech and someone yelled from the audience, accusing her of being a man. And she famously opened her blouse and revealed her breast. Now, I’m not going to reveal my breast tonight. Sorry to disappoint some of you. But I do stand here this evening claiming my womanhood in a social context which would often deny it.
One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one.
My feminist idol, a woman by the name of bell hooks, we’ve heard of bell hooks here, yes? bell hooks used the title of the famous Sojourner Truth speech for her ﬁrst book. She titled it, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women in Feminism. And in it, she chronicled the historic devaluation of black womanhood in America. She was critical of various aspects of women’s liberation struggles, that she felt silenced the voices of women of color. But she was also critical of various aspects of black liberation struggles, that she felt silenced the voices of black women. She spoke of issues of race, and class, and gender intersectional issues over thirty years ago before it was popular, at least in certain circles, to do so. I discovered bell hooks’ work when I was a gender non-conforming college student in New York City. And her words were like oxygen to me. I came to critical consciousness reading her books. There was another feminist theorist whose work really spoke to me when I was a college student in New York City. And her name is Judith Butler. We’ve heard of Judith Butler here, some of us, yes? And there’s a moment specifically in Judith Butler’s seminal text, Gender Trouble, when she’s doing a critical analysis of
Simone De Beauvoir’s famous book The Second Sex. We know Simone De Beauvoir here, yes? If you don’t, look into her. Simone De Beauvoir famously wrote, “One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one.” The ﬁrst time I read this, I was very, very excited. Even though I wasn’t quite ready to accept my own womanhood, this idea of becoming, this idea of existence preceding essence, was really exciting to me. And Judith Butler, in her analysis of this moment writes, “Nowhere, in De Beauvoir’s account, is it guaranteed that the one who becomes a woman is necessarily female.” Now, I was very, very excited the ﬁrst time I read this. So, one is not born a woman but rather becomes one. And it is not guaranteed that the one who becomes a woman is necessarily female. And ain’t I a woman. Before I was a gender non-conforming college student in New York City, I began becoming in Mobile Alabama. Is anybody from Alabama here? I was born in Mobile Alabama, I was born to a single mother, and I was born exactly seven minutes before my identical twin brother—that means I’m older, and I never let him forget it. But unfortunately that means he’s younger, and
It is not guaranteed that the one who becomes a woman is necessarily female. he never lets me forget that. And, my mother often had to work two, sometimes three jobs to take care of my brother and me. But she eventually became a teacher and so education was really important in our household. And my mother was keen to make sure that my brother and I were aware of the deep history of racial oppression we were born into, being born in Alabama. She also made sure we were aware of the rich history of resistance. It’s that racial oppression we born into, being born in Alabama. Now, Alabama is a state, as many of you know, where the Governor George Wallace in the early 1960s stood in the doors of the University of Alabama to keep that school from being desegregated, but it is also the state where Rosa Parks in 1955 refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery Bus to a white man, which was the law at the time. And that rebellious act was a catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a seminal moment in our nation’s civil rights struggle. It all happened in Alabama and so much more. It’s deﬁnitely down in Alabama. Have we all seen the movie Selma yet? Yet another example of the very, very rich history in Alabama.
Before I knew anything about myself, I knew that I was black. Now, when I started interacting with other kids in preschool I was greeted with words like sissy, words like the f-word that’s a synonym for sissy that I don’t like to say, but I think you know what I mean. And from about pre-school up until high school, I was bullied practically every single day. I was called names, I was taunted by the other kids, I was often chased home by groups of kids who wanted to beat me up. When I think about the bullying I experienced as a child I think about a number of things. One of the ﬁrst things I think about is that even though I was being bullied because of my gender, because I didn’t act the ways in which someone assigned male at birth was “supposed” to act according to the other kids. They said I acted like a girl. Whatever that means, ‘cause we know that girls had all sorts of ways, right? And even though I was being bullied because of my gender, they used anti-gay slurs to bully me. And when I think about that, I think about how the ﬂawed model of the gender binary conﬂates sexual orientation and gender identity. We all know that sexual orientation is who you’re attracted to and gender identity is who you identify as.
I believe if we are truly serious about ending the bullying of our LGBT youth in this country, we have to begin to create spaces for gender selfdetermination. We have to begin to critically interrogate the ﬂawed logic of the expectations that are tied to this gender binary model. And this model cannot exist without gender policing. Often, each and every one of us is called to be the gender police. To tell folks that a “real man” is not supposed to act this way, or a “real woman” is not supposed to act that way. Another thing I think about when I think about the bullying I experienced as a child is my mother’s reaction. When my mother would ﬁnd out what was going on at school, she would often say to me, “What are you doing to make the kids treat you that way? And why aren’t you ﬁghting back?” Now, I have to be honest, there was something in me as a kid that felt I was above duking it out on the school yard with other kids, I thought I was above it. And, quite frankly, I was terriﬁed. There were often two or three, sometimes four, ﬁve, six kids who wanted to beat me up and it was really scary. And when my mother would say to me, “What are you doing to make the kids treat you that way,” I was just going about my business as myself. I was just acting in ways that felt most authentic to me as a kid.
And so I began to feel that who I was authentically was a problem. It was the very beginnings of me internalizing a tremendous amount of shame about who I was. And when I talk about shame, I love to allude to Brené Brown’s work on the subject. Do you know Brené Brown? She’s a Texan, actually. Brené Brown is a noted shame researcher. And she deﬁnes shame as the intensely painful belief that one is unloveable. That one is unworthy of love and belonging. She tells us that guilty is “I did something wrong,” and shame is “I am wrong.” From a very early age, I began to feel that I was wrong. So I didn’t feel fully safe at school and I didn’t feel fully safe at home. But where I did feel safe was in my imagination. I loved to dance as a kid. I was pretty good at, if I may say so myself. I was really good at looking at choreography on television and imitating it perfectly, and from about the age of ﬁve years old to third grade, I begged my mother to put me into dance classes. I dreamed of growing up and becoming a professional dancer. I would always sort of walk around with music in my head and characters now expressed through the dance. I would just dance everywhere. And ﬁnally when I was in third grade, my mother found a program for me called Culture in Black and White which
“Your son is going to end up in New Orleans wearing a dress if we don’t get him into therapy right away.” was an arts program for low-income kids in my hometown of Mobile Alabama, and once a week, I got to go and study the things that I loved to do most and get better at it. And I really believe that because I had something that I loved to do as a kid. something I was pretty good at it, that that saved my life. I believe that if we can ﬁnd something that we are truly passionate about in this world it can be lifesaving. But there was a compromise. My mother said, “You can take tap and jazz, but not ballet, because ballet’s too gay.” This is according to my mother—I don’t know, something about the tights, or something, you know—but I didn’t care at the time, I just wanted to do what I loved to do most. And now, third grade was the moment my childhood another pretty intense moment happened. It happened one day when my third grade teacher Ms. Ridgeway called my mother
and said, “Your son is going to end up in New Orleans wearing a dress if we don’t get him into therapy right away.” This is really how it happened. I was the son in question. They were confused. Some of you who know my story may have heard this before, but what you might not know is the inciting incident which led to call to my mother. We had gone to Six Flags for a church trip—more about the church later. So we’ve gone to Six Flags. And I walk into the very crowded gift shop. I had a very little bit of spending money. The second I walk in, I see it. This handheld fan. It had peacocks on it. It was fabulous. And the second I saw this handheld fan, I knew I had to have it.
Fanning myself. Just fanning myself, fanning away.
Now, what you should know about this is that I had seen Gone with the Wind because before this. For those of you who don’t know, the main character, the heroine of Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara, famously and very glamorously fans herself with a handheld fan. So I’m sitting in third grade. Fanning myself. Just fanning myself, fanning away. Feeling very Scarlett O’Hara. Feeling very Gone with the Wind. Fabulous. And Ms. Ridgeway looks at this and says, “Come here. And bring that thing with you.” And then she marches me down the hall to Ms. Fairely, the ﬁfth grade teacher. She says to me, “Show her what you’ve been doing with that thing.” I’m like, “Yeah!” So I stand there, just fanning away. My invisible hair ﬂowing in the wind. She says, “Okay stop. Now go to class.”
And then my mother got a call. And I remember sitting in the therapist’s oﬃce. And the therapist asked me if I knew the diﬀerence between a boy and a girl, and in my inﬁnite wisdom as a third grader, because third graders are so wise, right? I said, “There is no diﬀerence.” This was years before any kind of gender theory, any Judith Butler, any of that. But the way I reasoned in my mind at the time was that everyone was telling me that I was a boy, but I knew that I was a girl. I knew in my heart, in my soul, in my spirit, that I was a girl, so I reasoned that there must not be any diﬀerence. And I didn’t really know how to explain it beyond that. Now, when I was kid, I watched a lot of television. I still do. I’m even on television now. And on television, I heard about this thing called
doctor-patient privilege. So I assumed that everything I said to the therapist was between me and the therapist. But apparently third graders do not have doctor-patient privilege. So, everything I said to the therapist my mother found out about. She yelled at me and she said, “You’re a boy and boys are this and girls are this, so you can’t act this way.” When my mother would yell, the entire house would shake. It was really, really scary. It was another moment in my childhood where I was deeply shamed for being who I was. I mean, at the end of the day, what’s so wrong about a little kid wanting to fan themselves like Scarlett O’Hara? Looking back on it, it was kind of fabulous, right? But it was a moment where I was deeply shamed, and they tried to “ﬁx” me.
And I continued to go to the therapist and eventually there was talk of injecting testosterone to make me more masculine. And luckily for me, a red ﬂag went up for my mother. Something didn’t seem quite right about injecting her third grader with testosterone to make them more masculine. And so the therapy was discontinued, but the damage was done.
Everyone was telling me that I was a boy, but I knew that I was a girl. We were members of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Does anyone know the AME Church here? Yeah. For those of you who don’t know, the AME Church, or the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is the oldest allblack denomination in the United States. It was started in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania around 1794 by a man named Richard Allen and some of his colleagues. They were frustrated with the ways in which Black denominations were being treated by the Methodist Church, so they started their own church. We were members of Bethel AME Church in Mobile Alabama. Going to church every single Sunday was pretty much mandatory, and there were a lot of wonderful things about the church, for me. The spirituality that I carry with me to this day started in the AME church that I grew up in. And I don’t subscribe to organized religion now as an adult, but I can consider myself a very spiritual person. Church was wonderful for me too, because it presented yet another performance opportunity.
I loved to perform as a kid, obviously, and I was an usher at Church, I sang in the choir, and I was always one of those kids getting up and making speeches. So apparently not much has changed. Church was another place where I learned that who I was authentically was not only something I should be ashamed of, but something that meant I would go to hell and rot in Eternal damnation—pretty serious, right? So in sixth grade, I started to go through puberty and this was a very weird and confusing time for me. I remember saying to myself, over and over again, “Please, God. Don’t let me grow up and turn into a man.” The idea of growing up and turning into a man was horrifying to me. But puberty happened anyway. As puberty happened I realized I was attracted exclusively to boys. Now, everyone was telling me I was a boy, and I was like, okay, whatever. And I was attracted to other boys. And I learned in church
I knew in my heart, in my soul, in my spirit, that I was a girl. that this was a sin, and so this was another thing that I internalized a tremendous amount of shame about. Now, something else happened when I was in sixth grade. My dear, sweet grandmother passed away. It was a very diﬃcult time for our family. My grandmother was a remarkable woman. Her name was Emma Cox, but we called her Madea. Madea, for those of you who don’t know, is short for “Mother dear,” and it’s a term of endearment for black mothers and grandmothers in the South. Madea was this remarkable woman who couldn’t read or write but she had this amazing dignity that she imparted on all of her children. She was domestic worker. She cooked and cleaned in the homes of white people in the segregated South and we called her every day. She was really...yeah. She was everything.
And when she passed away, it was really a diﬃcult time for us and for our family, and I remember being up late one night. I lay in my bed grieving her loss. And I remember sitting in my bed. I imagined that she was up in heaven, looking down on me. And I imagine she knew every single thought that I was having and imagined she knew every single thought I was having about boys and I imagined she was extremely disappointed. And the idea of disappointing Madea made me not want to live. So I went to our medicine cabinet and took an entire bottle of pills, and swallowed them, and went to sleep, hoping not to wake up.
I did wake up the next day with a terrible stomach ache. And I remember saying to myself when I survived, that I would do everything that I could to push down those feelings that I was having about other boys, that I would do everything that I could to act the way that I was supposed to so I could make Madea proud, make my mother proud, and make everybody proud.
41% of all transgender people report having attempted suicide. 41% compared to 1% of the rest of the population. So. In my eďŹ€orts to push down my gender and sexuality, I became an overachiever. I became a straight A student. I was a member of the National Junior Honor Society. I was public speaking champion in eighth grade countywide. Still proud of that. The whole county! And I became vice president of the student council. Now, one of the coolest things about this, is that the next student council, in eighth grade, I got to lead the entire school in the pledge of allegiance on the intercom. This was really awesome, because all those kids who made fun of me, and chased me home from school every day, they had to hear my voice every. Single. Day. It was amazing. Success really is the best revenge. Remember that, kids. And so, when I was in middle school, I found out about this school in Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham is four hours North of Mobile. And the school is called the Alabama School
of Fine Arts. The second I heard about the Alabama School of Fine Arts, I knew I had to go there. Now in the 1980s there was a television show called Fame. Has anybody heard of the show Fame? Oh my god. Fame is like, everything to me. So. For those of you who donâ€™t know, Fame was a television show in the 1980s that was set in New York City at the High School of Performing Arts. It was sort of Glee, many decades before Glee. May Glee rest in peace. Every 10 minutes or so on Fame, the kids would sort of sing and dance around the hallways at school. They burst out musical numbers. They danced on the tables in the cafeteria. They would take these musical numbers out into the streets, and dance on the hoods of taxi cabs. It was fabulous. And so of course when I heard about the Alabama School of Fine Arts, I knew I had to go there, be a dance major, and dance on the tables in the cafeteria. Just like they did in Fame.
I was just a very feminine creature.
But what I found out about the Dance Department at the Alabama School of Fine Arts was that it was a ballet-only program. If you recall, my mother didn’t allow me to study ballet because she thought it was “too gay,” and I needed to get a scholarship, and I didn’t think I would be able to get a scholarship if I had never studied ballet before. So I was like, “What am I going to do? I have to go to ASFA.” And so I said to myself, “Well, I’m writing a lot now. There’s a Creative Writing Department. I could submit myself as a Creative Writing major, get in, get a scholarship, start taking ballet, and then switch my major to Dance.” And that’s exactly what I did. And I have to tell you, I was extremely disappointed when I got to ASFA and I discovered that the kids did not dance on the tables of the cafeteria like they did on Fame. Very disappointing. I tried to get it started a few times—didn’t work out so well. Really didn’t. But the Alabama School of Fine Arts was a wonderful time for me, in my adolescence. For a lot of reasons. I loved being surrounded by all of the artistic disciplines. My love and appreciation of
all the arts developed when I was at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. My love for opera speciﬁcally developed when I was there. But up until that point in my life, most of the shame that I had internalized about gender and sexuality. But when I got to Alabama School of Fine Arts I added race and class to the things I internalized shame about. My brother and I were two of three black kids in the dorm together. There was one other black kid in the dorms besides us. So I was living in these dorms with students from all over the country who were mostly white and from very aﬄuent backgrounds. And I had so many moments of feeling less than because I didn’t have the same material privilege that they had. I didn’t have the same cultural exposure, academic exposure that they had, because of class. I experienced being called a racial slur for the ﬁrst time. When I was at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, it was amazing for me too, because I was ﬁnally away from my mother—I love my mother, but you know how it is. I really got to express my femininity and gender even more. Now, the great
Even though I was trying to suppress my gender and my femininity, it could not be contained. thing about me as a kid is that even though I was trying to suppress and push down my gender and my femininity, it could not be contained. It always bubbled up over the surface. I was just a very feminine creature. I think it’s cool now, I didn’t at the time. So when I was ﬁnally away from my mother, I needed to express that more. I started wearing women’s and girl’s clothes for the very ﬁrst time. Now, I was terriﬁed of wearing a dress or skirt, because I didn’t to end up in New Orleans wearing a dress the way Ms. Ridgeway predicted, but I became a frequent customer at the Goodwill and the Salvation Army thrift stores. I became a huge fan of culottes and bell bottom pants. Now, culottes were fabulous. Because culottes kind of look like a skirt but they’re really short, so when the kids would be like, “Are you wearing a skirt?” I’d be like, “No, they’re shorts.” And I remember having this pair of polyester leopard print wide leg bell bottoms that were so huge they sort of pooled on the ﬂoor behind me as I
walked. They were quite big and homey. And this pair of polyester leopard print bell bottoms started out as a jumpsuit and I cut the top oﬀ. I was often making little alterations in my Salvation Army ﬁnds. So I would call them my Salvation Army Couture. Salvation Armani, if you will. At the time I had a shaved head and I started wearing makeup, so I started existing in this sort of androgynous, gender non-conforming space when I was in the Alabama School of Fine Arts. And so graduated from ASFA as a dance major, and then got into and went to Indiana University for two years—I got a dance and academic scholarship. Thank you. Proud of that. So I danced at Indiana University for two years, and then I transferred to Marymount Manhattan College, and ﬁnally I was in New York City!
And I say it like that, New York City!—my Oprah impersonation, thank you—because New York City for me represented the place, the space of ultimate possibility. Not only for my professional aspirations, but also for my pursuit of becoming more myself. So I continued to be a pretty good student at Marymount, but a huge part of my education happened in the night club scene of New York City. Stay with me. When I arrived in New York City, it was the early 90’s. And it was the age of the club kid. Has anyone seen that movie Party Monster? It sort of gives you an idea of what the New York City club scene like in the early 90’s. Now, Club Kids were these folks who got paid basically to go to parties and nightclubs. And dress outrageously, often in various forms of gender-nonconformity, androgyny, and drag, etcetera. Club Kids were fabulous. When I arrived in New York City in my gender nonconformity, my Salvation Armani, I went to the hottest clubs in the city. I would walk up to the velvet ropes and never had to wait, they let me right in. I never had to pay; they’d let me in free. They’d give me drink tickets so I could drink for free. It was the ﬁrst time in my life that that I experienced my gender expression as something that was to be celebrated, to be valorized, not something that I would be shamed about. It was a really wonderful time for me. I
felt like a star—I felt amazing. I was feeling very sort of empowered around who I was and my identity. Some of the people that I would meet in the club scene in New York City would change my life. There was a particular person who would go by the name of Tina Sparkles. I love that name. Tina Sparkles. And boy, did she ever. I met Tina at a night club called Webster Hall, which still exists if you ever want to check it out, and back in the day, there was a party at Webster Hall called Makeup Room that happened every Friday night. Ironically, I was powdering my nose at makeup room when Tina asked to borrow my powder—she had forgotten hers—that’s when we became friends, not super close friends, but whenever I would go out, I would see her. And a little bit about Tina, she was about 6’ 5.66” in heels. She was African American, actually she probably still is. Yes. She is African American. She was in this wig, huge Diana Ross Hair, which she often wore at that time and she had this very noticeably sort of pimply, acne skin. Not the smoothest skin in the world. But she was one of the sweetest queens you would meet. Over the next several years of knowing Tina Sparkles, I watched her transform, transition from a statuesque queen to a beautiful elegant sophisticated woman with ﬂawless skin. Thank you very much.
I was able to accept them, and ultimately, myself. And I remember saying to myself, “If Tina can do this, what can I do?” And if it weren’t for Tina Sparkles and all the amazing transgender women I met at the nightclub scene of New York City at the time, I probably would not have ended up at Dr. Rich’s oﬃce 16 years ago for my ﬁrst hormone shot in the beginning of my medical transition. Now, this part of my story to me means so much to me because I arrived in New York City with all of these sort of misconceptions about who transgender people were based on what I seen in the media, based on the fear of God that was put in me by my mother, and Ms. Ridgeway, that I’d end up in New Orleans wearing a dress. I didn’t associate being transgender with being successful and accomplished. And then I met actual, real life transgender people and I got to know them as people, and slowly, all of these conceptions I had about transgender people melted away and I was able to accept them, and ultimately, myself. And I believe this can be the journey for each and every one of us: If we have misconceptions about people who are diﬀerent from us if we just get to know them as people, I believe those misconceptions will melt away.
So imagined that my transition would go a little bit like Tina’s, that I would be able to—two three years into my transition—be able to walk down the street and no one would ever know that I was trans, and I could live as the woman I was always meant to be and be happy, healthy, and free. But two, three years into my transition, this wasn’t quite happening. Four, ﬁve, six years of my transition still, not happening. I would walk down the street and I was still get spooked. Now, spooked is a colloquialism in the transgender community in New York City, which basically means that someone can look at you and tell that you’re transgender. Now, I gotta tell you it took me many, many years to fully internalize this: that if someone can look at me and tell that I’m trans, that’s not only beautiful. That’s awesome, and amazing, because being transgender is beautiful. Early on in my transition when people would immediately spook me on the street, I felt so inadequate. I was so frustrated to ﬁnally have accepted myself as a woman—I ﬁnally, you know, knew who I was—and to not have the world reﬂect that back to me. I was like, “Why aren’t they looking at me and seeing the woman I know I am?” It was so frustrating.
“What? That’s a maaaaaaan?”
And now I know that if someone can look at me and tell that I’m transgender, that’s a beautiful thing because being transgender is beautiful. And I would truly look in the mirror, not every day, every other day, several times a week, I would look in the mirror and like all those things that I want that make me noticeably transgender and look at them and I touch them. And I say, “This is beautiful.” All of these things are beautiful about you and, the process of really and truly embracing all of those clinical imperfections is so crucial. I often like to think about the Black is Beautiful movement that happened in the early 1970s and continued through the seventies. I often like to think, “What would a Trans is Beautiful movement look like, where we celebrated all these things that made us uniquely and beautifully trans?” Mmm. I love that idea. So, when people would spook me on the street, they wouldn’t say, “I think that’s a transgender woman over there.” That wouldn’t be what they would say. No, they would usually say something like, “That’s a man. Oh, that’s a man right there. What? That’s a maaaaaaan?” And they would say it so loud that everyone within a three-mile radius could hear them. Now, I say it like that kind of jokingly, because often marginalized folks will try to make light of the discrimination and oppression we experience. But I’ve come to believe after all these years, that it’s really not
funny, it’s not a laughing matter. I’ve come to believe that the misgendering of trans women— calling a transgender woman a man—is an act of violence. I’ve come to believe that because so often when this would happen to me, there was a subtext of violence, of a threat. About a year and a half ago, I was walking in my neighborhood in Midtown Manhattan. I passed this man on the street. And as we passed each other. He says, “You like a man who can really ﬁght.” I was like, “Who is he talking to?” And there was no one else around, he didn’t appear to be on Bluetooth or headphones. He wasn’t on his phone. He was talking to me. And the subjects of what he was saying had this threatening tone to it, like “let’s ﬁght.” Now, as a very trained and steady New Yorker, I’ve learned to sort of walk down the street wherein I stay in my lane, not to make eye contact with people. You know, mind my own business. And I think I was going to the deli to get some Doritos or something. So I wasn’t bothering anyone. But this man took me having the audacity to leave my apartment as myself as an invitation to threaten me. It was really—It was just uncomfortable and scary, and I was able to get out of there quickly, but it makes me think about another moment that happened to me in 2008. It’s the Spring of
Calling a transgender woman a man is an act of violence. 2008. Again, I was walking in my neighborhood in Midtown Manhattan, and I passed a group of young men. And as I passed this group of young men, I heard anti-gay slurs, I heard anti-trans slurs. I heard one of them yell, “That’s a man!” and then one of them kicked me. I remember for sort being stunned for a second. I was like, “Did this just really happened to me?” And then I immediately retreated into a nearby store and called the police, and by the time the police arrived on the scene, the perpetrators had gotten away. And I’m happy to report that I had a pretty decent experience with the police that day—many transgender people do not feel safe contact the police. About 40% of trans people do not feel safe, according to the Injustice at Every Turn survey.
Often, when trans folks do contact the police, we are assumed to be criminals ourselves. We are often re-victimized when we are survivors of crime, and so a lot of us don’t feel safe. But I had a pretty decent experience with the police that day, and it felt very empowering to say to the police and to the world that I do not deserve to be treated this way. Now, even though this is the worst of what has happened to me in terms of violence, at least as an adult—much worse things happen as a child that I won’t get into—um, I just feel a bit of trauma related to having been kicked on the street and often left my apartment in fear, wondering if today’s gonna be the day that I, you know, become a victim of violence, or I might not even survive.
Transgender Day of Remembrance Stories like the one I’m about to tell you really touched me to my core because for far too many trans people, it’s much, much worse. On August 17 in 2013, a young woman by the name of Islan Nettles was walking down the street in New York City. Islan Nettles was an African American transgender woman, 21 years old. She just, you know, she had been homeless, but she just got an apartment, just started a new job her life was, you know, looking bright. And she was walking down the street, and she was catcalled by a group of young men. And one of the young men realized that she was transgender and beat her into a coma. Five days later, she passed away. It has taken over a year and a half, and ﬁnally, there’s been an arrest for the homicide of Islan. Far too often, the homicides of trans women go unsolved, of trans people in general, go unsolved. We are barely into 2015 and there have already been seven murders of trans women in this country, that we know of. Trans lives matter.
is an annual observance on November 20 that honors the memory of those whose lives were lost in acts of anti-transgender violence. It was started in 1999 by transgender advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith as a vigil to honor the memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was killed in 1998. The vigil commemorated all the transgender people lost to violence since Rita Hester’s death, and began an important tradition that has become the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. This observance has since expanded internationally, but the individuals here are from the United States exclusively. In addition to these instances of violence, other anti-transgender hate crimes may not be classiﬁed as such due to pervasive transphobia, lack of visibility, and misgendering in police reports.
Papi Edwards, 20, a black trans woman from Louisville, KY, was fatally shot January 9.
India Clarke, 25, a black trans woman from Tampa, FL, was fatally beaten and shot July 21.
Lamia Beard, 30, a black trans woman from Norfolk, VA, was fatally shot January 17.
K.C. Haggard, 66, a white trans woman from Fresno, CA, was fatally stabbed July 23.
Ty Underwood, 24, a black trans woman from Tyler, TX, was fatally shot January 26.
Shade Schuler, 22, a black trans woman from Dallas, TX, was found dead from a gunshot wound July 29.
Yazmin Vash Payne, 33, a black trans woman from Los Angeles, CA, was fatally stabbed January 31.
Amber Monroe, 20, a black trans woman from Detroit, MI, was fatally shot August 8.
Taja Gabrielle Dejesus, 33, a Latina trans woman from San Francisco, CA, was fatally stabbed February 1.
Kandis Capri, 35, a black trans woman from Phoenix, AZ, was fatally shot August 11, in front of an apartment complex.
Penny Proud, 21, a black trans woman from New Orleans, FL, was fatally shot February 10.
Elisha Walker, 20, a black trans woman from Salisbury, NC, was found dead from blunt force trauma August 13.
Kristina Gomez Reinwald (AKA Kristina Grant Inﬁniti), 46, a Latina trans woman from Miami, FL, was fatally stabbed February 15. Keyshia Blige, 33, a black trans woman from Aurora, IL, was fatally shot in March while driving a car. London Kiki Chanel, 21, a black trans woman from Philadelphia, PA, was fatally stabbed May 18. Mercedes Williamson, 17, a white trans woman, was found dead June 2 in George County, AL, after having been fatally stabbed. Jasmine Collins, 32, a black trans woman from Kansas City, MO, was fatally stabbed June 23. Ashton O’Hara, 25, a black trans and genderﬂuid person from Detroit, MI, was stabbed to death and run over by a car July 14.
Tamara Dominguez, 36, a Latina trans woman from Kansas City, MO, was killed when she was hit by a car and run over repeatedly August 15. Keisha Jenkins, 22, a black trans woman from Philadelphia, PA, was fatally shot on October 6. Zella Ziona, 21, a trans woman of color from Gaithersburg, MD, was fatally shot October 15. Monica Loera, 43, a Latina trans woman from Austin, TX, was fatally shot January 22. Jasmine Sierra, a Latina trans woman from Bakersﬁeld, CA, was found dead January 22. Maya Young, 25, a Black trans woman from Frankford, PA, was fatally stabbed February 21. Demarkis Stansberry, 30, a Black trans man was fatally shot February 28 in Baton Rouge, LA.
More than 21 people died due to anti-trans violence in 2015.
Kendarie Johnson, 16, a black genderﬂuid youth from Burlington, IA, was fatally shot March 2.
T.T., 26 or 27, a black trans woman from Chicago, IL, was found murdered on September 11.
Quartney Davia Dawsonn-Yochum, 32, a trans woman of color from Los Angeles, CA, was fatally shot outside her apartment March 23.
Crystal Edmonds, 32, a black trans woman from Baltimore, MD, died after being fatally shot on September 16.
Shante Thompson, 34, a black trans woman from Houston, TX, was beaten and shot to death by a group of assailants on April 11.
Jazz Alford, 30, a black trans woman from Birmigham, AL, was found shot to death on September 23.
Keyonna Blakeney, 22, a black trans woman from Montgomery, MD, was killed April 16.
Brandi Bledsoe, 32, from Cleveland, OH, was found dead on October 9.
Reecey Walker, 32, a black trans woman from Wichita, KS, was fatally stabbed May 1.
Noony Norwood, a black trans woman from Richmond, VA, was shot near her home.
Mercedes Successful, 32, a black trans woman from Haines City, FL, was fatally shot May 15.
India Monroe, 29, from Newport News, VA, was shot to death in a home on December 21.
Amos Beede, 38, a trans man from VT, was attacked at a homeless encampment in Vermont.
Kayden Clarke, 24, a trans man from AZ, was shot and killed by police responding to a call about suicidal behavior on February 4.
Goddess Diamond, 20, from New Orleans, LA, was found dead of blunt force trauma in a burned car on June 5. Deeniquia Dodds, 22, a trans woman from Washington D.C., was critically shot and passed away after 10 days on September 15.
Mesha Caldwell, 41, a black trans woman from Canton, MS, was shot on January 4. Sean Hake, 23, a trans man in Sharon, PA, was shot by police.
Dee Whigham, 23, a black trans woman from St. Martin, MS, was stabbed 119 times July 23.
Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, 28, an American Indian trans and two-spirit woman, was found dead in her apartment in Sioux Falls, SD.
Erykah Tijerina, 36, a trans woman from El Paso, TX, was found dead in her apartment August 8.
JoJo Striker, 23, a trans woman, was found killed in Toledo, OH, on February 8.
Rae’Lynn Thomas, 28, a trans woman from Columbus, Ohio, was brutally murdered by her mother’s ex-boyfriend on August 8.
Tiara Richmond, 24, a trans woman of color, was fatally shot in Chicago on February 21. Chyna Gibson, 31, a black trans woman, was shot in New Orleans, LA, on February 25.
More than 23 people died due to anti-trans violence in 2016.
Ciara McElveen, 26, a trans woman of color, was stabbed to death in New Orleans, LA on February 27.
Kiwi Herring, 30, was killed by police on August 22 during an altercation with a transphobic neighbor.
Jaquarrius Holland, 18, was shot to death in Monroe, Louisiana, on February 19.
Kashmire Nazier Redd, 28, was fatally stabbed by his partner on September 5.
Alphonza Watson, 38, from Baltimore, MD, was shot on March 22.
Derricka Banner, 26, was found shot to death in Charlotte, NC, on September 12.
Chay Reed, 28, a trans woman of color from Miami, CA, was shot and killed on April 21.
Scout Schultz, 21, was shot and killed by Georgia Tech campus police on September 16.
Kenneth Bostick, 59, from New York City, NY, was found with severe injuries on a sidewalk.
Ally Steinfeld, 17, was stabbed to death in MO in early September.
Sherrell Faulkner, 46, a trans woman of color from Charlotte, NC, died on May 16 of injuries sustained during an attack in 2016.
Stephanie Montez, 47, was brutally murdered near Robstown, TX.
Kenne McFadden, 27, was found in the San Antonio River, TX, on April 9.
Candace Towns, 30, a trans woman, was found shot to death in GA.
Kendra Marie Adams (Josie Berrios), 28, was found with burns on her body on June 13.
Brooklyn BreYanna Stevenson, 31, a black trans woman, was found murdered in a motel room in Oklahoma City, OK, November 27.
Ava Leâ€™Ray Barrin, 17, was shot and killed in Athens, GA, on June 25.
Brandi Seals, 26, a black trans woman, was shot to death in Houston, TX, December 13.
Ebony Morgan, 28, was shot multiple times in Lynchburg, Virginia, on July 2.
Rhiannon Layendecker, 51, was shot and killed by her wife on December 16 in Englewood, FL.
TeeTee DangerďŹ eld, 32, a black trans woman from Atlanta, GA, was shot multiple times on July 31.
Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, 42, from North Adams, MA, was found dead in her home January 5.
Jaylow McGlory, 29, a black trans woman, was shot and killed in Alexandria, LA, on August 4.
Viccky Gutierrez, 33, a Honduran trans woman from Los Angeles, CA, was stabbed and set ablaze at her home on January 10.
Gwynevere River Song, 26, a femandrogyne person, was shot and killed in Waxahachie, TX, on August 12.
More than 29 people died due to anti-trans violence in 2017.
Celine Walker, 36, a black trans woman, was fatally shot in a hotel room on on February 4 in Jacksonville, FL. Tonya Harvey, 35, a trans woman of color, was fatally shot on February 6 in Buﬀalo, NY. Zakaria Fry, 28, went missing in NM in January. Her body was later found 40 miles outside of Albuquerque on February 19. Phylicia Mitchell, 45, a black trans woman from Cleveland, OH, was shot outside her home on February 23. Amia Tyrae Berryman, 28, a trans woman of color, was fatally shot on March 26 in Baton Rouge, LA. Sasha Wall, 29, a trans woman of color, was shot on April 1 in Chesterﬁeld County, SC. Karla Patricia Flores-Pavón, 26, was choked to death in her apartment in Dallas, TX, on May 9. Nino Fortson, 36, a black trans person, was shot in Atlanta, GA, on May 13. Gigi Pierce, 28, was fatally shot on May 21 in Portland, Oregon. Roxana Hernández, 33, a Honduran trans woman, passed away on May 25 while in the custody of ICE. Antash’a English, 38, a black trans woman from Jacksonville, FL, was injured in drive-by shooting on June 1. Diamond Stephens, 39, a black trans woman, was shot on June 18 in Meridian, MS.
Cathalina Christina James, 24, a black trans woman from Jacksonville, FL, was shot June 24. Keisha Wells, 54, a black trans woman from Cleveland, OH, was shot on June 24. Sasha Garden, 27, a black trans woman from Orlando, FL, was found dead with signs of trauma July 19. Vontashia Bell, 18, a black trans woman from Shreveport, LA, was shot on August 30 in a neighborhood. Dejanay Stanton, 24, a black trans woman from Chicago, IL, was shot in the head on August 30. Shantee Tucker, 30, a black trans woman from Philadelphia, PA, was found with a fatal gunshot wound in the back September 5. Londonn Moore, 20, a black trans woman from Jacksonville, FL, was shot multiple times on September 8. Nikki Enriquez, 28, was one of four women killed September in a “serial killing spree” allegedly by the U.S. Border Patrol. Ciara Minaj Carter Frazier, 31, a black trans woman from Chicago, IL, was stabbed and left behind in an abandoned building on October 3. Regina Denise Brown, 53, a trans woman of color, was found dead in her burning home in SC on October 7. Tydi Dansbury, 37, a black trans woman, was fatally shot in Baltimore, MD on November 26. Keanna Mattel, 35, a black trans woman, was fatally shot in Detroit, MI.
More than 26 people died due to anti-trans violence in 2018.
“I am no stranger to the need to fight for our rights, and the right to simply exist is first and foremost. With so many seeking to erase transgender people— sometimes in the most brutal ways possible—it is vitally important that those we lose are remembered, and that we continue to fight for justice.” —Gwendolyn Ann Smith, Transgender Day of Remembrance founder
Islan Nettles, 21, a black trans woman from New York City, NY, was fatally beaten into a coma on August 17, 2013.
Stories like Islan Nettles’ touch me to my core because I know but for the grace of God I could be Islan Nettles. Far too often I’ve been walking down the street, I’ve been catcalled, and it very easily could have turned deadly. There was a moment about 13 years ago. I was walking—I lived in the Upper West Side the time— I was walking to the subway, it was the Fourth of July and I was wearing a red, white, and blue dress, it was really tight and I was feeling very, very patriotic. And I passed two young men. One of the young men appeared to be African American, the other appeared to be Latino. And as I passed, the Latin guy says, “Yo, mama, you’re looking sexy today, can I holla at you, yo?” something like that. And the African American guy says, “Yo dude, that’s an n-word yo!” Something like that. And the Latin guy says, “She too good to be an n-word yo, that’s a b-word yo!” And then they begin to argue. “That’s an n-word! That’s a b-word! That’s an n-word! That’s a b-word!” And I’m standing there waiting for the light to change saying, “God, just get me out of here.” And I got out of there safely, luckily. But this moment of my life makes me think about the interesting intersections of identity and oppression far too many trans folks experience, especially trans women of color, every day, just living our lives as ourselves.
So let’s break it down. So ﬁrst of all, I was catcalled because I am a woman. And I’ve met some trans women who feel being catcalled is somehow aﬃrming. I’ve never felt that way. I’ve often felt unsafe when being catcalled. I’ve often felt like these men are trying to objectify me, are trying to take ownership of my body in this public space. It feels like this deeply misogynist act to me. So we have this misogynist act of me being catcalled, and then I am misgendered when they realize I am transgender, and so we have this transphobic component. Julia Serrano calls the intersection of transphobia and misogyny transmisogyny. So we have this transmisogynist component. Then we have the racial component: the use of the n-word. Now, we all know that the n-word can be resigniﬁed based on context—Tupac shows us that—but I’ve come to understand that when particularly people of color refer to me as the n-word it is tantamount to them saying, “That’s a man,” but not only “That’s a man,” but “That’s a black man.” I’ve often said too, publicly, the truth of my experience, and I’ve been criticized for it. But I feel like it’s important to always tell the truth. And the truth is that most of the bullying and harassment I’ve experienced in my lifetime
In America, we have a literal history of emasculating black men. has been from other black folks. And now, I’m always careful to state: this is not to suggest that black folks are more homophobic and transphobic than everybody else. I think that is a dangerous, dangerous myth to perpetuate. I don’t believe that. But I do believe that often marginalized people police each other, so often black folks police other black folks. Women police other women, gay folks police other gay folks. Etcetera. Etcetera. I think for black folks in this country, there’s another component to it. In America, we have a literal history of emasculating black men. A literal history emasculating black men during slavery and Jim Crow in this country black male bodies were routinely lynched, and during these lynchings, their genitalia was often cut oﬀ, sometimes pickled and sold. That is our shared history as Americans as a dirty awful history, but it is our history that we have to come to terms with. I believe that a lot of black folks witnessing me in various incarnations of my femininity throughout my life have imagined that I am the realization of the historic emasculation of black men and they have lashed out at me in a tremendous amount of pain. There’s a wonderful expression I heard several years ago. This
expression goes, “Hurt people hurt people.” I love that. Hurt people hurt people. Often when marginalized groups experience discrimination and oppression, it is deeply, deeply painful. We’ve experienced so much injustice that in so much pain so much loss, that we sometimes don’t know what to do with that pain. So we sometimes take it out on each other. And when I think about that, I think then, “How do we begin to create spaces of healing to the weakened so that we can heal and love each other better so we can do the work of liberating?”
That’s what’s been going on with me my whole life.
When I think about healing I can’t help but think about my mother. About eight months into my medical transition. I called my mother on the phone. I was in New York and she was still in Alabama, and I called her on the phone and I said, “Mom, I’m transitioning, I’m a woman, that’s what’s been going on with me my whole life.” And the ﬁrst thing that my mother said to me the ﬁrst thing out of her mouth was, “But you have such big hands and feet!” That was the very ﬁrst thing she said. I was like, “Really Mom? It’s not about that. It’s gonna be okay.” And I gotta tell you, it was very diﬃcult for my mom. She had to get used to calling me a diﬀerent name. Now, Laverne was always my middle name before I transitioned. Cox was always my last name. So when I transitioned I dropped my old ﬁrst name and started going by Laverne Cox. And so my mother had to get used to calling me a diﬀerent name. She had to get used to using diﬀerent gender pronouns to refer to me, and, pronouns matter, by the way, when we talk with and about transgender people. Pronouns matter.
I’m happy to report now, that when someone uses the wrong pronoun to refer to me in front of my mother, she now corrects them. Pretty awesome. But we did not get there easily. It took many, many discussions, arguments, even, me sending her books, articles, videos, to educate her. And I’m very lucky that my mother’s always wanted mt in her life, she never disowned me, she’s always wanted me to be happy. But we got there being willing to have some very, very diﬃcult conversations across diﬀerence. And when I think about that, I can’t help but think to about a year ago. I was giving the opening keynote at a conference called Creating Change, that was in Houston, Texas last year. And I was totally freaking out about what I was going to say to this particular group of activists. So I called my dear friend Jeremiah Johnson. I’m like, “Jeremiah, I’m freaking out, help!” Jeremiah is a white gay man who is living with HIV. He’s a ﬁerce AIDS activist. And he reminded me that he’s often not known what the right things to say to me might be—he’s been afraid of saying the wrong things to me, a black transgender woman. And he reminded me that
I’ve often not known what the right things to say to him might be, a person living with HIV. But we had those diﬃcult conversations anyway. We had those safe spaces so we could make mistakes, and take risks, and be vulnerable, and we had those conversations with a lot of love and a lot of empathy. So I’d like to challenge each and every one of you tonight to have diﬃcult conversations across diﬀerence, but create safe spaces where you can make mistakes, take risks, and be vulnerable. Have those conversations with a lot of love and a lot of empathy. Empathy’s the antidote to shame, remember. And have those conversations towards getting to a better understanding of who the other person is. And ultimately, of who you are.
Thank you so much. Laverne Cox is an Emmy-nominated actress, documentary ﬁlm producer and prominent equal rights advocate. With her role as Sophia Burset in the critically acclaimed Netﬂix original series Orange is The New Black, Laverne became the ﬁrst openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in any acting category. She is an advocate with an empowering message of moving beyond gender expectations to live more authentically,
At least 22 transgender people have been killed in the United States in 2019. The international toll is much higher. May they rest in power. Transphobia is an epidemic. Read more about the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) and anti-transgender violence at: hrc.org/resources/topic/transgender glaad.org/tdor tdor.info
The transcript is of Laverne Coxâ€™s speech at the University of North Texas, which I attended, supplemented by the same speech at the University of Albany on February 3, 2015. The supplementary speech livestream video is courtesy of HVCC Streaming. To create the illustrations, I took screenshots of the livestream video and traced them in order to capture Laverne Coxâ€™s likeness. The names of the victims of anti-trans violence are courtesy of the Human Rights Campaign.
Bibliography Cox, Laverne. “Ain’t I a Woman.” Transcribed using Descript, descript.com/transcription. HVCC Streaming. “Laverne Cox 2-3-15.” Vimeo Livestream, February 3, 2015, livestream.com/ hvccstreaming/LaverneCox/videos/75930275. “Laverne’s Story.” Laverne Cox, lavernecox.com/about. “Laverne Cox.” Wikipedia, wikipedia.org/wiki/ Laverne_Cox. “Resources: Transgender.” Resources, Human Rights Campaign, hrc.org/resources/topic/ transgender. “Transgender Day of Remembrance: Nov 20.” TDOR, Glaad, glaad.org/tdor.
Colophon This book was typeset by Miles “Bread” Lee using Sentinel designed by Hoeﬂer&Co and Miller Banner designed by Carter & Cone. It was printed on Mohawk Carnival 70T 100% PC Cool White and saddle stitch bound. Project 4: The Power of Speech Typography 2, Fall 2019 Sam Fox School of Visual Design