When Laverne Cox was about 8 years old, she went to Six Flags on a church trip. At the gift shop, Cox saw a handheld fan, the type she had seen in the movie “Gone With the Wind.”
“I had to have it,” Cox said.
She began fanning herself, she recalled, “feeling very Scarlett O’Hara, ‘Gone With the Wind’ fabulous.”
Her teacher noticed, and shortly after the trip, Cox found herself in a therapist’s office.
“Do you know the difference between a boy and a girl?” Cox recalled the therapist asking.
“And I said, ‘There is no difference.’”
Cox, an award-winning African-American actress and celebrated transgender activist, launched the Lyceum series Thursday night at N.C. Central University, the first historically black college to have a center for the LGBT communities and their allies.
She was recently nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Sophia Burset in “Orange Is the New Black,” which just concluded its third season on HBO. She also produced “Laverne Cox Presents the T Word,” an MTV program chronicles the lives of seven transgender teens. Cox’s documentary, “Free CeCe,” examines the case of an African-American transwoman, CeCe McDonald, who served 41 months in men’s prison for second-degree manslaughter after fighting off several people who attacked her for being black and trans.
“A black, working-class transgender woman is not celebrated in society,” Cox told a standing-room only crowd at B.N. Duke Auditorium.
Wearing a sleeveless red dress and ash-blond wig, she proclaimed: “Here I stand before you tonight, a proud, African-American, transgender woman.”
While the gay and lesbian community has earned hard-fought social, legal and economic advances, those same rights have yet to be conferred to transmen and transwomen, Cox said. People who don’t conform to established gender roles and whose gender is not fixed but fluid, often are bullied in school, attacked in the street and discriminated against in the workplace.
From preschool to high school, Cox said, “I was bullied almost every single day.”
Her mother’s reaction was unsympathetic: “She said, ‘What are you doing to make them treat you this way?’ Her reaction made me feel like it was my fault,” Cox said.
Cox’s role as a transwoman inmate in “Orange Is the New Black” – and Jeffrey Tambor’s character as a transgender parent in “Trans” – have lifted this marginalized community into the mainstream popular culture. However, the daily experience of many transpeople is one of shame and violence.
The number of reported violent crimes against transgender people, particularly of transwomen of color, increased from 13 in 2014 to 21 in 2015, according to a report by the Transpeople of Color Coalition.
Forty-one percent of transmen and transwomen who responded to a National Transgender Discrimination Survey said they had attempted suicide; as a young woman, Cox tried overdosing on pills. The overall rate for the U.S. population is just 4.6 percent.
Half to two-thirds of respondents said they had been disowned by their families, experienced discrimination at work, been a victim of violence or had been homeless.
Cox recounted several incidents in which she was catcalled in the street for being a transwoman and African-American. In 2008, several young men in midtown Manhattan yelled “‘That’s a man!’ and then they kicked me,” she recalled. Cox retreated into a store and called police.
“It’s a state of emergency for too many transgender people,” Cox said. “How do we create spaces of healing to stop hurting each other?
Cox was born in Alabama on May 29, 1984, seven minutes ahead of her twin brother. She attended the Alabama School of Fine Arts, where she studied creative writing and dance. She graduated from Marymount College of Manhattan New York City, and turned to acting.
“I arrived in New York City with misconceptions about what transgender was,” she said. “I didn’t associate it with being successful. Over time I was able to accept myself.”
Her transition, which included hormone injections, was also more difficult than she envisioned.
“I imagined it would go easy,” Cox said. “But after six years, it wasn’t happening. I would walk down the street and get spooked – people know you’re trans.”
“But it’s OK. It’s wonderful to be noticeably and beautifully trans,” she told the crowd. “Embrace the unique things about yourselves.”