Transgender Actress Laverne Cox Creating Change

Lavern Cox at the Task Force and Creating Change, conference in Houston.

Visibly moved by the outpour of applause, actress and transgender advocate Laverne Cox delivered a powerful keynote address at the 2014 National Conference for LGBT Equality: Creating Change last week in Houston. The breakout star of the Netflix hit series Orange Is the New Black touched on everything from health care to hate crimes.

“I have to say that a Black transgender woman, from a working class background, raised by a single mother—that’s me—getting all this love tonight, this feels like the change I need to see more of in this country,” said Cox at the opening of her speech.

Certainly the tide for transgender people, particularly transgender women of color, has shifted significantly over the last few years. Women like Cox have exponentially increased the visibility of Black trans women and follow in the legacy of trans trailblazers such as activists Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy. Cox (who recently landed a book deal with Harlequin) has made her way onto the TV screens of millions of Americans. Playing the role of Sophia Burset, a transgender inmate in a women’s prison who was incarcerated for credit fraud (it’s how she funded her gender transition), Cox has brought nuance to our collective consciousness around trans issues.

“When a trans woman is called a man, that is an act of violence,” Cox declared in her keynote speech, citing her own experiences walking down the streets of New York City. “Some days I wake up and it is just too much. It is too much to deal with—there’s too much pain, there’s too much cultural trauma around being who I am. But then I think, we are a resilient people.”

While resiliency is certainly characteristic of trans warriors like Cox, verbal and non-verbal acts of aggression are sadly a reality for many others, especially transgender women of color. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 50 percent of anti-LGBT homicide victims in 2012 were Black/African American. Fifty percent of total victims were transgender, all of whom identified as transgender women.

Cox ended her keynote with a story about her friend Jeremiah who is HIV-positive. She hasn’t always known the right things to say to him as someone who has HIV. And he hasn’t always known what to say to her as a trans woman. But they keep talking nonetheless.

“We talk with love, with empathy, and with a desire to get to a level of understanding that we didn’t have before,” she shared. “And I believe these are the kinds of conversations that we need to have more of in our community, where we are really there for each other across difference.”

About Kimberley McLeod

Kim McLeod

Kimberley McLeod is a media strategist and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) advocate. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of ELIXHER, an award-winning blog and magazine for black LGBT women. Follow her on Twitter @KimKMcLeod.