By 6:28 p.m. Wednesday, March 28, a line of students at the College of William and Mary stretched from the doors of Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall, down the stairs, around the corner, across Barksdale Field and all the way to the walls of Integrated Science Center 1.
The reason for the line was the arrival of well-known actress and transgender rights activist Laverne Cox, most famous for her role on the Netflix original series, “Orange Is the New Black.” Cox came to the College as part of the annual Atwater Lecture Series, co-sponsored by Alma Mater Productions and Student Assembly and made possible by the Janet and Peter Atwater Endowment. Past speakers include co-creator of “Scandal” Judy Smith, as well as director Spike Lee.
“I had no idea who was going to come for the spring speaker, but to hear this, it was the very happiest surprise, to have an activist like this on campus who has such an incredible background and has made so many strides,” Kyle Parker ’19 said of the event while waiting. “I mean, how could you not come to this?”
While the lecture series is always popular, this year there seemed to be an added layer of excitement, with free student tickets selling out mere hours after AMP announced their availability for pickup February 28. The energy was tangible as students waited for doors to open on the evening of Cox’s appearance.
“I’m just excited; I’m excited to be here,” Sylvie Joyner ’21 said before the lecture.
After the doors to PBK closed at 7 p.m., Hasini Bandara ’18 gave a brief introduction. Cox then walked onto the stage to deafening, extended applause from the crowd.
“If I’m having a bad day, I should just take you all with me,” Cox said as she took the podium.
The actress and activist thanked everyone involved with the event before launching into an hour-long speech that combined statistics about the transgender community, landmark ideas from authors in psychology and gender studies and riveting autobiographical stories.
“I stand before you tonight a proud, African-American, transgender woman, from a working-class background, raised by a single mother,” Cox said at the beginning of her talk.
She used the example of her life to discuss the varied issues facing different minorities and the intersection of those issues in the transgender community.
Cox cited several statistics to illustrate the problems the community faces. The homicide rate against trans individuals in 2017 was higher than in any previous recorded year, while the unemployment rate in the transgender community is three times the national average, and four times the national average for transgender people of color. 47 percent of transgender people experience sexual assault in their lifetime. Justice Department guidelines put in place during the Obama administration were repealed in 2017, and legislation is currently in place in federal and state governments that would further damage legal rights for transgender people.
Despite all this, Cox remains optimistic about the future.
“But in the face of all this, we are a resilient people,” Cox said. “In the face of all of this, we continue to pursue our dreams. In the face of all this, we continue to assert and fight for our right to exist in our truth in public space. And ain’t I a woman?”
Sojourner Truth was one of many figures that Cox stated gave her guidance as she grew comfortable in her identity. Other figures included bell hooks, who wrote on intersectionality, Judith Butler, who wrote on the difference between being a woman and being female, Simone de Beauvoir, who was an early writer on gender roles and Renee Brown, who researched internalized shame.
“Brown defines shame as the intensely painful belief … that one feels that they are unlovable, and unworthy of connection and belonging,” Cox said.
Cox told the audience stories of her life, many of which were uplifting or even funny. Others were about bullying and hurtful incidents with her classmates, teachers and occasionally her family. At one point, her fear of disappointing those around her was so unbearable that she attempted suicide. When she survived, she decided to work hard in all areas of her life, eventually throwing herself into a love of performance she has held onto since childhood.
“I really believe that because I had something that I loved to do as a kid, something that I was truly passionate about, that that saved my life,” Cox said.
The actress emphasized empathy as a way to heal. Tying it into intersectionality, Cox pointed out that often the shame one person feels about a part of their identity will cause them to react against other similarly struggling people, which can lead to problems like harassment and violence.
“Hurt people, hurt people,” Cox said.
For Cox, empathy is an antidote that reverses the problems caused by internalized shame.
Cox’s lecture ended on a note of outreach, acceptance and understanding of those who are different. While she recognized the importance of drawing lines for one’s own safety, the actress also said that there are several people she is glad are in her life, whom she has a relationship with because of empathy and patience.
“We got there by being willing to have very uncomfortable conversations across difference,” Cox said. “I would like to end this by encouraging you to go out into your communities and have those difficult conversations across difference.”
Audience questions ranged from topics like public policy protecting the rights of transgender kids, to the origin of Cox’s recently released single, “Beat for the Gods.” The most notable question, asked by audience member Holden Mershon ’20, was, “how do you respond to rude, transphobic questions and comments?” In response, Cox simply said that she does not respond.
“She takes the negativity and tries to turn it into positivity,” Merson said of Cox’s answer after the lecture ended. “I found that to be really inspiring.”