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Actress Laverne Cox Discusses Identity, Trans Issues

"Orange Is The New Black" actress Laverne Cox listens as an audience member asks a question in Farkas Hall on Feb 24.
"Orange Is The New Black" actress Laverne Cox listens as an audience member asks a question in Farkas Hall on Feb 24. By Manizha Kholmatov
By Quynh-Nhu Le and Joanna R. Schacter, Crimson Staff Writers

“There is a lot to Laverne Cox,” said Laverne Cox herself at the start of a student-led question-and-answer session at Farkas Hall on Monday afternoon, as the actress launched a conversation about the intersection of different identities and their importance to understanding her and transgender issues more generally.

The “Orange is the New Black” actress, who is the first openly transgender female to ever have a recurring role on television, spoke about her personal experiences and about larger topics within the trans community at an event that drew so many people that many had to remain standing.

“I sit here this afternoon, a proud transgender woman, an African-American transgender woman from a working-class background, raised by a single mother. I sit here 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,” said Cox, as she explained that there is much more to the request “tell us about yourself.”

Laverne Cox, "Orange Is The New Black" actress, dons a Harvard sweatshirt in Farkas Hall after speaking about her career and support of transgender people on Feb 24. The Harvard Foundation sponsored this event.
Laverne Cox, "Orange Is The New Black" actress, dons a Harvard sweatshirt in Farkas Hall after speaking about her career and support of transgender people on Feb 24. The Harvard Foundation sponsored this event. By Manizha Kholmatov

Cox highlighted the importance of allowing transgender people to tell their own stories, a point echoed by W. Powell Eddins ’16, one of the event organizers and political co-chair of Queer Students and Allies.

“We needed to stop letting cisgender people speak for trans people. We need to have trans people come speak for their own voices,” Eddins said. “That’s why I brought LaverneI thought it was really necessary.”

Eddins added that Cox is a positive advocate for trans issues and through her visit was able to increase exposure of such topics at Harvard, which, Eddins said, despite its diversity, still lacks exposure to transgender people and transgender issues.

“Walking down the street is a contested act for many trans women of color,” Cox said, speaking on one such topic, violence against transgender women. In the question and answer segment, Cox also touched on discrimination against transgender people in the justice system, the role of activism in changing inequality, the portrayal of her character on “Orange is the New Black,” and media portrayals of transgender people in general.

Commenting on her visit to Harvard, Cox said that it is essential for conversations on transgender issues to take place at Harvard, whose students have the potential to be the leaders of tomorrow and to affect policies that might help or harm transgender people.

“I think it’s important to have these conversations in privileged spaces,” Cox said. “I think it’s important for those with privilege to critically interrogate that privilege.”

Amanda D. Bradley ’15, who attended the event, said that she appreciated hearing Cox's perspective.

“She’s probably one of my favorite Harvard speakers, since I’ve been here,” Bradley said. “She was very blunt and honest about very real issues concerning race, gender, sexuality, and the intersectionality of all these things.”

Staff writer Quynh-Nhu Le can be reached at quynhnhule@thecrimson.com.

Staff writer Joanna R. Schacter can be reached at joanna.schacter@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @JoannaSchacter.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: Feb. 25, 2014

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Laverne Cox is the first openly transgender woman to have a recurring role on television. In fact, Cox is the first openly transgender African American woman to star in and produce her own television show, but is not the first to have a recurring role.

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