Apr
30

Laverne Cox spoke at the University of Minnesota April 25, 2017. Photo taken at this event, courtesy of Ms. Cox’ official Facebook page.

I’ve been a big fan of Laverne Cox since I first saw her playing Sophia in Orange is the New Black. Such a great actress. As many people do in this digital world, I liked her Facebook page and followed her on Instagram to see a little more of her life. But I never really knew her story – her journey to becoming a confident transgender woman with a wonderfully successful acting career. When I heard she was speaking in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota last week, I jumped at the chance to attend.

There was excitement in the air as thousands of diverse students waited to fill the theater. Of course we added to the diversity – three 40-year old women dressed in work attire amidst 18-22 year old college students. But instead of feeling like we stuck out, I surprisingly felt like one of the crowd. It was as if everyone’s hearts were filling the room, opening wide to hearing an important message. Collectively seeking insight and inspiration.

Ms. Cox entered the stage to cheers after a warm introduction and took her place behind a podium, where she spoke for just over an hour. Her smile and laughter filled the theater as she began to tell her story. She shared about growing up in Mobile, Alabama, with her twin brother and the way the world reacted to the ways she expressed her gender identity. Her teachers, counselors, her mother, other children. Poignantly, she shared the moments and words she experienced as she found her way to transitioning so her outsides matched her insides. And there was more.

Of course, I was expecting to hear her testimony, which was filled with pain and struggle and beauty and hope. I’m not going to share details of that story here, because truly it is hers to tell and not mine. What I want to share here though is how Ms. Cox eloquently wove in research and theories she’s studied, elevating her individual experience as a trans woman to a universal experience we could connect with and understand. Inequality. Racism. Shame. Anger. Suicide. Homicide.

She shared quotes about race and inequality from Dr. Cornel West (above), whom I had the privilege to hear speak years ago. And this quote from Bell Hooks on feminism:

I saw the most head nodding and heart-grabbing in the crowd when she began to speak about shame. Quoting Brene Brown with deep respect, Ms. Cox discussed the differences between humiliation and shame. Humiliation, she said, is when people say things about us that we know isn’t true and we resist it. We likely feel angry and stand up for ourselves. Shame is when we internalize something and interpret it as true about ourselves. We don’t tell others about it or stand up for ourselves. It becomes part of how we view ourselves.

To illustrate this point, she told a story of a teacher calling a student stupid. In that situation, one student might feel humiliated, but they know they aren’t stupid. They internally resist the label, feeling angry and perhaps they tell a parent or friend about it. Alternatively, another student in the same

My friends Jane and Suzie were also excited to hear Laverne Cox speak.

situation would hear the word stupid and believe 100% that they truly are stupid because the teacher said so. They internalize it and feel shame. They would never tell anyone about it or stand up for themselves.

Shame, she said, is deadly. Empathy is the antidote to shame.

There are so many people walking around this earth full of shame. And it leads to so many problems, including suicide. At one point Ms. Cox said she would like to erase the phrase “Shame on you” from the world. And in that moment I started clapping loudly, leading some (but not all…) of the audience in applause. Saying “shame on you” is intentionally wishing pain and suffering on someone because we judge their actions as wrong. Even if they’ve done something bad, there are better ways to address an issue than shaming.

To witness Ms. Cox standing on stage, sharing her story with grace, humor and love, was beautiful. I’m grateful she took the opportunity to bravely tell her story and encourage us to think critically about ourselves and our behaviors towards others.

At the end of the evening, Ms. Cox took questions and the last one was this: “What is the single greatest moment in your life?”

After taking a moment to reflect, she replied, “That I’m still here. There were so many moments I wanted to give up. I haven’t given up yet. To be a black trans woman alive is amazing.”

The more we listen to other’s stories the more empathy we have. And the more we can support those around us and lift them up. Thank you, Ms. Cox for sharing your story so bravely and positively. You are a bright light of hope in this world which sometimes feels dark to so many.

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