Individuals walking past Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall on the evening of March 28 witnessed a line of enthusiastic students, faculty and staff stretching from the auditorium doors, around a corner, through a field, all the way to the entrance of the university’s Integrated Science Center. Groups were clustered for hours, eagerly awaiting the event of the season: William & Mary’s 2018 Atwater Lecture, featuring transgender artist, actress and advocate Laverne Cox.
Made possible through by Alma Mater Productions, the W&M Student Assembly and the Janet and Peter Atwater Lecture Endowment, this year’s lecture was highly anticipated. Auditorium tickets were gone within hours of their early-March release, and for weeks, ticketholders awaited the arrival of the ground-breaking activist and award-winning actress to the William & Mary stage.
“I stand before you tonight a proud, African-American transgender woman,” she said over roaring applause at the beginning of her speech. “From a working class background, raised by single-mother, I stand before you an artist, an actress, a sister and a daughter. I’m not just one thing, and neither are you.”
Cox, known for her role as Sophia Burset on Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” has repeatedly been recognized for her work as an actress, producer and advocate for transgender rights. Her resume is wrought with “firsts.” The first transgender woman of color to perform in a leading role on a mainstream scripted television show, the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in the acting category and the first openly transgender person to appear on the cover of Time magazine, Cox has a young career marked by significant achievement. Her path to achievement, however, was neither simple nor painless.
She explained the shame, marginalization and abuse experienced by transgender people in America, reciting haunting statistics about violence and harassment targeted at them.
“Far too often, to be a transgender person in the United States of America means you are under attack,” she said. “But in the face of all this, we are a resilient people.”
Exposing the presence of the political, institutional and cultural forces that serve to deny transgender women their womanhood, Cox embraced the words of Sojourner Truth, stating, “But, ain’t I a woman?”
The crowd burst into emphatic applause.
“I stand here tonight and claim my womanhood in a context that typically ignores it,” she said.
Cox’s lecture was comprised of anecdotes about her experience as a child in Mobile, Alabama, a gender-nonconforming college student and a transgender woman embarking on a career in performance. She described being bullied, taunted, chased and beaten as an elementary school student. She explained the true meaning of shame and revealed how the condition of shame was imposed on and ingrained into her developmental experience. Through desires to appease her family, desires to “fix” herself and desires to not be alive, Cox spent her young life navigating an intense internalization of unworthiness and vulnerability, she said.
However, Cox explained that she found safety in her imagination.
“I always had music in my head. Dance was my escape.” she said. “I truly believe that, because I had something that I loved to do, that saved my life. I think if we can find something in this world that we are truly passionate about, it can be life-saving.”
Cox told stories of purchasing a fan on a field trip so she could recreate “Gone with the Wind,” being told that if she wasn’t careful, she’d “end up in New Orleans wearing a dress,” and facing individuals who attempted to suppress her gender and sexuality.
She concluded her lecture revealing the antidote to shame: empathy. Cox implored her audience to dialogue with those different than them.
“Go out into your communities and have those difficult conversations across difference,” she said.
Before she departed, Cox engaged in a brief question-and-answer period. Asked to describe the advice she’d have given herself 10 years ago, Cox said, “I would remind myself 10 years ago that without a test, there’s no testimony.”
She explained that a decade ago, as her career was beginning to advance, she was being tested.
“Right now, this is a test,” she said, as if speaking to her former self. “One day, you will have a powerful testimony. One day, you’ll get to stand in front of hundreds of people at the College of William & Mary and tell your story.”
Cox peered over a crowd filled with young people, staring silently, captivated by her words.
“Maybe, someone out there will feel like they’re not alone, and their dreams are possible too,” she said.