Laverne Cox will speak at Bucknell University on Thursday, Jan. 22, at 7:30 p.m. What is her role in the dialogue about transgender issues? Are we at a tipping point for transgender equality?
January 14, 2015, BY Molly O'Brien-Foelsch
Laverne Cox, an LGBTQ advocate, producer and Emmy-nominated actress starring in Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, will speak at Bucknell University on Thursday, Jan. 22, at 7:30 p.m. in the Weis Center for the Performing Arts.
She is the second speaker in the Bucknell Forum series Revolution Redefined. Her talk, titled "Ain't I a Woman: My Journey to Womanhood," will be followed by a question-and-answer session, as well as a reception in the Weis Center lobby.
Here, Professor Nikki Young, women's & gender studies, discusses Cox's work and how it relates to broader efforts to achieve equality. Prof. Young teaches courses that focus on multiple identities including race, gender, sexuality and class through the lenses of ethics, morality and subjectivity. Young's research focuses on black queer families and how they as a marginalized and minoritized community can be a resource for ethical thinking.
Question: What has been Laverne Cox's impact as a writer, speaker and public advocate for equality?
Answer: Cox poses an interesting threat — and I mean a good kind of threat — to conversations about sexuality and race. She is not interested in reifying a stable notion of blackness or trans identities or queer sexuality. Rather, she wants us to understand how people live in their own bodies with multiple identities and different motivations, and how they do not want to have their livelihood and safety threatened because of any of these identities.
It's also important to note that Cox, as the very public face of significant justice conversations, is a black trans woman. She is a black woman stepping into a long line of black women advocates for justice. But as someone who identifies as trans, she is simultaneously separated from these other black women's experiences. These are women who have not historically been recognized for their efforts. Take Ferguson, Mo., for example: There we have young, black, queer women at the front lines, and it's time to acknowledge them as well as the many others who have come before them.
Question: Would you say that through her work as an actor, Cox is also helping to achieve justice for trans individuals?
Answer: Yes. Cox's career has been an important resistance to the silo effect that often happens with trans people. Her trans body is a recognized means for portraying a trans character. Apart from Orange Is the New Black, most trans bodies that appeared in film and in television have been sexualized and used for others' entertainment, portrayed as prostitutes and killers, for example. Trans roles that are out in the daylight have been rare, especially those played by trans-identified people like Cox.
There's a scene in Orange is the New Black in which some of the women in prison don't understand the anatomy of the vulva. So Sophia [Burset, Cox's character] sits them down, flips open a chart and teaches the women what their bodies are about. They realize that what they know about and how they relate to their bodies is cultured, not natural. The reason women are ignorant about their bodies is a product of the demonizing that has been done to women's bodies in our cultures, and Sophia uses her trans identity to help them understand that.
Sophia is also a parent and soon-to-be divorcee whose partner struggled to navigate her transition. Her situation illustrates the complicatedness of trans individuals' lives. They're not only single people on the street making money the best they can; they're also trying to figure out how to be partners, parents and friends. Cox shows us this both as a trans person and as a trans character, and reminds us that trans lives aren't monolithic.
Question: In her public discussions, Cox uses an "intersectional approach" to engaging people in dialogue, and you do the same in your courses. What is it and why is it important?
Answer: Intersectionality is a framework for thinking about the complicatedness of identity categories and how they ought to relate to ideas of social justice. It's also about how our subjectivity — our identity — is multiply constituted. One person is at the same time gendered, raced, aged, able-ized and more. Because multiple parts of our identity constitute who we are, we need to think about those multiple identities at once. This is the approach I think Cox takes when she's talking about justice. The approach seeks to avoid stabilizing any particular identity or set of identities in order to avoid, say, thinking of people of color or people of a certain sexual orientation and class as having a single group identity.
Question: In May 2014, Time interviewed Cox for an article titled "The Transgender Tipping Point," which the magazine describes as a "social movement ... poised to challenge deeply held cultural beliefs." The popularity of shows like Orange Is the New Black and Amazon's Transparent series seem to reinforce the idea that trans identities are moving toward the mainstream. Yet Cox has written that continued stigmatization and its consequences — such as homelessness, joblessness and violence — constitute "a state of emergency for trans and gender-nonconforming people in this country." What's your take? Are we really at a tipping point for trans equality?
Answer: The words "tipping point" are the same dangerous words that can be found in much language about post-racial or post-feminist or post-anything society. We have not reached a set of equalities that everyone's fine with, and there are still systemic problems of injustice across identities, including trans identities. Cox is right to suggest there's still very much a crisis in terms of what trans folks are experiencing.
While there has been political and social progress, Cox and a few other trans individuals and characters are the exceptions that TV is willing to include. Remember: The media's goal is to make money, and they do that through sensationalism. The recent increased visibility of trans bodies and characters has less to do with progress in our appreciation for diversity than it has to do with the assimilation that can come from putting up the new hot, sexy thing — and that's trans identity now that gayness is no longer seen as edgy. As informed viewers, if trans bodies seem commercialized or commoditized, then we should interrogate their portrayal in the media.
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