Facing a crowded auditorium Wednesday,February 14, Laverne Cox spelled out the state of emergency for transgender people in America. Cox paired statistics—such as the fact that 72% of the homicides in the LGBT community affect transgender women—with her life experiences dealing with multiple levels of oppression. She also invoked the works of prominent scholars and activists with the fluency of a professor, citing Cornel West, Sojourner Truth (even in the title of her speech), Judith Butler, bell hooks, Rosa Parks, and Brené Brown. Here are three points to take home from Laverne Cox’s speech.
1. Oppression Is Intersectional.
Cox brought intersectional analysis to her evaluations of the plight of transgender people and her own experiences. For example, she referenced the unemployment rate for transgender people of color being four times the rate of the general population. When Cox explained that she was bullied daily from pre-k to high school, she noted that anti-gay attitudes were actually targeted to gender expression; that is, though sexuality has no bearing on gender identity and vice versa, bullies conflated the two and punished her for expressing femininity. Finally, Cox analyzed the street harassment she experienced 13 years ago by a Black man and a Latino man who were arguing over whether she was a “n*****” or a “b****.” She broke down the experience into three parts: first, she was catcalled in a public space because she was a woman. Cox argued that catcalling is a means of taking ownership over bodies. Second, the conversation was transphobic. Third, there was a racial element due to the use of the n-word. Cox moved seamlessly between academic analyses of intersectional oppression and her own experiences.
2. Oppression Is Internalized.
Cox began her discussion of internalized oppression with a definition of shame from Brene Brown: “unworthy of love, connection, and belonging,” and the overwhelming feeling that one is wrong. Cox related that at the height of her shame and internalized hate in sixth grade, she attempted suicide via pills, a decision shared among 41% of transgender individuals. She returned to Brown to note that shame and internalized oppression may occur differently in individuals who have shared the same experience due to self-talk, also referred to as internal dialogue. Finally, Cox noted that much of the bullying she received was from other Black people. She argued that marginalized groups tend to police each other due to cultural and historic trauma. To support her argument, Cox shared historical examples of violence and academic analysis of internalized oppression.
3. Oppression Can Be Attacked And Mitigated.
Importantly, Cox provided solutions for the injustices she outlined in her speech. Central to dissolving oppression are the words of Cornel West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Cox argued that transgender people, Black people, and all other oppressed people could benefit from some love and justice. Making an effort to use preferred gender pronouns is one critical baseline action for acceptance. After sharing an anecdote about the difficult conversations she has had with her friend Jeremiah, who has AIDS, Cox encouraged the audience to have difficult conversations about oppression. Finally, Cox emphasized listening as the most important part of being an ally.
Cox’s multifaceted approach to intersectional oppression, through academic, historical, and personal lenses, was persuasive and indicative of her skills as an activist. Indubitably, her words will continue to have a presence at Indiana University long after she left as a student.
Morgan Mohr is a Wells Scholar majoring in Political Science, History, and an individualized major in Feminist Policy.