Laverne Cox Brings Real Talk to the University of Minnesota

Laverne Cox at the podium

Laverne Cox addresses Northrop Auditorium. University of Minnesota Student Unions & Activities

“Because she was a woman, he felt he had a right to catcall her and then demand she be the gender identity he wanted. When she wasn’t, he felt she deserved to die.”

This is a quote that has stuck with me over the past week since Laverne Cox’s April 25 talk at the University of Minnesota’s Nothrop Auditorium. It was in reference to the murder of Islan Nettles, a trans woman who was killed by a man named James Dixon back in 2013. Dixon said in his testimony that when he found out he’d been flirting with a “man,” he became enraged; he felt his masculinity was being threatened, and he lashed out.

In case you’re wondering, he was not charged with a hate crime and was quoted as saying, “I don’t care what they do—I just don’t want to be fooled.”

That may be a harsh opening, but it indicates a very real situation that trans people face on a daily basis. For the simple crime of existing, people will decide to lash out at us, murder us, and presume that “My masculinity was threatened” is a reasonable defense. This isn’t exactly surprising; it’s just a continuation of the “gay panic” defense. But it does bring up another thing Cox said, and it’s something that I feel is more important: “Hurt people hurt people.”

If you’re unfamiliar with Laverne Cox, she’s the first trans woman to have a leading role on a mainstream, scripted television show as Sophia Burset on Orange Is the New Black. You can hardly name a GOLBAT activist organization worth anything that she hasn’t either worked with or supported vocally. Insofar as the trans community has a figurehead, Laverne Cox is it.

But that’s not what she came to Northrop to talk about. Nor did she come to talk about the hardships of being trans. She didn’t come to discuss how difficult trans integration into society is or is not, to give trans people moral support, or to talk about how to fight transphobia. Her talk was titled Ain’t I a Woman: My Journey into Womanhood, but I’m not entirely certain she came to talk about that, either. She certainly did all of that, but that wasn’t why she came.

As I sat in the auditorium, I listened to Ms. Cox talk about intersectionality, something that has been a major part of my life but for which I’ve never really had a word. I’ve mentioned elsewhere, and you can see in my bio, that I’ve spent most of my life not-quite belonging to different groups at the same time. Growing up I was too white for the Hispanic community, but brown enough that most white people treated me like a brown person. I’m pansexual, and if you think getting people to accept that bisexual people exist is difficult, then you’re totally right, but also pansexual people get the same treatment. And over the past several years I’ve been coming to terms with my gender identity and expression, realizing that I’m genderfluid. Which means I have to “prove myself,” so to speak, as a woman, as a man, and as a trans person.

Because communities police themselves. We don’t always talk about it, but if you’re part of a minority group then you’ve seen it. Bisexual erasure happens just as often, if not more often, within the gay community compared with anywhere else. It took me years to start trying to figure out my gender identity because I had trans friends who would insist that no one is trans unless they at least plan to get “the surgery.” If I’m a man, I’m berated for not being manly enough because I don’t make objectifying jokes about random women; if I’m a woman, I see the occasional twinge of fear from other women because I’m still six feet tall with broad shoulders and a deep voice, so I trigger a lot of “this is a male” reactions.

“Hurt people hurt people.”

I keep coming back to this phrase because it’s incredibly apt. Ms. Cox spoke about her own life and experiences not as a trans person, not as a woman, not as a black person, but as a black trans woman. Because she is all of those things at once, and so any interaction she has with other people is based on her being all of those things. She talked about people in her life who tried to force her to “man up,” because she was black and they were black and she was “a man” and therefore had to fit a certain idea of masculinity. That’s a terrible thing to tell someone, and it’s an awful idea to support.

She also pointed out that during Jim Crow, which was still in full effect when my parents were in high school, when black men were lynched they would often be emasculated as well. They would have their genitals cut off, and often times they would be pickled and sold as souvenirs.

Utterly horrific? Yes. A thing that was happening literally when our parents were children? Also yes. It was when Ms. Cox was talking about that situation that she spoke that line: “Hurt people hurt people.” The black community, as she explained, has a history of emasculation. Men forced away from their families and sold into slavery, being forced to become property. Men denied jobs and the ability to get jobs, not just historically but even into the modern day. She feels that the toxic masculinity that crops up in that community comes from a desire to find a patriarch that never really existed.

Obviously, I can’t speak to that. But there are other things I can speak to. The gay community has people still arguing with them whether or not they have a right to do basic things like buying a cake. They’ve been called pedophiles and worse. While the black community was dealing with Jim Crow laws, the gay community was dealing with psychologists and medical doctors proclaiming they had an obvious mental illness. Gay people would be locked away in asylums, given shock treatment, and the list goes on. Given that, it starts to become a bit more clear as to why bisexual erasure exists. As a community, as a people, homosexuals were hurt by the heterosexual majority; bisexual people can be part of that majority if they so choose (not true, but bear with me), and therefore might be dangerous. So obviously you can’t be bisexual. You have to either be homosexual, or straight.

Hurt people hurt people.

I can speak about the history of trans people, how our existence is denied left, right, and center. How the Stonewall Riots, a watershed moment in GOLBAT rights, started because of trans women, but most people say “drag queens” now. Not just that, but also about the history of transitioning: while Sunday-morning talk shows will bring on supposed experts who talk about how transgenderism may just be a fad and what the social effects are, trans people have to jump through multiple hoops just to convince a doctor to assign them hormones. They then have to jump through even more hoops if they actually do want to get surgery. And even so, it’s much easier today than it was even 10 or 20 years ago. If you talk to trans women who transitioned a decade or more ago, they have some utterly horrific stories. Stories about having to “prove” they were really women—not just wearing women’s clothes all the time, because that would be too easy. No, they had to do things like have sex with their doctors (because obviously if they don’t want to have sex with a man, they’re not really women) and worse, and for the longest time a successful vaginoplasty was determined by whether or not the trans woman in question could have penetrative sex with a male. Nothing else mattered. I myself know trans women who have almost no sensation at all in their genitals, because that just wasn’t important to the doctors.

Hurt people hurt people.

Laverne Cox may have talked about her journey into womanhood, but she didn’t come to Northrop to talk about the trans condition, or the black condition, or the female condition. She came to talk about the human condition. She came to talk about how bigotry, prejudice, and hatred may have the same result, but they don’t always come from the same place and in fact may actually require more than one factor in order to exist. Just like Ms. Cox is not just trans, not just a woman, not just black, no person is just one thing. No person is affected by society in just one way. No person internalizes just one community standard. And so no person is oppressed by just one avenue. There is no cure-all to oppression, because systemic oppression is not just one thing. It’s not just patriarchy. It’s not just white hegemony. It’s not just anything.

Hurt people hurt people. And what Laverne Cox taught me, as I sat there and listened, is that if I want to fight bigotry, it’s not going to happen by hurting others the way I’ve been hurt. I’m not going to lie—that’s an incredibly difficult lesson for me to internalize, because I’ve been hurt very badly by societal structures throughout my life. Luckily, though, I’m a geek. Which means I’ve got more than one quote to help me figure out this crazy world, and I think I know exactly which one to use.

“Do you know what you do with all that pain? Shall I tell you where you put it? You hold it tight . . . ’til it burns your hand. And you say this: no one else will ever have to live like this. No one else will ever have to feel this pain. Not on my watch.” —The 12th Doctor

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