University of Vermont

University Communications

‘Orange Is the New Black’ Actress Enchants Crowd at Davis Center Event

Laverne Cox
"When I think about ending bullying — because I think we should have a vision for ending bullying — I think we have to begin to create spaces of gender self-determination for children," Cox said. "We have to begin to create spaces where it’s ok to be who you are."

“I stand before you this evening a proud, African American, transgender woman,” said actress, producer and transgender advocate Laverne Cox to a capacity crowd in the Davis Center’s Grand Maple Ballroom — and to another full room listening in via closed-circuit screening on the floor below — during her Feb. 20 talk at UVM. “Just as Sojourner Truth did, I stand and claim my womanhood in a social context which would often deny it.”

Although the actress is best known for her role on the acclaimed Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” the hit show wasn’t the focus of the evening. In part, Cox’s talk, “Ain’t I a Woman,” drew inspiration from the famous speech made by abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth, made on May 29, 1851 (which happens to be Cox’s birthday, though “different year,” she assured the audience to laughter).  Just as Truth did, Cox also reflected on the intersections of oppression — intersections she’s dealt with in her own life as she’s been confronted with classism, racism, homophobia and misogyny.  
 
In fact, “Orange Is the New Black” only came up once, as an aside, during the Q&A that followed, when Cox was asked why she believes she’s been able to break through trans and black women’s invisibility in our culture. As part of her response, Cox answered, “What’s genius about ‘Orange Is the New Black’ is that we see all these women of color, women of different ages, body types, from different backgrounds represented in very human ways. It’s not something that we see on TV a lot. As an actor, having material that’s fully humanizing to a character you get to play, really helps people to connect with you.”

And connect with her the audience did. Her 50-minute talk was punctuated frequently with laughter and vigorous applause. “Laverne is a phenomenal speaker on transgender advocacy and I just knew UVM students, staff, faculty, and community members would benefit so much from all she had to share,” said Queena Hoang, assistant director for campus programs, who said bringing Cox to campus has been her “passion project.”

In speaking to the audience, Cox drew on a range of writers and theorists who have shaped her life — from Simone de Beauvoir to Judith Butler, Alice Miller to Cornel West. “Her words were like oxygen to me,” she said of feminist critic and social activist bell hooks. “I came to critical consciousness reading (her) work.” Following the talk, UVM librarian Amber Billey put together a reading list for those looking to delve deeper into the referenced texts.

These thinkers were often a safe place for Cox, who spoke about her childhood in Alabama and many years of being bullied and shamed for her gender non-conformity. She spoke of a suicide attempt, a fact of life for more than 40 percent of the trans community. “I remember thinking that if I did survive, I would just do a better job pushing down who I was,” she said.

But she ended on a message of hope that we can learn to embrace diversity, that “we can have conversations across difference, and we can begin to heal,” she said. “It’s about getting to know people as human beings. When we are able to have real empathy for each other, we’re able to accept and love ourselves more.”

Cox's talk was sponsored by UVM Program Board, the Black Student Union and LGBTQA Center@UVM.

Next month, UVM will host Piper Kerman, author of the book Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, the genesis for the TV series. Her talk, free and open to the public, will take place Tuesday, March 25 at 7 p.m. in the Davis Center’s Grand Maple Ballroom. More information: uvmbored.com/event/piper-kerman/