Actress Laverne Cox challenged a high-spirited audience of 2,000 at the University of Massachusetts, Thursday, to "have difficult conversations across differences" while treating each other with love and empathy.
People often have misconceptions about those who are different from them, but if they get to know each other, they will find their differences "melt away," she said.
Cox, is a star of the Netflix series "Orange is the New Black," based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Piper Kerman, a Smith College graduate, about Kerman's year in a women's prison on felony money laundering charges. The book is this year's Common Read selection for UMass freshmen and the Fine Arts Center quickly ran out of 2,000 tickets for the free event.
Using clickers that allowed them to respond to questions and have the results appear on a screen in real time, 52 percent of audience members said they were freshmen. Seventy-five percent of them said they attended because they were drawn to the speaker.
As a "black, trans, working class woman," she is hardly from a "celebrated class," said Cox, who was greeted with a standing ovation before and after her speech.
Sixteen percent of the trans population have been incarcerated. Seventy-eight percent have been bullied, Cox said. But she has gained acceptance, is now an Emmy-nominated actress with her own television show "TRANSform Me," and advocates for transgender rights.
"Ain't I a woman?" she said several times to applause, quoting the title of an 1851 speech by Sojourner Truth, a former slave and anti-slavery activist.
Cox described growing up in Alabama, a twin, with a single mother who made sure they were aware of the history of racial oppression and resistance to it.
Cox's mother was not supportive of Cox's gender non-conformity, though; nor were her teachers. When Cox's third grade teacher saw Cox fanning herself like Scarlett O'Hara, "feeling very 'Gone with the Wind' fabulous," it led to a call home from the principal, who told Cox's mother she had better do something or "Your son is going to end up in New Orleans wearing a dress."
As a child, Cox was bullied every day, but she found inspiration in dancing and in her rich imagination. "If we find something we truly love it can be lifesaving," she said.
Still, she tried to kill herself by taking pills when she was in the sixth grade. Forty-one percent of all transgender people attempt suicide compared to 1 percent of the general population, Cox said.
Cox and her twin brother went to a high school for the fine arts, where they developed very different kinds of "self-talk," she said. Her brother prefers the term "practicing homosexual," Cox said. "He thinks 'gay' is a bourgeois white construct."
It was in New York City, where Cox transferred to Marymount Manhattan College after attending college in Indiana for two years, that she found acceptance for her identity and eventually received her first hormone shot. It was the age of the "club kid," gender non-conforming young people like herself who gained ready admission to exclusive clubs. "I felt like a star," Cox said.
Cox still faces discrimination, though. About a year ago, she was kicked in New York. People on the street sometimes call her a man.
"I've come to believe that calling a transgender woman a man is an act of violence," she said. Cox said there is a whole mythology that transgendered people deserve violence. A transgender woman named Islan Nettles was murdered in Harlem over a year ago and the case remains unsolved, Cox said.
She recounted an experience where two men, one an African-American and one a Latino catcalled her. Then, realizing she was transgender, one called Cox the n-word. It was an intersection of misogyny and transphobia with racial components, Cox said, illustrating how complex interactions across race, class, gender preference and other categories can be.
Cox said people in minority groups police each other. "It has to do with respectability politics and pain and trauma," she said. There is a history of the literal emasculation of black men, Cox said, the kind of trauma, which causes victims to lash out. "When you exist in a world that tells you you're less than, it's traumatic." she said. "Hurt people hurt people."
The path to healing, she suggested, lies in creating "spaces of feelings of love, so we can mourn the shared spaces we have."