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Laverne Cox at Wake Forest

by Britt Chester

editor@yesweekly.com | @awfullybrittish

How does one of the most prestigious universities in the country approach the conversation about issues surrounding the LGBTQ community?

Head on.

The LGBTQ Center at Wake Forest University hosted actress and activist Laverne Cox at Wait Chapel on Monday night. Cox is widely known for her character, Sophia Burset, on the award-winning television show Orange Is The New Black, which in and of itself a groundbreaking role. But her experience with OITNB was not the topic of discussion last night, and she steered her speech to revolve more around her experience growing up in a generation that was hell bent on pushing the agenda of the gender binary.

Laverne Cox defied this idea from a very young age.

Talking about her time growing up in Alabama, she recalled distinct situations that, looking back, would foreshadow her growth and transition. Cox peppered jokes with an appropriate amount of sass into her speech, making the hour-long lecture both engaging and intriguing. She referenced Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech, delivered in 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, and drove the point home by adding, “Ain’t I a woman?” at the end of certain anecdotes.

Wait Chapel’s capacity is reportedly 2,200 with ample standing room, and staff at the LBGTQ Center at Wake Forest was a bit worried that it would fill beyond capacity. Students lined up in the courtyard starting around 5:15 p.m. – mingling, hugging and talking about what to expect from the event – while visitors and non-students gathered in a separate line. Students were admitted promptly at 6 p.m. and filled the majority of the lower seating area. Visitors were granted entry at 6:30 p.m. and the mezzanine was near capacity by the 7 p.m. start time.

Angela Mazaris welcomed the students alongside Adam Plant, a current student at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. Plant is 26-years-old and will receive his Masters in Divinity at the end of his current school year. “I’m very much into LGBTQ advocacy and working with that population, maybe in a faith-based context,” he said. “It’s sort of where my passion is.”

Plant was asked to read the introduction for Laverne Cox.

“I’m very out and open about my identity as a trans-person, so I am just honored to be involved,” he said.

He said he wasn’t nervous being on stage in front of his peers because he has been involved with theater and acting since a young age.

Cox also is no stranger to the stage.

She grew up taking every opportunity to stand in the spotlight, whether it was being an usher at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, or singing in the choir, or just giving speeches when the opportunity presented itself. Having grown up interested in dance (her mother wouldn’t allow her to partake in ballet as a child because it was for girls – Cox lacked the fully developed identity she now embraces), it was her drive to be a dancer that would ultimately lead her to the Alabama School of Fine Arts. Since the only dance program available at the school was ballet, a skill she was lacking, she instead received a scholarship for creative writing. Once accepted, she switched her degree path.

Although there were several milestone instances in Cox’s life she listed in her speech, it was her first year at ASFA that she would be called her first racial slur. It was her early experiences in New York where she learned about how being an openly trans woman might actually be unsafe for her. But one thing Cox avoided was preaching on the violence and the perpetrators of catcalling and harassment. She did not ignore those persons and situations, but instead redirected her speech in the ways that other women, women of color, trans women and others used those instances to grow stronger; used those instances as inspiration to push forward; used those situations to grow and influence.

Whenever she would begin exposing more of her past, she would provide historical context for women like Sojourner Truth, Judith Butler, and Bell Hooks, and how they used their voices and actions to lead others to strength and equality.

In bringing Cox to Wake Forest, the LGBTQ Center continues the conversation of acceptance and equality. Putting this in front of college students is but one way to change the institutional perception of “different,” even if “different” is but the same as all of us.

To learn more about Wake Forest University’s LGBTQ Center, go to LGBTQ.WFU.edu, or follow them on Facebook at Facebook.com/lgbtq.wfu !

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