“By doing the work to love ourselves more, I believe we will love each other better.”-Laverne Cox
Just like this wild beauty I found growing among the sticky, prickly weeds that make up our backyard, some profound bright spots seemed to pop up this week.
I don’t know about you, but I first felt it when I heard the news of the Supreme Court’s decision that employers can no longer legally fire someone for being gay or transgender. The news of this historic ruling brought tears of joy to my eyes, both because of the relief it must have brought so many people, and also because of how unexpected it was given the makeup of the court and the timing–coming just days after the Department of Health and Human Services rolled back protections for trans people in the healthcare setting.
Then, only a few days later, the Supreme Court handed down another decision that made me feel more uplifted and optimistic than I had in months. The ruling keeps the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in tact, which means scores of people who came to the US as children are now legally protected against deportation if they meet certain eligibility requirements. As most dreamers are law-abiding people who have spent most of their lives in America paying taxes, working hard, and starting families of their own, I see this ruling is a welcome reprieve.
To me, these are bright spots in an otherwise chaotic and nerve-racking time. And yet, there is still so much to be distraught about.
Another Black man, Rayshard Brooks, was killed in a Wendy’s parking lot in Atlanta after a police offer shot him in the back. The father of four had fallen asleep in his car when police approached, and he was shot as he ran away after failing a sobriety test. When a suspect is fleeing, there is no reason to use deadly force. The officer shot and killed Brooks not for fear of his own life, but to stop him from from getting away.
And there still has not been justice for Breonna Taylor, the young Black EMT who was shot eight times and killed in her sleep when the police conducted a no-knock search of her Louisville apartment. “Breonna”s Law” was passed by the city council there to ostensibly prevent tragedies like this from happening again, but only one officer involved in the shooting has been terminated, and no charges have been filed against any of the officers for taking her life.
And then there have been the alarming recent murders of Black trans women, including Riah Milton in Ohio and Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells in Pennsylvania. The phrase, “Black Trans Lives Matter” can be seen on countless signs carried by protestors in cities across America, but our country could not change fast enough to save those women and the dozens of other trans people who have been targeted in recent years.
There are so many things I learned this week, like the statistic that Black mothers are 2.5 times more likely to die in childbirth than white mothers, even when all other factors are the same. Or that 51% of Black trans women have experienced homelessness at one point in their lives, and the American Medical Association considers violence against trans women an epidemic in our country.
But, I was also reminded this week of the message I most associate with certain famous trans women and notable gender-fluid or gender nonconforming public figures: one of the best ways to maintain a positive outlook, regardless of what is happening in your life or in the world, is practicing radical self-love.
From Jonathan Van Ness of Queer Eye saying, “I want people to fall in love with themselves and to be really proud and full of joy for the space they take up,” to author and former People magazine editor Janet Mock writing, “There’s nothing more powerful than truly being and loving yourself,” it seems like some of the most well-known trans and nonbinary people are the most vocal about the importance of loving yourself.
It seems counterintuitive in some ways, doesn’t it? That those who have been most oppressed, marginalized, and subjected to unthinkable acts of violence and hatred would be the same people to herald the most powerful messages of self-love? It’s as though they, too, are like the flowers growing boldly in the sandy soil among the weeds. It doesn’t seem possible that anything could thrive in such terrible conditions and against such debilitating odds, but when they do, they shine more brilliantly and more beautifully, elevating and revealing the unseen beauty of their surroundings.
Of course, trans, nonbinary, and other gender nonconforming people are much more complex, diverse, and varied than this simple metaphor might suggest. But just as the dismantling of a system built and fueled by White Supremacy requires all of us to understand the issues, policies, and perspectives of Black people, enjoying and admiring the light and gifts that people with these identities share with the world means going beyond the stereotypes in film and television, even if we perceive them as positive.
Fortunately for us, this week we will examine the purpose-driven life of someone who just released a key resource for us all to learn how trans people have been historically portrayed in the media so that we can better understand why we have such perceptions, or perhaps fears, of this special group of people.
One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the rise of trans awareness is that as more trans people–especially trans women–start to feel more confident about living outside of the shadows, they expose themselves to a greater risk of violence. With this understanding, it is my intent that this serves as an inspiration to protect trans people with your vote and support initiatives that will make the world a safer place for them.
With that in mind, this week’s purpose-drive life is that of Laverne Cox, actress and LGBTQ+ advocate. Her documentary, Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen just premiered on Netflix to rave reviews. What can Laverne Cox’s experience and fight to find her purpose as a Black trans woman teach us all? Let’s dive in.
Laverne Cox was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1972 with an identical twin brother. She and her brother were raised by their single mother and grandmother in the AME Zion Church. A performer from an early age, Cox began studying dance when she was just 8 years old, and she danced in recitals starting in third grade. Although Cox has not revealed much about her childhood, she has shared that she attempted suicide when she was just 11 years old after realizing she was attracted to other boys and being bullied for not acting “the way someone assigned male at birth was supposed to act.”
In spite of everything she faced, Cox remained a standout in performing arts and received a scholarship to attend high school at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, a boarding school in Birmingham where she focused on classical ballet. After graduation, she attended Indiana University at Bloomington on a dance scholarship. Although she was still studying dance, Cox began to broaden her scope by acting as well, playing Hud in the college’s performance of Hair during her sophomore Year.
After spending two years in Indiana, Cox transferred to Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. Although still a dance major, Cox shifted gears to acting after a theater teacher scouted her and asked her to join his play. After that, she was officially “bitten by the acting bug.”
While at Marymount, Cox also began her physical transition, as she “went from being gender nonconforming to being more and more femme.” By her senior year, Cox was presenting as female when she was sought out to act in her first film. As she recalls, “I was spotted on the subway sporting long box braids, too much make-up with long lashes, a paisley vintage coat with a faux fur collar, platform shoes, and a mini dress.” As she began to transition, Cox performed in drag queen shows as a way to continue expressing her natural gifts for acting, singing, and dancing, but she never actually identified as a drag queen.
After graduating college, Cox spent several years waiting tables as she pursued her passion for theater. She continued performing and dancing in drag shows, acting in independent and student films, and going on countless auditions during her 20s and 30s. During this time, Cox experienced what she calls a pivotal moment in her life. In 2007, she saw trans actress Candis Cane on the prime time TV show Dirty Sexy Money, the first openly trans woman to have such a role. Just as seeing Beauford Delaney allowed James Baldwin to envision himself as an artist, seeing Cane achieve this first made Cox believe it was possible for her to have a career as an openly trans actor.
Although she landed minor roles in Law and Order and HBO’s Bored to Death, Cox finally broke through in 2010 when she appeared in VH1’s reality show, I Want to Work for Diddy. Cox stood out among the contestants, leading VH1 to approach her for other show ideas. This brought the opportunity to produce and star in TRANSform Me, a reality show where Cox and two other trans stylists gave women external and internal makeovers. With this credit, Cox became the first Black trans woman to produce and star in her own TV show.
Then, in 2012 when she was 40 years old, Cox secured the role that would sky rocket her celebrity and bring her to the center of American popular culture. She portrayed “Sophia Burset,” a trans woman in prison for credit card fraud, in the wildly popular Netflix show, Orange is the New Black. Cox played Burset from 2013-2019, during which time she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award (the first only trans person to receive this honor), received a Screen Actors Gild Award, was featured on the cover of Time magazine, and established herself as a leader and activist for the transgender community.
Cox understood the power of her portrayal and importance of this character, saying, “All of the sudden they’re empathizing with a real trans person. And for trans folks out there, who need to see representations of people who are like them and of their experiences, that’s when it becomes really important.”
After Orange is the New Black ended for Cox, she continued to act in various shows and films. However, her greater purpose of using her talents to promote awareness and acceptance for trans and other LGBTQ+ people has been arguably even more consequential in her other projects.
Cox produced an hour-long documentary called, Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word, which followed seven trans youth from age 12-24 as they navigated their everyday lives. The documentary earned her a Daytime Emmy Award as Executive Producer, making her the first openly trans woman to receive the award. As an LGBTQ+ advocate, Cox has also spoken out loudly for trans rights and protections in various major news and media publications, has appeared in videos and other campaigns to raise awareness for issues facing people who identify as trans or LGBTQ+, and even collaborated with the ACLU on a video called, “Time Marches Forward & So Do We,” about trans history and resistance, which she narrated.
In her most recent venture executive producing Disclosure, Cox married her passion for entertainment with her higher calling of bringing trans people and issues to the forefront. The documentary shows how trans people have been portrayed in television and film throughout history, and it features interviews and commentary from her and other prominent trans celebrities and activists to give viewers a more personal feel for how the often horrific representations affected trans people.
Although Cox faced many different hardships and obstacles throughout her life, she rarely talks about those in her interviews. Instead, she is a force for love, acceptance, and positivity. It radiates from her tone of voice and in her walk when she gracefully takes to the many red carpets you could find her on before COVID hit. She is unapologetic about who she is, and she is vocal about how healing it can be for anyone to lead a more authentic life.
“Believing you are unworthy of love and belonging – that who you are authentically is a sin or is wrong – is deadly. Who you are is beautiful and amazing.”-Cox
So, aside from general inspiration and a new documentary to put on your watch list, what does Laverne Cox’s story teach us about finding our own purpose?
I think the number one lesson is that you must love yourself in order to believe you truly deserve to live a life of purpose.
I believe that so much of our self-doubt stems from an inability to fully and completely love ourselves. Of course, this is because it’s not easy. Even Cox says, “Loving myself is something that I work on every day.” This is because, contrary to what we see from the outside and the message she sends about self-love, Cox knows that the world makes it incredibly hard to love yourself. And that’s especially true for someone facing even more oppression and discrimination than most.
However, Cox’s attitude in spite of what she has endured also teaches us that the hardships we face in fighting to find our purpose will only help us shine more brightly once we make it to the other side. If we can survive the harsh conditions and the sandy soil, then we are even more likely to bloom into the most colorful, charismatic versions of ourselves, just like Cox has done so beautifully in her life.
And as with those vivid flowers in our scruffy yard, the benefits of being and loving the best versions of ourselves will not only be ours. In espousing self-love, Cox isn’t just hoping each individual who hears her message will be transformed; she knows the world will be a better place for us all if we are able to love ourselves better.
“When you put love out in the world it travels, and it can touch people and reach people in ways that we never even expected.”-Cox
This is because when we love ourselves more, we are less affected by the negativity of others.
When we love ourselves more, we are less frightened by other people or things that we don’t yet understand.
And when we love ourselves more, and truly believe we are worthy of love, we are able to see everyone, including those with differing viewpoints, as also worthy of love.