Exclusive: Laverne Cox on Jenner: ‘the [media] spectacle of it is really disturbing’

Last week I saw Laverne Cox give a speech at a university in Virginia. To say that she was incredible, funny and well spoken is an understatement. Laverne was so impressive, so well read and just compelling. I’m grateful to have been able to see her, and transgender activist and former Navy Seal Kristin Beck, in person recently. You feel like you’re in the presence of strength and bravery beyond anything you’ve experienced. I know that sounds like I’m blowing smoke, I’m not, I just can’t imagine having to go through the sh*t that these two women have experienced and to come out the other side giving life-changing speeches. That’s honestly how I felt after seeing Kristin and now Laverne, if they can do this then anything is possible.

Laverne discussed her upbringing in rural Alabama as a twin born to a single mother who worked as a teacher. She touched on a few points that she’s given in interviews in the past, so this recap will skip the details that are already known about her biography. (Watch her It Gets Better video for more. There’s no way I could do justice to everything she said, even if I included it here.) At the end of her speech, she took questions from the audience that left a lot of people in tears. Three different attendees knew transgender people and were sharing their stories and asking how to be more supportive. One woman revealed that her transgender friend had attempted suicide, and Laverne promised to record a message for him backstage. I’m tearing up just remembering it. Here’s some of what Laverne said. I was blown away that night. (Also, I typed this up on my iPad and she’s a quick talker so in some cases I’m paraphrasing.)

We should support gender self determination
If we are serious about ending bullying, we have to support gender self determination.
Our lived experiences defy this conflation, this binary model. We are called on to police [each other’s gender] as individuals. Allow people to express their gender in ways that feel most authentic to them

She felt ashamed as a child
She quoted Brené Brown: “Shame is the intensely painful belief that one is unlovable, unworthy of connection and loving, guilt is ‘I did something wrong,’ shame is ‘I am wrong.‘”

She was sent to a therapist in 3rd grade
The therapist asked “Do you know the difference between a boy and a girl?” and she answered “there is no difference.” She assumed that there was doctor patient confidentiality, as she learned from television. However the doctor told everything to Laverne’s mother. When the doctor recommended testosterone shots, her mother discontinued the therapy. It took her mother a while to come around, but she now refers to her as her daughter and uses the correct pronouns.

She attempted suicide at the age of 11 after her grandmother passed
She swallowed a whole bottle of pills and woke up the next day with a stomach ache. More on Laverne’s suicide attempt.

She has a twin brother, a musician, who played her character, Sofia, on OITNB, before Sofia’s transition
Her brother doesn’t define himself as gay. He told her to describe him as “‘A practicing homosexual because the term gay is a white bourgeois concept.‘” Her brother “also identifies as negro goth and a true punk rock fan.” (More on Laverne’s brother here.)

She was part of the 90s NY club scene
It was the first time in my life that my gender expression was looked on as something valuable.” She credited her friend Tina Sparkle as having changed her life. She also explained that she’s never done a drug in her life.

She’s experienced discrimination, bullying and scary situations
Laverne told of several situations where people would call out to her “that’s a man.” She said “Misgendering a transgender woman is an act of violence.” She finds it threatening and demeaning to be catcalled. In one incident in NY city, she got kicked and called slurs by a group of men and she retreated to a nearby store to call the police. She said that the police were very decent to her. She’s afraid every day but explained that she’s had it so much better than many transgender people.

She also talked about Islan Nettles, a 21 year-old transgender woman murdered in NY in 2013. A suspect has finally been arrested in Islan’s beating death. The statistics on murder and hate crimes against transgender people are heartbreaking.

She loves working on Orange Is The New Black
She is “so blown away by the power of these women, [they have a] mostly all female crew as well… it’s a wonderful atmosphere. The storyline for Sofia this season is just wonderful.” She called the cast “brilliant” and said that she’s learned a lot on set.

She was asked what Jenner’s transition means for the transgender community (this talk took place after both episodes of “About Bruce” had aired)
Bruce is extremely sincere and there is no way, because of who Bruce is, to transition privately. I couldn’t imagine transitioning in the public eye…

What the media is doing to it in terms of a spectacle is deeply disturbing to me.”* We should “try to get rid of the spectacle and make it about the humanity. These folks [The Kardashians] have taken on all of these ideas in the public imagination about being famous for no reason [but] at the end of the day they are human beings who love each other. There is a human piece, I wish this would happen privately… They have a sincere desire to change the world.”

In previous interviews, Laverne has revealed that she spoke to Jenner a few months back and said she found Jenner sincere, human, and very connected to their family. (I’m using the pronouns Laverne used, which are gender neutral.) She also had positive things to say about the Diane Sawyer special on Jenner’s transition. The thing is, it’s hard to separate out “the media spectacle,” from the Kardashian hype over Jenner’s transition, and how the family has capitalized on it. I understood what she was saying, though, that the media has taken it too far and has focused on the wrong things.

As for how we can support transgender people and others in general, Laverne said “We have to become more empathetic, we have to listen more, we have to let folks take the lead.” She also explained that the media “narrative has been around surgery [and] bodies.” We should “think about trans identity beyond our bodies” and instead focus on “hearts, souls, emotions and our experiences. That’s when we can go to the next level.”

She also talked about how, in the 90s, transgender people strove to blend in, but said there’s a growing movement to recognize transgender people as beautiful. She asked us to use the hashtag #transisbeautiful. After hearing Laverne and Kristin speak, I know that trans is so much more than that.

Update: Laverne had not seen “About Bruce” at the time she gave those quotes. She tweeted this last night:

*Note that the title is a direct quote, she reiterated her point about the media spectacle in a later sentence, but it was redundant so I left it out of the recap.

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photo credit: Getty, FameFlynet and me

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22 Responses to “Exclusive: Laverne Cox on Jenner: ‘the [media] spectacle of it is really disturbing’”

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  1. Detritus says:

    Laverne is beautiful inside and out. A role model showing what strength of character and determination can bring.

    • Jessica Fletcher says:

      Agree 100%, and scrolling through the #transisbeautiful hashtag is deeply moving, funny, sweet and a great way to pass some time, appreciating members of society that often get ignored.

      On a related topic, does anyone know of a charity or organisation that benefits trans people, perhaps helping with accommodation, employment, etc? I’ve googled and searched online and found nothing specific, and following that hashtag, and the #translivesmatter one (which is so sad, about the lives lost through violence, suicide, even police brutality), I’d love to support an organisation that helps.

  2. Sugar says:

    Trying to use “their” as a gender neutral pronoun just doesn’t work. We need some new pronouns because “they” and “their” grate when used.

    • Perfectly executed Chewbacca sound says:

      “They” and “their” work beautifully and fluidly in the English language. They have been in use as gender neutral pronouns for centuries, dating back to Chaucer and Shakespeare. Objections to this use of “they” are in fact much newer than its use; the migration to a generic “he” did not happen until about 1850. Like most people, you may use “they” and “their” as gender neutral pronouns frequently without even realizing it, especially when dealing in hypotheticals – it’s just that actually thinking about it and using as a pronoun for an individual is a little hard to get used to. If it worked for Jane Austen, I think it can work for the rest of us!

      • Katey says:

        “They” and “their” refer to a plural. You can’t use them when referring to a single person. Well, I guess you can, but you’d be wrong and I will point out your poor grammar usage.

      • jwoolman says:

        Katey- I make my living dealing with several languages as a translator. Language is fluid, not fixed by grammar books. Language is defined by its users. New vocabulary and new grammar arise to deal with new needs. We are still in a state of flux concerning gender-neutral language in English. You are free to use your preferred grammar, but we really need to respect other choices. The plural they/their with a singular antecedent is actually a sensible approach and has been in use recently for decades (and as pointed out above, this is a return to a previous style in English).

      • Robin says:

        No, Katey, YOU’D be wrong. “They” and “their” are acceptable English pronouns when the gender of the subject is indeterminate. Would you prefer to use “it” and “its” instead?

    • AmyR says:

      “Ze” and “zir” would work nicely I think, though they haven’t really caught on yet.

  3. Luca76 says:

    She is amazing and so very inspiring to all women


  4. Blythe says:

    I’m pretty sure that the Kardashians and Jenners have exploited Bruce as much as the tabloids have.

    • Sarah says:

      I agree. The “family” has exploited Bruce to the extreme but I don’t know if he is part of that or not. They are fame whores to the core. It disgusts me how they are turning this into a circus act.

      I notice that Bruce’s children from the previous marriages – Brody, etc. – have been very quiet and respectful about the whole thing.

  5. TeaAndSympathy says:

    Being in Australia and having never watched Orange is the New Black, I wasn’t familiar with Laverne, but…wow. Just, WOW.

  6. NewWester says:

    With all the focus on transgender people and their fight for acceptance in the news lately, has made me seek out articles and stories to read online. What they have had to go through is just shocking and the suicide rate among young transgender people. I am glad Laverne Cox is talking about what she has gone through and still experiences. Hopefully this will lead more people to learn about transgender issues

  7. INeedANap says:

    I am astounded and impressed that she can deliver such profound messages with patience and grace. Sometimes I am consumed with rage at the injustices we suffer, and I don’t think I’d have her poise.

  8. Kiddo says:

    While she has a lot of good points, this: “They have a sincere desire to change the world.”, is about as genuine (on the Kardashian’s part) as the Goldberg campaign for apartments dot com, “Change your apartment, change the world”. That company is looking for money, as are the Kardashians. They are first and foremost interested in changing their world with a pile of paid receipts.

  9. Jayna says:

    I have to say I finally saw the Kardashian two-part special on Bruce and the family. I was moved and cried in several places. I was moved by Kendall’s maturity and compassion and understanding when Khloe couldn’t be. Kendall got that her dad had compartmentalized his emotions for so long and was judged for so long and there were so many people to address that he didn’t want to give every detail of his transition step by step and that he knew he was hurting people and hard to face it. I got what he was saying on why he wasn’t giving a timeline to them as it went along, in his own way to protect them. No one else is in his shoes and we can’t possibly understand. I think he has done this slowly and compassionately in many ways, taking a couple of years really. As he and they said, in the end, there is no right or wrong way to do this. It’s all about feeling their way as they go and communication and compassion and love.

    I was very impressed with Scott Disick, to say the least. It was a very touching conversation he had with Bruce and I loved the way he was also discussing with Khloe and Kourtney the impact on the children and the positive parts to it.

    I can’t stand Kim. BUT I was so moved in the scene in which she asked to see his clothes. To know that Bruce has had to be in the shadows his whole life and that his dressing as a woman for years was just something to be endured by those who knew, and then to see Kim embrace it and go through his wardrobe in a positive way and then to see Bruce’s excitement and pure joy being able to discuss his purchases and outfits, something in his 65 years he has never been able to do, such a small thing, I had tears coming down my cheeks. He was so cute when he said he likes classic looks and was showing his ensembles, with a few flashier numbers. He had such glee and joy in that scene bonding with Kim.

    I hate to admit it, but it was all well done. Their promo as usual is crass and just pushing for ratings, but the actual two-parter was very human and moving. Even the conversation between Bruce and Kris was moving and hard to watch when she was discussing his anger that would come out over the years.

    There was so much pain in the episodes and sadness and yet there was this freedom for Bruce, who could finally show all of him as far as talking about who he was, which was “her.”

    • QQ says:

      YES!! i can’t even stand these people to be 100% honest and I find that all Kardashians do globally but Kim in Particular comes with a self serving agenda But The Special was well done and well handled Ditto On Scott, his conversation was SO INSIGHTFUL!, the way he said it finally clicked for him about Bruce being angry all the time and Bruce being able to live two full lives in his lifetime!!

    • Sarah says:

      Sorry but I will never watch this heavily scripted and heavily edited sh*t that this family passes off as their “authentic” lives. It’s all scripted or at least so heavily edited so as to make the “story” whatever they want it to be. Scott Disick is sincere because that is what he was scripted to be for that episode. He will go back to his douche role when the script requires it.

      There is nothing real about reality television and most certainly nothing real about the contrived image that the reality-TV pro Kardashian-Jenner clan put out for public consumption.

  10. msw says:

    I have so much respect for her. And I didn’t think anyone could up my respect for the Kardashians, but she did.

  11. Steph O says:

    What a great write up about an amazing woman. I rarely read any articles the entire way through anymore (2 kids under 2; what was I thinking?!) but I read every word of this one. Thanks again for sharing this.