Laverne Cox on Street Harassment and Transphobia

“Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Cornel West’s profound statement from his Harvard University sermon could not have been said more perfectly. Equality can only be infiltrated by understanding the varying degrees of oppression and privileges that all individuals have. The point is not for a person to blame another or a certain group of individuals for the way social construction has shaped them, but to help them see the way things are for those who are oppressed. It is important for us as individuals in a diverse social system to see the maltreatment all people may experience to cause them to act a certain way. No one is without privilege, and everyone experiences discrimination in some form.

http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/12/laverne-cox-intersection-what-to-do/

Linked above is a speech done by Laverne Cox, where she takes her own approach to the topic of street harassment and incorporates Cornel West’s ideals. She is an American actress best known for her role as Sophia Burset in Orange Is The New Black. She is an LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual queer or questioning) community advocate. Laverne Cox has experienced discrimination in many forms; she is black and she is also transsexual. Transsexual and transgender people challenge the biological gender they were assigned at birth, believing that they have been assigned incorrectly (Aulette and Wittner 45). In this video, she speaks of her street-harassment experience with two males who had catcalled her while she was crossing the street. She, among many transsexual women, is victim to the street harassment that many transwomen experience. Although cisgender women – cisgenders being individuals who identify with their assigned gender — also frequently experience street harassment, statistics show that trans people are more likely to be harassed and to a more violent degree (“What Is Street Harassment?”). Laverne says, and I quote “Our lives are often in danger, simply for being who we are when we are transwomen.” She also mentions how she is harassed for being black, on top of the hate she has experienced for being transsexual.

Laverne Cox, being a coloured transwoman in America, represents a large group of trans people whose voices often go unheard, even within the LGBTQ community. I agree tremendously with the unique approach she takes in explaining the intersectionality between racism and transphobia. Intersectionality is the crosscutting and connection between different identities such as race, class, sexuality, and gender (Aulette and Wittner 9-10). With reference to her own experience, Laverne acknowledges how many of her harassment encounters have been men of colour, and why that might have been so. Laverne explains how the post-traumatic stress from the history of slavery and Jim Crowe laws that many black people endured in America could be a contributing factor to the way black men have acted towards her, noting that they see her as the embodiment of the oppression and emasculation that most black men work to overcome today. Oppression is the exercise of inequality through domination of one supposedly more superior or privileged group over another (Aulette and Wittner 9-10) and is experienced by all people, as Laverne has proven. What I appreciated most from Laverne’s story is how she has learned to see past peoples’ antagonistic ways and acknowledged that everyone experiences privileges and oppressions at their own varying degrees.

Laverne also addresses the topic of bullying in schools, and how children who do not conform to society’s gender binary are thought of as different and often marginalized for this. Gender binary is the traditional ideology of there being only two definite and distinct genders, male (male-masculinity) and female (female-femininity) with no in-between (“Gender Socialization”). Views on social concepts, especially gender and sexuality, are social constructions, which are taught to all of us from an early age. “There is no gender or sexuality – just bodies – before they are socially constructed” by power systems to maintain social norms (Aulette and Wittner 3). It is obvious that these gender binaries intersect with other forms of hate crime such as homophobia, which is the devaluation of anything feminine, such as being a stereotyped gay male or a stereotyped “butch” lesbian (Aulette and Wittner 117).

Intersectionality is proof that prejudice on the streets, in school systems and any other social environment does not only affect one group of people. Everyone that can identify with any social group can be both a victim to discrimination and directly or indirectly the oppressor to another group, a systemic conflict that is very hard to fix because people continue to be violent towards one another for differences they cannot control.

Now, going back to Laverne’s interpretation of justice and love. How can we achieve justice until we learn to love one another beyond our differences? This in no way justifies discrimination that one may face, but it is important to consider this mentality. Blaming and reciprocated hate may be just as damaging as prejudice itself. The aim should be for people to educate one another and for individuals to continually acknowledge where they stand with their privileges, advantages and disadvantages. It is true that the past can never be erased, and I don’t think it should be. The racism and sexism that our relatives and friends of the yesterday have experienced should always be acknowledged and learned from. However, it is up to us as individuals to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and actively work together to make sure that the past does not repeat itself.

Works Cited

Aulette, Judy R., and Judith Wittner. Gendered Worlds. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009-12. Print.

“Gender Socialization.” 20 Jan 2014. Web. Mar 8 2015.

“What is Street harassment?” Stop Street Harassment. Web. 6 Mar 2015.

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7 thoughts on “Laverne Cox on Street Harassment and Transphobia

  1. Jac

    Hey aba, excellent post!

    I really like how you went through and recognized the intersectionality of Cox’s identities (both trans and black) and how those shape her experiences, and how people often target her for being both. I think it’s really interesting how you talk about the Jim Crowe laws and the legacy that it has left behind in terms of the way black women are treated. In horizontal oppression, this tends to harm the most marginalized groups and people within them, often reinforcing existing power structures. Many Aboriginal feminist writers also note that the colonization of the indigenous people of Canada and the USA (along with many other parts of the world) have left behind a strict, heteropatriarchy that leaves indigenous women (especially queer women) in very vulnerable positions — often being the targets of violence at the highest rates. This heteropatriachy is also responsible for instilling the gender binary into Aboriginal communities as well, and I know that many indigenous people may now identify as Two-Spirit (also represented by T in LGBQT) which is a gender identity that does not conform to the gender binary.

    Do you think that Laverne’s speech has really opened your eyes in terms of the ways in which oppression can operate? And would you recommend it to everyone?

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  2. aba Post author

    Hey Jac! Thanks for your reply once again. I’d also like to thank you for bringing up Aboriginal feminist writers. It is obvious that the voices of indigenous people often go unheard and sometimes I feel as though we as people and individuals forget to acknowledge that we really turn a blind eye to so much conflict we have in other political and social areas.

    Laverne’s speech definitely made me think about oppression and how it works in a different way. I always try to see all sides of a predicament but sometimes it is hard especially if you may be the one falling victim to discrimination. However, I do believe that the only way to start seeing things the way Laverne sees things is just by knowing. Not everyone may be consciously aware of the oppressions that an oppressor might be experiencing (if that makes sense) and I think it is up to others who are aware to more or less help others understand. So yes, I would recommend that everyone try to see things in a different light. Perhaps the only way we can progress in such a socially conflicted world is by learning to understand each other.

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  3. Ash

    Hey, aba, your analysis of Laverne Cox’s speech was awesome!

    I liked how you dissected intersectionality in this piece, and how everyone experiences privilege and oppression in different ways and to varying degrees. When I finished reading your post, I critically looked at my own positionality, and how I contribute to the normalization of social hierarchies directly and indirectly. Being a middle class, cisgender woman of colour I have advantages that Laverne Cox does not, yet not as many as an upper class white man. This class has really opened my eyes in terms of how I see myself as a member of society. Has it done the same for you?

    I especially enjoyed your concluding paragraph, where you stated your own thoughts on Laverne’s interpretation on love and justice. I agree that history should never be ignored and that it should be learned from. Acknowledging how your privileges and oppressions are rooted in the past and taking responsibility in the present is the first step in dismantling systems of power, and as you said, being part of something bigger than ourselves.

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    1. aba Post author

      Hey Ash! Thanks for your comment, and your compliments! Laverne definitely made me step back and look at where I stand on the spectrum and makes me want to be more actively aware of how I interact with people; so many things could be so subtly hurtful to certain of people especially since it’s so easy to do things such as homogenize social groups or stereotype, or even be culturally appropriate, etc… I’m glad it has had the same effect on you!

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  4. rau

    Hi aba, great work!
    I think your conclusion is very strong. I completely agree with you when you say that the past should always be acknowledged and learned from. For example it is important to remember and take into consideration the past of black people- not as an explanation for their actions per se, however it is important to recognize how these individuals were raised in the past and how that correlates with the present.
    In terms of the black individuals that made offensive remarks towards Laverne Cox, do you think that their oppression from the past (leading to their current oppression) is the reason that they oppress others who they see have more differences than themselves? Do you think that people continue to be violent towards, and oppress, others because it helps supress the oppression they feel themselves?

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    1. aba Post author

      Hey Rau, thanks for your review! I do feel that that may be the general trend; it is almost as if an oppressor is afraid of something that they cannot control or relate to. Lavern Cox did say that people often criticize those and it reflects something about themselves personally that they struggle with, so yes I do believe some people use it as a way to help themselves, regardless of whether it may hurt other people. However, it is not that easy to simplify something that has a much deeper root to it. Every case of discrimination and hate is complex in its own way, and every person is complex in their own way as well.

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  5. mac2121

    Hey Aba! Great argument, you present points that I strongly agree with. I believe that it is so important to recognize maltreatment so that we can improve upon it. The explanation for each term is extremely helpful as some people may not be in a genders course, which makes reading your piece easy and acceptable for all audiences. I too appreciated Laverne Cox’s insight on how she has learned to see past peoples’ antagonistic way, it made it easier to understand the actions of others and how to handle them. This speech expanded my knowledge on oppression and the many ways intersectionality can identified, has it done the same for you? You’ve created a great analysis and I enjoyed reading your work!

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