I recently had the opportunity to go and listen to Laverne Cox speak. If you’re not familiar with Laverne Cox, she is an African American transgender actress best known for her portrayal of the trans-gender women character, Sophia Burset on the Netflix television series Orange In the New Black. She is known for breaking new ground for representation in the transgender community, especially as a transgender woman of color. Listening to her story was eye-opening for me, as she went through her journey from a young boy to a Trans-gender woman. As a result I began to understand what it really meant to transgender in our society. Now mind you, I like to think I have an empathic mindset towards those who are also oppressed as a Person of Color. However, never in my life have I taken the time to get to know the story of a transgender individual. The only exposure I’ve ever really had was the media, and I think it’s safe to say media does not accurate represent marginalized groups in America. So here I am holding my pre-conceived notions about whom transgender people were, what they went through, and why they are the way they are. When in reality, I had no idea how severely they struggled. I never known or really thought about how it must feel to walk down the street and have someone yell, “That’s a man”, when you identify as a woman. I’ve never thought about how it must feel to be verbally assaulted on a daily basis, simply because you don’t feel fit into the correct gender you were assigned by birth. I’ve never thought about how it must feel to wake up everyday knowing that someone might physically harm or kill you because they don’t agree with how you’re living your life. Never had it crossed my mind, what it must feel to be an impressionable teenager constantly experiencing abuse from bullies and pressure from rest of the world telling you everything you think you are meant to be is wrong. Feeling so distressed and hated where you feel like suicide is your only option.
According to the LA times “41% of people who are transgender or gender nonconforming have attempted suicide sometime in their lives, nearly nine times the national average.”
“Among transgender people who became homeless because of bias against their gender identity, 69% said they had tried to kill themselves.”
These experiences are not hypotheticals or rare cases, they’re part of the reality being transgender people, all of which were experienced and expressed by Laverne Cox during her speech. Just before the beginning of 2015, a news story emerged about the death of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender teen who killed herself after years of being forced to live according to her parents’ Christian Ideals. The reactions have been gained definitely increased awareness, from the #RealLiveTransAdult hashtag to thousands of trans people sharing their lives and successes to petitions to outlaw transgender reparative therapy. (An experience which Leelah said her parents forced on her).
The insight and change of heart I went through after hearing Laverne’s story is not unique to transgender people, it is how we as humans operate. When we can empathize creating an emotional connection to something, it really changes our perspective over that issue. We pay more attention we seek to learn more, and take action to help or get involved. Oftentimes those individuals who donate to cancer research do so as a result of a family member or loved one who has fought cancer. Those parents who become advocates of same-sex marriage see that a child they love has found someone they love, so they experience a change of heart. Obviously this is not automatic response. An emotional connection does not necessarily guarantee you will do anything differently. But I believe when people take time to understand those different from them or those who live differently than them it benefit all of everybody. Laverne expressed this belief too.
For my undergrad, I decided to attend a Liberal Arts University in west Michigan called Grand Valley State University. The racial demographics for white students as of Winter 2013 – Spring 2014 school year was 84%, just to give you a more better sense of diversity. Over my 4 years, I’ve had many interesting encounters on the subject of race. One I always found interesting was when a white student, who spent their whole life in a town that was usually small, and virtually all white would tell me how much different I am than how they originally thought I would be as black person. These were usually kind hearted people who had, just like me and the transgender community, never took the time to learn the personal story, experiences, and perspective that someone different from them possessed. Instead they let the media develop their outlook. Laverne Cox concludes her speech encouraging the crowd to. ”Go out into your lives and have those difficult conversations … living with empathy and with lots of vulnerability”.
She went on to explain that you have to be vulnerable when getting to know those different from you. Open and allowing others to make mistakes as they learn to understand you. You will grow and develop a strong relationship from that difficult conversation. In the end it will be worth it. I completely agree, we’re all people and I believe that so much of the hate, violence, and pain that people go through would be diminished if we really all just took time to understand those different than us. Even if you don’t come into contact with that a particular type of people, there is a plethora of resources online to help you learn. You don’t have to meet a transgender individual to support the community. Opening your eyes to someone else’s world may change the way you interact with the world. It’s our differences together that create a harmonious beautiful people.
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