Laverne Cox gave a deeply political speech about her life and about black and transgender identity at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Union Monday night.
Cox, a black transgender actress whose role as Sophia on Netflix's "Orange is the New Black" helped establish her as a household name in 2013, has long been an outspoken advocate for transgender people and people of color. Her forthright discussion of transgender issues in the 2014 Time Magazine cover story "The Trans Tipping Point" received national attention, and she has received recognition for her activism from groups like the LGBT Center of New York City and the Anti-Violence Project.
Cox's talk was originally scheduled to take place on the plaza outside Union South but was moved indoors because of rain. The line to enter Shannon Hall before the event snaked around the block outside the Memorial Union, stretching down the lakefront past the terrace's boathouses. The speech itself was heavily punctuated with rapturous cheers and applause from the crowd of well over 1,000 people.
During the lecture, Cox largely talked about her own life experiences, from her childhood in Mobile, Alabama to her years of self-discovery in the nightclubs of New York City, and her eventual embrace of her identity.
"I stand before you today as a proud African-American and LGBT woman," she said.
She weaved together stories about her life with political issues affecting transgender and black people in the U.S., from interactions with police to mental health and high rates of violence. She also tapped into deep wells of scholarship to discuss topics of identity, drawing references to influential thinkers like Judith Butler, Simone de Beauvoir and Cornel West.
At the crux of Cox's speech were themes of empathy and understanding.
"I would charge each and every one of you to go out into your communities and have those difficult conversations across difference," said Cox. "Create safe spaces, where you can take risks and make mistakes, and have those conversations with a lot of love and empathy."
At the outset of the talk, Cox also made note of national developments going on at the same time as her appearance: Earlier in the day, Attorney General Loretta Lynch had announced that the U.S. Justice Department would sue North Carolina over its now-notorious law that effectively prohibits transgender people from using the bathroom of the gender they identify with.
Cox said that it "feels so wonderful and so heartening" to have federal officials fighting the law, which she said amounts to an assault on transgender people.
"Misgendering a transgender person is an act of violence," Cox told the crowd. "Discriminatory bills like HB2 in North Carolina misgender trans people."
Cox's speech was part of the Wisconsin Union Directorate's Distinguished Lecture Series.