On Tuesday, I went downtown to the beautiful Elgin Theatre to hear Laverne Cox speak. I was first introduced to Cox when I started watching Orange is the New Black and her character quickly became one of my favourites. At a time when I was becoming more involved in feminism and developing an understanding of the many privileges I have, as well as the misogyny and homophobia I face as a queer woman, the diverse conceptions of womanhood it portrays made me fall in love with this show.
Laverne Cox is a “proud African American transgender woman” (to quote her talk) and, as I learned in-depth Tuesday night, she faced a lot of adversity growing up. It was very humbling to listen to her reflect on her many challenging experiences in such an eloquent and thought-provoking manner. Everyone faces struggles and different types of oppression, and while I’ve had issues in my life, I have always been aware that I am fairly well off. It’s one thing to know this, but it’s another to sit in a room and listen to the first hand account of someone who faces so much violence and hatred in their everyday life. It made me realize that so many people live with the reality that they must be fearful of violence and persecution simply for being who they are, and I can never fully understand how that feels.
It’s hard to find an adjective for how awful I find the injustices that still exist in our society. I often say I am filled with fire because there’s always so much anger burning inside of me knowing that the world is not fair. I hate that our institutions favour some while causing others to live with violence and poverty and prejudice. There’s an emotion that I was once told there is a word for in another language, but not in English, so I will simply define it for you as “an anger that pushes you towards action.” I often feel this when my expectations for people or the world in general (or even myself) are not met.
The problem with this anger is that so much of my frustration is about forms of oppression that do not affect me, and while I want to take action, I have to realize that these stories are not mine. While I can speak to some forms of homophobia, misogyny, and sexism, I have not experienced oppression in the form of physical violence, threats, or the racist encounters people who are not white have on a daily basis. I am privileged to be well off, white, able-bodied, and able to attend university. And while I want to spend every moment ridding the world of injustice, I am faced with the reality that there are many spaces where my voice is not needed. There are so many people to whom these stories and struggles do belong that are already doing a wonderful job to make this world better for themselves and for everyone.
It’s inspiring to see this first hand at events like this one featuring Laverne Cox. I left with a new understanding of confidence and femininity, as well as an admiration for her journey to loving and accepting herself. She also drew lessons from those who have inspired her and shared the impactful words of others. The quote that stuck out for me, which was referenced a number of times, was Cornet West’s quote “justice is what love looks like in public.” This stuck with me as something that makes so much sense, because fighting for justice is not easy and it comes from a place of caring about others, because why else would you fight for it?
Not only did Cox share her story with us, she also talked about the deep-rooted problems in society, such as oppression and the binaries that are placed upon gender and sexuality. She also emphasized how important it is to have empathy and to think about intersectionality and the multiple identities we all have while talking about these issues. So much of what she said was relatable and resonated with me. In my life, I have been affected by the widespread ideas of what a person should be like simply because of the situation they were born into. Many differences are not celebrated, and Cox spoke about how we live in a culture of shame, and I think that shame that we’re so often taught to feel is something everyone can relate to.
The impact that this event had on me didn’t stop with the guest of honour. From the moment I approached the line that curved through the streets of downtown Toronto, I knew that I was going to spend the night surrounded by people who cared. When we got inside, some of the students who had put this event together came to the stage and they spoke of intersectionality and pointed out that the land we were on did not belong to us, but rather to First Nations people, and I could tell by listening to the passionate way they spoke that they have the same anger and drive that I often feel. And as cheers rang through the packed theatre when Cox mentioned revolutionary people within struggles for equality and spoke in words that related to the variety of experiences people have with oppression, I realized that so many people want to make a difference and shape the world so that others don’t have to grow up with society forcing them into a box or making them live in fear. There are so many people who want to show their love in the form of justice, which is comforting to know, and helps me to take a deep breath and realize that I do not have to carry my anger alone.
There is so much diversity in every single person’s experience and perspective. The prejudice-laden society in which we live gives us all stories to share of the experiences and oppression we have faced. We all have a unique view of the problems that still exist in society. It’s important to hear each other’s stories, exercise empathy, and work together for justice. There are so many voices that deserve to be heard and we each hold the responsibility of leveraging the ones who are not represented in positions of power. Showing you care is not about being the loudest, it’s about listening. In seeing how many people care, I have so much hope that we will be able to work towards a society in which the ideas we have held as truth for so long are challenged and the diversity and intersectionality of our world is embraced.
I am adding this on as a footnote, but it doesn’t mean that I mean the words any less:
I’m so glad that I had an opportunity to attend this event, and I would just like to thank the Student Unions of Ryerson University, George Brown College, University of Toronto, and my school, York University, for bringing this to us. I’m really happy that we have student leaders who care about bringing such a meaningful talk to our community.