The other day you were at the park with your kids when along came what you can only describe as a big dude in full makeup, a tank top, Daisy Dukes, hair that dusted the floor and lips so big they looked like they belonged on a whale. Now you have your own history with over-processed lips, so as frightening as they were to see on a human, it wasn’t really that big a deal. The truth was this girl was on fiyah and her mere presence rose the temperature by 100 degrees. Immediately, your mind flashed to images of Madonna singing Vogue, and drag queens having dance-offs and elaborate fashion shows, and prostitutes in full swing on Manhattan’s West Side Highway back in the day, and fistfights, and name calling and…and…and then you thought about Laverne Cox. And you had to stop and think again.
You remember when you first saw her on your favorite show Orange Is The New Black. She was interesting. Laid back. Not stunningly beautiful, but by no means a beast. It was her storyline that really got you. She was struggling to get the meds she needed in prison to keep her hormones balanced so that she could stay a woman. There was a scene that showed her as a man pre-surgery that left you feeling as if you’d seen into her soul. That she would allow a glimpse of the very thing that she’d spent her whole life trying to change, the level of vulnerability that it must have taken, touched you deeply. Now you recently discovered that it wasn’t really her playing the part of the man it was actually her twin brother, but what’s done can’t be undone. She gained more than your respect she gained a sister.
But what about this person now sharing this bench with you in the park? Laverne Cox she is not, but she could be her sister. Doesn’t that make ya’ll somehow related? Suddenly things get real and you start feeling like one of those people who claim to love Michael Jordan, but wouldn’t want a black man within a ten block radius of his house. Because Laverne Cox on your TV screen and instagram feed looks much different in the flesh. It causes you to wonder if you’re really ready to take a look at this transgender thing or if it’s cool from a distance?
You reflect on a few conversations you’ve had about Ms. Cox in recent months. One was with your friend SekouWrites who— aside from finding it interesting that she’s a real transgender actor and not a man pretending to be (for some reason it made him think about the casting call and the array of characters that must have shown up to audition)– he doesn’t give it any thought. You found his disinterest interesting and figured it was because he doesn’t watch the show. It’s like when you don’t watch Scandal the whole ‘Gladiator’ thing doesn’t mean jack. Your friend Makho, however, is a big fan of OITNB and Laverne Cox. She feels that Lavern is helping us get more acclimated to the idea of transgender because she defies the stereotypes. She’s also a big fan of a transgender activist named Janet Mock who used to be an online editor for People magazine. For Makho it was love at first sight because Janet represents the warmth, beauty, and intelligence of an everyday woman, giving transgenders a face unlike anything she’s ever seen. She’s looking forward to reading her book and is in a nutshell, “obsessed with her.” You start feeling all warm and fuzzy around this idea that there’s this new level of tolerance, even interest when it comes to transgender people then you remember an article written by your friend Brittney Walker last year. It was a piece about Laverne Cox being on the cover of Vibe Vixen and her campaign against bullying. And while it gave you another reason to love Ms. Cox, the comment section was nothing short of a bloodbath. The hate spewed at Lavern, Brittney and the Commenters towards one another, caused you to wonder why a person’s choice to gender bend sparks such venom? It’s a question that got somewhat answered by a friend who believes that gender is based on what is between a person’s legs, not what he feels he should be. “It’s like being born black and trying to throw that out of the window because you feel like you should be something else. You can’t do that,” she says. She’s also concerned that all this media attention around transgender people may influence others to rethink who they are and try something because it’s trendy. But at the same time, she feels that it could help those who are struggling with gender issues.
It brings you back to how you felt when you discovered that Laverne Cox had tried to kill herself when she was 11 years old. The thought of her in so much pain around this issue of gender touched that soft spot in your heart. It showed just how much of a struggle it is for someone to deal with when there’s no one to turn to because the very thought of it makes some people violent. It happens time and time again with hate crimes against the LGBT community. Going back to what your friend said, do we really believe that seeing someone as successful as Laverne Cox will influence someone to get a sex change? Wouldn’t they have to be leaning in that direction already? But what else are we afraid of? Do we envision transgenders taking over the world, selling us milk at the grocery store, handling our money at the bank, and at the hospital fixing our wounds? What if they’re friends with our kids? Worse yet, what if they’re our kids?!
Okay. And so what? If that’s the worst that could happen it’s a small price to pay when you think that human beings wouldn’t have to be ostracized and relegated to the dark corners of the earth. You’re so thankful that Laverne Cox not only survived, but triumphed because she’s beautiful, accessible and inviting you to think about what transgender really means. She’s not only your sister she’s your teacher.
So it all comes down to this bench. This woman. This moment in the park. What are you going to do?
“Is that your daughter?” you ask the woman, pointing to the little girl on the swings.
She pauses, inspecting you before answering, “No, it’s my niece.”
“Oh, she’s pretty.”
It’s awkward. Yes. But it’s a start.
BY ERICKKA SY SAVANÉ