To kick off Pride Month celebrations, RBCers were joined for a candid and inspiring conversation with Laverne Cox – the first openly transgender actress to be nominated for a primetime acting Emmy and the first trans woman of colour to have a leading role in a mainstream television series.

Best known for her role as Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black, Laverne Cox is more than an award-winning actress. She is a prominent equal rights advocate and public speaker who has tirelessly promoted visibility and awareness on behalf of the transgender community. She joined RBC’s global pride event as a keynote speaker, sharing her experiences, messages of love and acceptance and a persevering belief in humanity.

“Loving yourself is a process”

At 52 years old, Laverne Cox says she is grateful to be alive. “That is not something that is given, particularly for a Black trans woman in the United States,” she says, accepting belated birthday wishes from RBC Regional President Kris Depencier who sat down with Cox at the RBC global Pride event.

Having grown up in Mobile, Alabama in the 1970s, Cox shares that she was raised by a single mother. Assigned male at birth, Cox was a feminine child, deeply shamed about her gender expression and bullied constantly. As a result, she spent a lot of time living inside her head – spending time at the library and watching Solid Gold and Fame on TV. “I dreamed of doing exactly what I’m doing now – I dreamed of moving to New York and being a performer, a dancer and eventually an actor,” she says, explaining that the reality she was going through as a child was too much to deal with, so her imagination and creativity were her refuge.

As an adult, her healing took place through therapy. “Healing is possible if you do the work, she says. “I am 52 years old, and I can say that I really love myself from the inside out. I love who I am, I love every mistake that I’ve made, I love every imperfection. But I haven’t always been able to say that. Loving yourself, accepting yourself is a process.”

“I’m a student of life”

While she was growing up, Cox’s mother worked three to four jobs to take care of the family. All the same, she found the time to check her children’s homework and make sure they were at the level they needed to be. This experience made Cox value education and build a determination to do well in school. She went to the Alabama School of Fine Arts, where she took AP classes, and maintained a curiosity and competitiveness that drove to achieve high marks.

At 52, Cox says that she is a lifelong learner. “I’m still a student – I’m a student of life. I’m a student of healing. I’m a student of the arts. I’m a student of fashion and art history. I love learning.” Cox credits this consistent curiosity for her ability to be where she is today. “I’ve had to be really curious with all the trauma and the defence mechanisms I built up to deal with it. In my acting training, I had to break all that down to get to the truth of who I am – to my authenticity. That’s involved a lot of curiosity, a lot of work on myself.”

When faced with something unfamiliar or uncomfortable, you can either fear it or be curious about it and try to learn. Cox’s approach has been one of curiosity, and she is grateful for the education that led her to that point. “Education is the most important privilege I’ve had in my life.”

“To achieve equity and inclusion, we must understand that everyone is human”

Cox gets candid about the politics of the United States and how there is a movement to dehumanize those who don’t share similar views or values. “With everything that has happened in the last four years, people are really frustrated and are looking for someone to blame. And that leads to dehumanizing people they don’t agree with. I believe our work is to look at every person in the world and see them as a human being and start rehumanizing – a process that involves vulnerability within ourselves, being able to have empathy, connecting with each other and building more diverse environments.”

She emphasizes the need to create a space with healthy boundaries, where even if we disagree with a fellow human being, we can be friends – we can see their humanity and have love for them. “If our goals are equity and inclusion, we have to make sure we recognize that everyone is human and while they may be starting from a different place, we can still greet them with love and empathy.”

She goes on to explain that having open conversations is crucial. “We have to make sure that when we have conversations about LGBTQ+ people that we have LGBTQ+ people at the table. Many people feel just fine having conversations about trans folks without a trans person in sight, but it’s helpful to have us at the table – especially a trans person who has an understanding of the issues and how to frame them and how to foreground our humanity.”

She adds that there is great power in love. “How do we counter all the disparaging and frightening things that go on today? The only thing I can think of is love – love as an energetic force to counter all of the hatred and all the misinformation.” Love, she says, is what allows her to see the humanity in someone, even if they are saying something disparaging about her. “We have to embrace love and embrace humanity.”

“True belonging is the opposite of fitting in”

Cox recognizes that this work begins on the inside. “I have to start with myself. Whenever I want to be critical of the world out there, I have to make sure my house is in order – that the way I interact with people and the way I live and work is consistent with my values.”

She adds that “we can only love others as much as we love ourselves,” yet feels that there is not enough work done around loving ourselves. Instead, we are all trying to fit in. But trying to fit in is in fact the opposite of true belonging. “When we try to fit in, we try to shape shift and be who other people think we should be, instead of showing up and allowing our authentic selves to be seen,” she says. “I think we have to challenge the fitting in thing and work on our self-love process.”

“We have a history of finding a way”

Reflecting on Pride month, Cox recalls the 1969 Stonewall rebellion, where people in the LGBTQ+ community fought back against a government that criminalized their existence. While there were strict anti-crossdressing laws and laws against same-sex dancing, people were able to find each other and build a community. She calls out Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Susan Stryker and Christine Jorgenson – trans women who over the course of history have been teachers, activists and voices of change. Today, living in an environment where many want to criminalize the existence of the trans community, Cox isn’t giving up. “We have a blueprint,” she says. I believe if we can tap into the energy of our ancestors and our transistors, if we can draw from tradition and not only fight but love, we can have community and have each other’s backs. We have a history of finding a way, of being there for each other and creating communities of mutual aid and support.”

Pride month is a time to celebrate and champion the LGBTQ+ community and this year’s theme is “Pride Together.”  As Laverne Cox so passionately conveys, we are all stronger when we stand up together for a more accepting, equal and inclusive society.

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