“Orange is the New Black” star opens up about life as a transgender actress to sold-out NKU audience

Members of LGBGTQ and Bonnie Meyers gather together to capture a photo with Laverne Cox at the meet-and-greet event after the lecture.

Photo by Kiana Berry.

Members of LGBGTQ and Bonnie Meyers gather together to capture a photo with Laverne Cox at the meet-and-greet event after the lecture.

An hour before the event doors open, students fill the first floor of the Student Union.  Lines snake their way across the tile floor and out the doors almost stretching the distance to Griffin Hall. The students chatter and laugh, anxiously awaiting to find their seat in the Student Union Ballroom to see Laverne Cox in the LGBTQ Programs and Services hosted event.

Famous for her role as Sophia Burset in the hit show “Orange Is The New Black”, Cox’s achievements reach far beyond the realm of the fictitious prison drama. Not only recognized for her public exposure through acting, Cox is the first transgender woman of color to produce and star in her own television show, “TRANSform Me”. Her outspoken views on transgender rights have put Cox’s public lectures in high demand.

“It took several months across several departments to make it happen,” said Bonnie Meyer, Director of LGBTQ Programs and Services.

And for the sake of 660 students, staff, faculty, and individuals from neighboring universities, Cox made her public speaking appearance and the crowd went wild.

Greeted with a standing ovation, Cox made center stage as the cheers and screams reverberated off the ballroom walls.

“I’m so grateful to stand here before you tonight,” said Cox in her opening to the audience. “I am a proud African-American transgender woman.”

Featured on CNN, MSNBC, ABC and NPR, Cox has a full schedule of speaking engagements on the topic of transgender rights. Named one of the Top 50 trans icons by the Huffington Post, the graduate of Marymount Manhattan College visits campuses across the nation sharing her life experiences and her transition.

“I didn’t want to grow up and become a man,” said Cox, addressing the audience on her experience with puberty.

Among the stories of being bullied and lifelong bouts with shame, Cox expressed her lowest moments and thoughts of suicide.  

“I went to our medicine cabinet and swallowed a bottle of pills then went to sleep and hoped I wouldn’t wake back up,” Cox said.  

Fortunately, Cox woke up and went on to be one of the top leaders in the front on transgender issues. Throughout her speech, Cox supported her focus with statistics and stories of other transgender individuals’ struggles, including the tragic story of Islan Nettles. Nettles was a transgender woman who was beat into a coma after some men who were catcalling her realized she was transgendered. Nettles died five days later.

Melancholy fell over the audience as they sat in silence listening to the story.

“Justice is what love looks like in public,” said Cox, quoting Cornel West, “Love today.”

Cox’s message is what inspired Meyer’s desire to have the well-known public speaker visit NKU’s campus.

“Bonnie came to me in the beginning of September,” said Dr. Jeffrey Waple, Assistant Vice President for Student Engagement and Dean of Students.  “The big challenge was making it happen and fitting it into her (Cox) schedule. Fortunately, we were able to find a date that worked.”

NKU students got first dibs on tickets for the show. Many surrounding universities called requesting tickets as well.

“I worked with Bonnie behind the scenes. We could do five or six small events or we could do one big event to talk about inclusion, which is vitally important on a college campus,” Kim Turner, Assistant Vice President for Student Support and Business Operations, said.

The sold out show brought students once again to their feet as Cox reached the closing of her show. The audience cheered and clapped as she left the stage and made her way to an invite-only meet-and-greet after the show.

Among those to attend after the lecture was NKU alumni and LGBTQ supporter advocate, Elizabeth Mayberry.

Mayberry said her favorite moments of the speech were “hearing [Cox] story and hearing her struggle and her discussion of feminism and intersectionality.”

Many students talked about the lecture while waiting in line for a picture with Cox at the meet-and-greet event.

“I loved every moment of it” said sophomore international studies major, Kevin Gabbard. “Kentucky is normally a more conservative area and to see that many people show her so much love before, during and after the speech…it was great.”

Meyer said the influence an event of this magnitude was capable of having on students was the driving force behind all the hard work. Both Waple and Turner couldn’t agree more that the event was Meyer’s vision.

“She saw this opportunity to be an impact on students,” said Turner.

Many students were aware of the impact after the show.

“Like it was said before, this is a part of history,” said junior Brooklyn Butler, political science major, who was one of the students selected from the audience to ask Cox a question after the closing of the speech.

A handful of others also took part in the Q&A, but numerous more had their hands outstretched. If all the questions were given the time to be answered, the show would have lasted into the late hours of the night.

“I hope students walk away with a greater understanding and importance of being allies to each other across difference,” said Meyer.

The perceptive vibe throughout the ballroom was palpable and the conversation across difference did not stop at the door.

Cox consistently attends speaking events in between filming the third season of Orange Is the New Black. Her next lecture will be at Syracuse University on October 29.

You can learn more about Cox and her endeavors here.