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Laverne Cox

Visual AIDS is proud to reprint this essay Laverne Cox wrote a few years ago on her website, in response to repeated questions of how she thought about gender and race. Using Sojourner Truth's famous, "Ain't I a Woman" speech as a starting point, Cox points to the historic ways in which black and female bodies in America are devalued. From there she explores how as a trans woman, her life chances are further impacted. Join Cox on April 24th, as she moderates, Life Chances: HIV Criminalization and Trans Politics.

"Ain't I a woman.' This is a phrase that's been popping up in my head a lot lately. It's a phrase we all know, of course, from the famous Sojourner Truth speech of the same title. This is a phrase that evokes for me the historic devaluation of black womanhood in America. Ms. Truth said in 1851 at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio:

That man over there say
a woman needs to be helped into carriages
and lifted over ditches
and to have the best place everywhere.
Nobody ever helped me into carriages
or over mud puddles
or gives me a best place... And ain't I a woman?

She continues:

I have born 13 children
and seen most all sold into slavery
and when I cried out a mother's grief
none but Jesus heard me...
And ain't I a woman?

It's a phrase that one of my favorite writers, bell hooks, appropriates for the title of her first book, "Ain't I a woman: Black Women and Feminism". In this book she talked about how black women were shut out of the first wave of the feminist movement. She located this shut out again within a history of devaluation of black womanhood within a white racist cultural context.

Ain't I a woman? Ain't I a woman? This phrase has almost haunted me lately. Certainly as a transgender woman that is the question, isn't it? Am I a woman? But ain't I a woman? In a gender binary world trans women can't be women. But one of the important lessons of feminism is that that category of woman is not a biological imperative. Feminist and queer theorist Judith Butler opens her famous book "Gender Trouble" with the well known Simone De Beauvoir quote "One is not born a woman but rather becomes one." Butler adds that within De Beauvoir's analysis, the one who becomes a woman is not necessarily female. She adds," follows that woman itself is a term in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or to end. Ain't I a woman?

I mention Butler not to be pretentious or academic. But I feel this process of becoming in my life. I've always felt in my heart that I'm a girl and now a woman. For years my feelings were more of identification than experience. I remember being in a women's studies class in college feeling so connected to the issues that were being discussed. I was very androgynous at the time. Most of the other women in the class perceived me as a very effeminate gay man. As much as I identified as a woman, at the time the other women in the class just saw me as a man with the potential to oppress. I recall referring to one of the women in class as “honey” and everyone getting on me about that.

Living for 10 years as a woman in the world, I feel as if the womanhood I've always felt inside has finally been actualized outwardly. Yet so many still would disavow that womanhood because of my transgender status. Obviously I know I can occupy multiple spaces. I can be trans and a woman, but I'm also a black woman. There's a pain that that history engenders that is very real in the lives of black women right here and now in America. It's a pain that's similar to the sentiments that compelled Sojourner Truth to ask, "Ain't I a woman" over 150 years ago. It's something that black women in America know if we look around at images and mindsets that devalue us. But we know it more because we feel it in looks and looks away and the tones in people's voices, in fashion magazines and other media representations.

I can't help but recall a moment I saw on The Tyra Banks show. She did a show on how racial perceptions effected attracted. There was one moment when she asked all the men on stage to stand beside the woman they fantasized about sexually. There were women of multiple races onstage. No one stood beside the black woman. She then asked who would you want to marry and take home to your family. Only another black man chose the black woman. Though I've experienced a lot of men who fantasize about me sexually there was something about this moment that felt real to me that I somehow identified with. I was kind of shocked that no one chose the black woman on one level but on another I wasn't. Even as men have sexually objectified me they have simultaneously devalued me. We know these two things can co-exist.

But racial objectification takes on a really interesting dimension in the body of a trans woman, particularly in the case of a black trans woman. In America it's common knowledge that historically in the white supremacist imagination there has been a fascination with the black male penis. The fact that black men's penises were often cut off picked and sold after they were lynched is a testament to that.

That history is alive and well in new forms today. The black male penis has taken on mythic proportions in America. It remains an object of fear and fascination. But what happens in this cultural context when a black woman is in possession of that mythic penis? Does it have the same mythic dimensions once it is "feminized"? I recall being at a party that caters to trans women and the men that desire us. There was a guy I considered attractive who I saw talking to all these Asian girls throughout the night. I smiled at him a few times and nothing. Later in the evening one of these girls I knew introduced us. I jokingly said, "Hi you're cute but you clearly don't find me attractive."

He said, "No I find you very attractive but you're intimidating." I was fascinated. I had been told that I was intimidating before. So I wanted to know what about me he found intimidating. "He said well you have a perfect body, you're stunning and you're probably bigger than me."

I was shocked and Rupauled (as the gurls would say) that he would even go there. He was white. I still find it startling. I mention this story to highlight the complex realities of the black transsexual body and identity historically and how that history informs how we are seen and experienced today. Would he find a nontrans black woman as intimidating, His racist conceptions of the black male penis were clearly displaced onto me. This racism was also clearly based on his own insecurities about himself as most prejudice is born out of personal insecurity.

Finding myself beautiful in a culture where white female standards of beauty are still the norm, I continue to find challenging. I've been told I'm beautiful for years and haven't really believed that I am. I have issues of my features being "feminine enough" to meet the standards of my own harsh critical eye as well as the perceptions of others. For years walking down the street and not passing meaning not being perceived as a nontrans woman, for example, meant that I'm not "pretty enough." As I've evolved and grown I've realized that passing and pretty have nothing to do with each other. But the many times I've contemplated facial feminization surgery (FFS), I'm saddened to confess but part of my desires to look more "beautiful", more feminine were to look more white. I'm starting to cry as I write this. It's hard to admit even to myself this intense level of self hatred centered on my race. And luckily I can't afford FFS. I'm in a place now where I feel beautiful as a black woman. It's something I continue to struggle with.

But the kind of devaluation of black womanhood that would make me not embrace my own beauty is the legacy that has caused the black female body to be the site of so much exploitation. Those histories mingled with the history of the exploitative myth of the black male penis are the histories that are marked and transgressed by the reality of my body. Even with this complex conversion, I still assert, Ain't I a woman.

In the context of a materialist feminist discourse, we know bodies matter. But we also know that our bodies are not our destiny. We are more than our bodies. It's this very spiritual concept that got my slave ancestors through the horrors of that experience, knowing that we are more than our bodies, finding a space to transcend this material we're living in. But as a liberatory stance it's important for black people to reclaim our bodies, historically sold raped, lynched, generally devalued as not beautiful and savage even. But as we reclaim our bodies it's important not to buy into the radicalized mythology about them. My transsexual body often sought only as a site of sexual conquest and objectification is an interesting potential site for the subversion of that racist history. So many of the issues that plague African American culture today are rooted in my assessment in an uncritical relationship by both many black men and women to patriarchy or institutionalized sexism. This system is inherently heterosexist, homophobic and, of course, transphobic.

It is my contention that the embracing of the black transsexual woman as a woman in black culture is an important first step to dismantling the prominence of patriarchy in black thinking which ultimately oppresses all of us. Black men trying to live up to a racist concept of thugged out masculinity is literally killing them. It's actually my belief that embracing transgender identities as a whole in this country and finally dismantling the gender binary system benefits all of us. Dr. Jamie Koufman, the noted laryngeal surgeon said something during a panel discussion for “The Advocate” magazine that I was recently a part of that I found so profound. She said, "We are all transgender. None of us fits the gender binary model."

The gender revolution I often imagine and talk about is really about us liberating ourselves from the oppression of expectations based on this gender model that none of us really fit anyway.

Ain't I a woman?
Black America, my brothers and sisters, I love you and claim you. Do you love and claim me as the black woman I am? My trans identity doesn't make me any less black. Acknowledging my complex identity and me is an opportunity for us to reconnect to that dream of liberation that doesn't exclude.It is about all oppressed people joining together to have a united voice, united in love and the possibility of deliverance. Ain't I a woman.

Laverne Cox is an actress, producer and transgender advocate. She is the first African American transgender woman to produce and star in her own television show, VH1’s critically acclaimed “TRANSForm Me” and the first African American transgender woman to appear on a reality television program, VH1’s “I Wanna Work for Diddy” in 2008, which garnered her a GLAAD media award.She has appeared in the television shows, “Law and Order”, “Bored to Death”, and the films, “Carla”, “36 Saints”, “The Exhibitionists” and “Musical Chairs” which is nominated for a 2013 GLAAD Media Award. She can next be seen in the Netflix original series "Orange Is The New Black" premiering summer 2013.