LAVERNE COX, SUPERSTAR, ON “THE T WORD” and more…
The second week of September at Baruch College in New York City was an especially lively one. It was the week of “GENDERFLUID”— “a festival of transformative arts from transgender and genderfluid artists” at The Baruch Performing Arts Center. Indeed, one of the most anticipated nights of the festival was Tuesday, September 9th. That evening, the auditorium was packed from wall to wall… and the reason for that was Emmy-nominated actress and transgender activist Laverne Cox. The lovely Ms. Cox is a bona fide superstar. She plays the character of Sophia Burset on the popular Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black”, and has cemented her status in pop culture as “the first transwoman of color to have a leading role on a mainstream scripted television show.” Cox was also the first transperson to appear on the cover of “Time” Magazine (or, as fellow “gender outlaw” Kate Bornstein enthusiastically declared, “Time FUCKING Magazine!”), which named Cox’ Sophia Burset as the fourth most influential fictional character of 2013. That night, Ms. Cox was appearing in a live discussion with her identical twin brother M. Lamar: an artist, musician, and activist who, like his sibling, also envisions a more gender-fluid society. He does this in his own proudly renegade style. On his official website http://www.MLamar.com, his bio reads: “M. Lamar writes songs that are at once a product of his African American heritage, drawing heavily from the negro spiritual. Combined with his operatic voice and piano playing that is at once interested in western classical music and dissonant black metal, Lamar’s sound makes one think that things are so catastrophic that the world might end at the conclusion of one of his tracks.” On the site you’ll also find music samples, some eye-popping photos, and several writings about the M. Lamar mystique.
This is the first speaking engagement Cox and Lamar have done together. After being introduced by author/ playwright/performance artist/gender theorist (and fellow GENDERFLUID performer!) Kate Bornstein, the twins took their seats on stage. At first sight for audience members, it may seem that these two colorful personalities were as different as two people can be: Laverne was dressed in a gasp-inspiring white dress, with long blonde hair and high fashion model makeup (She was fresh from a Fashion Week event, by the way!). M. Lamar’s look was clearly influenced by old school vintage leather culture and melanophilic Goth, right on down to the heavy black eye makeup. Later on, it became clear that the two also had some very different attitudes about the phenomenon known as “celebrity” which they are now a part of. Artistically, the duo have different pathways in dealing with inequality in regards to race, economic status, and gender. Nevertheless, on stage, the twins enjoyed a witty repartee that could have only been created by their shared upbringing in childhood. Today, they both own the same vision of a more accepting, enlightened world as we approach 2015. They are also both gifted speakers who have no trouble with keeping the audience mentally and visually stimulated.
Laverne Cox may be one of TV’s most exciting actresses, but attendees who anticipated a pop culture gossip-fest got much more food for thought than they expected. Laverne and Lamar took their opportunity to discuss the intertwining social phenomenons of gender, sexual orientation, race, economic status, and freedom of expression (personal and artistic). The results were no less than fascinating and provocative… and often, very funny. Cox and Lamar were raised by a single mother in the Deep South. Laverne initially found her spiritual escape through dancing before finding her calling in acting. Lamar pointed out that from early on, because he was the more stereotypically “boyish” of the two, he was reluctantly assigned the role of the male paternal figure from an early age. Lamar found his escape through punk rock culture: a statistical anomaly for an African-American man. But as the audience soon learned, nothing about M. Lamar was “conventional”. He considers the work of “controversial” late artist Robert Mapplethorpe to be one of his influences, and makes some interesting observations– such as his theory that the whip often used on the slave by the master in American plantation culture was likely a symbol of black male penis envy. Lamar’s rebellious attitude against patriarchy (usually of the white male variety), capitalism, and corporate America may be perceived as “confrontational”, but his musing were so deft and often so funny that it was hard to use that “c” word… until the artist himself proudly declared himself as… you guessed it… “confrontational”! A few times during the presentation, M. Lamar poked some fun at singer Beyonce, of whom Laverne is a fan. He also took some snipes at corporate America, which of course controls mainstream television. In her patent smooth grace, Laverne responded that as a dedicated actress, it is her job and responsibility to play the part that she is given, and playing a particular part does not necessarily imply an all-encompassing embrace of the system which she, through destiny, is now a part of. Via applause, the audience enthusiastically agreed. On a more worldy scale, Cox is using her celebrity for more far-reaching results. She is devoted to bringing attention to the specific needs of transgendered owmen– especially transgendered women of color, who are at an alarmingly higher rate of physical violence than other LGBT’s. She also reminds her fellow LGBT’s and our allies that it is a mistake for us to allow society to apply its decades-old, unyielding paternalism to all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and especially transgendered individuals. To reach our goals, we must first discover what it is that each of usas individuals want and need, and then move towards attaining them… but, as she reiterated, “on our own terms”!
Most titillatingly, Cox gave the audience some hot-off-the-press news: the premiere of “Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word” by MTV and LOGO TV. Both networks will simultaneously premiere the special, of which Cox is Producer and Host. The hour-long documentary will premiere at 7 PM on Oct. 17, coinciding with LGBT Spirit Day on Oct. 16. “The T Word” will look at seven transgender youth from across the country and their determination to lead their lives as the people they are meant to be. The film examines the struggles of coming out, bullying, and anti-transgender violence for the youth as well as the intersection of transgender identities and race in their lives.
After the discussion, I asked Laverne Cox how she feels about the controversy surrounding another “T word”: the term “tranny”, which is not a new word within the LGBT lexicon, but has recently been identified and discussed in the mainstream media as more of a derogatory word or slur– far more than it was in, for example, the ‘90’s. She tells me, “I honestly believe that language is important. And, to quote (Tram) Ngyuen, ‘Language is a place of struggle.’ But for me, I am not interested in weighing in that debate. I am much more interested in having discussions like we had tonight, where we move beyond that. I think it’s been way too divisive, and it would be just way too divisive to weigh in on that!”
Laverne Cox will continue to speak at colleges all over the United States. Visit http://www.LaverneCox.com for more info on her speaking tour and more. M. Lamar’s solo art exhibition “Negrogothic, A Manifesto: The Aesthetics of M. Lamar” runs through October 12th at Participant Inc. at 253 East Houston St., NYC. Call (212)254-4334 or visit http://www.ParticipantInc.com for more info.