On this episode of Unlocking Us
In this episode, I talk to artist, advocate, executive producer, and all-around amazing woman and friend Laverne Cox about her new, groundbreaking documentary, Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, the importance of policy protection for the trans community, and the seismic shifts in the world today. We also discuss the complexities of intersectionality and accountability, the difference between discomfort and safety, and the ultimate power of seeking love and living in the light.
Listen to the episode
Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen is an unprecedented, eye-opening look at transgender depictions in film and television, revealing how Hollywood simultaneously reflects and manufactures our deepest anxieties about gender. Leading trans thinkers and creatives, including Laverne Cox, Lilly Wachowski, Yance Ford, Mj Rodriguez, Jamie Clayton, and Chaz Bono, share their reactions and resistance to some of Hollywood’s most beloved moments. Disclosure provokes a startling revolution in how we see and understand trans people.
Production by Cadence13
Brené Brown: Alright. Today’s guest is an actress, an activist, an executive producer, a writer, and, I am proud to say, a good friend, Laverne Cox. She is a three-time Emmy-nominated actress, an Emmy winning producer, and a prominent Equal Rights Advocate and public speaker. Laverne’s groundbreaking role of Sophia Burset in the critically acclaimed Netflix original series, Orange is the New Black, brought her to attention of audiences all over the world. This role led to Laverne becoming the first openly transgender actress to be nominated for a primetime acting Emmy and made her the first trans woman of color to have a leading role on a mainstream scripted television series.
BB: She is continuing to expand her presence on the big screen and small screens with diverse and ground-breaking roles. In addition to a currently in production, new ten-episode limited series called Inventing Anna, which she’s doing with Shonda Rhimes, this Friday, June 19th, she has a documentary coming out called, Disclosure. The full name is Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen. It’s an unprecedented, groundbreaking look at the depiction of transgender characters throughout the history of film and television. Again, it comes out this Friday, June 19th. Let me tell you, just June 19th, we need to watch this. I’ve watched the trailer literally 30 times. It is going to be important, critical awareness building about love, about trans thought leadership and creativity. I can’t wait. Let’s meet Laverne.
BB: I have always started – this podcast launched in the middle of COVID or right when COVID did – so I always start with this question which has taken on new meaning. How are you, no bullshit. How are you doing?
Laverne Cox: It’s been up and down. And for me, it’s a day at a time, and I’m taking it at a day at a time, and it’s been different every day. And I’ve had ebbs and flows. At the beginning of quarantine, the first week, I was so excited. I hadn’t had a non-vacation week off in a really long time, and I had been flying back and forth between LA and New York, shooting a show, and… so the first week I was sleeping a lot and I didn’t have anything to do. And it was incredible. And then the second week, I got a little stir-crazy and a little… usually that’s when I want to go back to work.
LC: And then at week three, I hadn’t left, I live in a condo in LA, so I hadn’t left the building in about 21 days. And I woke up at day 21 in the middle of the night with a panic attack. I felt like the walls were closing in on me. Which had never… it’s never happened to me before in my life, and I had, literally just needed fresh air and I went up to the roof of my building just to… I couldn’t breathe. It was really intense, and I was like, “Okay, maybe I need to leave the building.”
LC: So it took me a few days to do that. So a few days later I left the building… I went to Walgreens and just sort of walked around the neighborhood with masks and gloves and all of that. And then a few weeks after that, I was like, “Oh, this is an opportunity. This is an opportunity for spiritual growth, this is an opportunity for personal growth and I can really focus in on… ” And I’ve been talking about that and talking it, but then I was like, “Let me really go inside and really deepen my meditation and really deepen my resiliency practice and really get in touch with who I am on a deeper level. And so when I come out of this, I will be a better person, I will be more evolved, I’ll be more myself.”
LC: And so that became my charge, and then… And I was deep into that and that was great, and then work started amping up again, and then we didn’t… honestly, this whole Netflix deal with Disclosure probably happened about five weeks ago, they said, “Oh, Pride’s coming up, we want your movie for Pride,” and so we had to scramble and do deals and put a trailer together. And just doing a deal is a whole thing, as you know, you had a Netflix special. So then it became this crazy scramble [chuckle] of trying to get trailers together and figure out promotion and in five weeks.
LC: So I’m trying to balance my self-care, and this is my life this year, really trying to be, and very intentional with self-care, with slowing myself down, with breathing, with meditation, and balancing that with work. That’s where I’m at today. Today, of course, is the day that the Supreme Court handed down their landmark decision in the Title VII case, and I had been on an emotional roller coaster today, crying and just sort of screaming and elated and just in disbelief.
LC: Yeah, I’m still in shock, honestly, because we didn’t think we would win this based on the makeup of the court and to win 6-3 is… So it’s been… I give really long answers. So it’s been… [laughter] It’s been up and down, and it’s been a day at a time. And today, I am elated and somber still because another black man was killed, Rayshard, in Atlanta. It’s a very tricky time to be alive, so… Yeah, it’s complicated. [chuckle]
BB: I think anyone that doesn’t have an answer of, “How are you doing?”, that includes “It’s complicated”, is not fully… maybe awake to what’s happening. It is maybe the most complex time of my life.
LC: Certainly. Yeah.
BB: Yeah. Okay, so I have watched the Disclosure trailer because I can’t get into it because it doesn’t come out until Friday, June 19th, 32 times.
LC: Oh my God.
BB: I mean, I’ve watched it over and over and over again.
BB: I cannot… The only thing that makes me sad about it, really, is that I’m not teaching right now. Because this is the film… This would be the film of the semester for me. This would be the film that we watch and talk about. Tell us about… I’ve heard it described as this, “An unprecedented eye-opening look at transgender depictions in Film and Television, revealing how Hollywood simultaneously reflects and manufactures our deepest anxieties about gender.”
LC: Oh. That’s good. Who wrote that?
LC: That’s good. We need to see… We need to steal that. It is… We take a look at the history of trans representation on screen for the first 100 years of film and television. And this project is a dream come true for me. Three years ago, I had been living in Los Angeles for a year and was missing all my New York friends and just feeling very disconnected from community, and I went on… It was a Saturday morning and I went on my Instagram and saw that two of my friends, Jim Richardson and Angelica Ross were doing…were speaking on a panel at Outfest, and I said, “I’m gonna go.” And I just jumped out of bed. It was 11:15, I remember it was 11:15 I just… I didn’t even shower, I’m putting make-up on, because the panel started at noon. So I jumped out of bed, threw some clothes on, got a Lyft, and I went, and I walk in and my friend Nick Adams from GLAAD said that, “I’m so glad you’re here. This guy named Sam is doing a presentation, it’s the trans celluloid closet you should… You should be here for it.” And I said, “Oh my gosh.”
LC: I literally had just been having a conversation about doing a film that looked at the history of how trans people were being represented on screen and Sam’s presentation was brilliant. I met him afterwards, we met a week later, and I said, “How can I be involved in this?” And the beautiful thing about Disclosure… There’re so many beautiful things for me personally, but every single person who appears on screen is transgender, and the story of this history of trans representation is told to the memories of trans people. It’s told through, ‘I saw this film at this time and it made me think this about myself, and I wonder if this representation is why people think about me this way.’ When Jen Richards, for example, one of our contributors says in the film that, when she told a friend of hers, she’s from Chicago and she told a friend of hers who’s this white woman, very educated, from upper middle-class background. She said, “Oh, I’m trans, and I’m kinda transitioning.” The first thing her friend said was,” Oh, you mean like Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs?” And…
BB: Yeah. Jesus.
LC: That was this woman’s first reference point for someone being trans. And a character that was a serial killer that skinned women it was… that this is the reference point says so much about how we’ve come to understand who trans people are. Says so much about… We cite a statistic in the film that 80% of Americans say they don’t personally know someone who’s transgender according to a study from GLAAD and so, what most Americans learn about trans folks comes from the media. And so, what we’re learning is like with the Buffalo Bill character, then it’s very understandable why we are where we are in terms of trans rights and trans representation in this country. It’s really about trans spectatorship, it’s about how we look, how we… And how these representations affect how we see ourselves and how other folks see us. It’s been a labor of love and I can’t believe we’re here where we’re premiering in a few days, it’s very exciting.
BB: Well, so let me ask you this, the Sam that you ran into at the festival, the film festival, was that Sam Feder?
LC: Sam Feder, he is our director. Yes.
BB: Okay, I’m asking because I’ve read everything I can read about Disclosure, I’ve got so many questions. Okay, so. Let me ask you about a… So first of all, is this true or not true, can I fact check something I read? That you sourced funding for this, you’re one of the executive producers, that you helped try to get funding to put this film together, and you put it together, you star in it, and that you blew people away at Sundance. That people just watched this film and literally could not speak after they saw this documentary.
LC: That’s so sweet to hear. So, we premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. I was not there, I was shooting… I was in Morocco shooting a TV show. We were slated to have our New York Premier at the Tribeca Film Festival and that was cancelled because of COVID. So the festival run that we were supposed to have has not happened.
BB: Got it.
LC: So Sundance is the only place where we played. When we did premiere at Sundance, we got a five-minute standing ovation. Which I’m told is unheard of at Sundance, which is pretty amazing, that people were so moved and had so many ‘aha’ moments from the film and… The audience there, there were a lot of trans folks there, so that made me feel really good. Because we made this film for trans people, because what does it mean to have a film that’s by trans people, really for trans people, that centers our voices, our experiences, and it is made for us. We want everyone to watch and to learn and to be entertained, but we made it for trans people, we made it for us to have this document of our history on screen and… Yeah, it was magical.
LC: I did a little Zoom in from Morocco [laughter] just to say hi to everyone during the Q&A after the film and… It’s been… It’s such a very difficult thing to want to make a film, to make a film like this, and can I tell you, Brené, it’s still really hard, even with all the progress we’ve made, it is hard to sell a film, a trans film, it still is really hard. We had so many TV networks tell us, “Oh, we have our trans film.” or, “Oh, we did something similar.” There’s never been anything like this before, so no one’s ever done anything similar. And so it is so hard to sell a film like this, and so the fact that we are premiering on Netflix worldwide in a few days is really a miracle. And the fact that we were able even to finish the film is a miracle, and it’s a testament to my Amy Scholder, our producer and Sam Feder. They really were relentless in the vision and uncompromising, and we asked so many people for money and they applied for so many grants, like it’s the grants, and the investment and it’s really incredible. We had fundraisers and… oh, girl. [laughter]
BB: And it’s here.
LC: It’s here.
BB: Okay, so there’s there are a collection of quotes from the film that I want to read to you and talk about, because I’m thinking a lot about Riah Milton, Rem’Mie Fells. Two black trans women who were killed in the last week. I’m thinking about the data from Human Rights Campaign that in 2020, 14 transgender or gender nonconforming people have been fatally shot or killed by other types of violence. And we think the number is much greater because of the misreporting and the mishandling of these cases. There’s a paradox in these statements that I want to get into with you, because this is… I have read public health officials saying the killing of transgender women, specifically transgender women of color, is an epidemic.
BB: And here’s what’s interesting. You say in Disclosure, unprecedented trans visibility, “This is a time in our history where just the visibility for trans women is just incredible. But at the very same time, trans women are being killed at this alarming rate.” Another person in the film says, “The paradox of our representation is this: the more that we are seen, the more that we are violated.” And then last, and this is the one that just… They all break my heart, but this one just kind of broke my heart and took my breath away at the same time: “The more positive the representation that we have in the world today, in film and in art and books and literature, the more positive the representation, the more confident our community becomes. And the more confident our community becomes, the more danger that we’re in.”
LC: That is what… Sam in 2014, and the way he tells it, when I was on the cover of Time magazine with the headline “The Transgender Tipping Point”, and he said, “Oh, something’s going on here. Like, we’ve never seen this before.” And what Sam knows about whenever a marginalized community comes to the mainstream, there’s usually backlash. And he wanted to understand how we got here to that point that we were six years ago and how we got to where we are now. And that really is that that is the paradox. That is the thing that we’re sort of simultaneously holding, that we are more visible than we’ve ever been. We are represented in more affirming ways than we ever have been before in the media. But there is indeed an epidemic of murder, of violence.
LC: And I think, too, it’s important too, that this thought has also been legislative. In the past, I would say, past since 2016 so the past four years, there have probably been at least five hundred pieces of legislation introduced in state legislatures all over the country, criminalizing trans people going to the bathroom, criminalizing trans kids playing on sports teams that are consistent with how they identify, adoption for trans folks. All these different laws and different state legislatures basically trying to criminalize trans identity, trying to sort of say that we we don’t exist, that sex, I mean, on the federal level, so much of the effort on a policy level has been about this thing of biological sex and sex is what is assigned to you at birth and they’re immutable qualities based on chromosomes. There was this leaked memo a few years ago from the Department of Health and Human Services.
LC: They were trying to redefine sex and basically define transgender people out of any kind of legal protection. And so we see the assault happening and the violence against trans people on the streets. But we’re also seeing it on a legislative level. And that’s why the Supreme Court decision today is huge in the face of all of these many, many years. It’s so complicated because I think there’s some purists who just don’t want trans people to exist. I mean, I think it comes down to over and over again and it seems overly simplistic, but when you have laws that basically say that biological sex is this, and gender identity is not a protected class and sort of suggesting that trans people are mentally ill, it’s like we don’t want you to exist.
LC: And the legislative assault, the physical assault and the violence, it’s all about like erasing us. Literally, there’s a few years ago a campaign started on the Internet, #Wewon’tbeerased. And in the face of all of this, this Supreme Court decision today does not bring back Dominique Fells, does not bring back Riah Milton, does not bring back Tony McDade, the trans man who was murdered by police in Tallahassee, Florida, does not bring back Layleen Polanco, who died in police custody a year ago at Rikers Island, it doesn’t bring back all the trans people. Just the list is long. It’s very, very long.
LC: But the work, the work, I think that… Yes, we need public policies in place, and this is very much related to Black Lives Matter, the police need to be defunded or at least their resources need to be reallocated. There need to be policies in place. But we’ve had a Civil Rights Act since 1964 and racism still exists. So the work, the deep, deep work, is each and every one of us interrogating the ways in which we’ve internalized white supremacy, the ways in which we’ve internalized transphobia and sexism and misogyny, and how we may perpetuate that.
LC: And I believe that, because I know in my own experience, I’m a black transgender woman from Mobile, Alabama, who grew up internalizing so much racism about myself as a black person, so much racism about other black people because of the culture that I live in, because of what I saw in the media; stereotypes and racist ideas that I had to then unlearn, I had to de-colonize my mind. If it is possible for me as a black person to internalize all these racist white supremacist ideas about myself and other black people, isn’t it possible for somebody who is not black to do the same thing?
LC: I believe we’re all racist. I believe we all are racist in that we all have been acculturated in what bell hooks calls Imperialist White Supremacist, Capitalist Patriarchy. I add to that Sis-normative, Hetero-normative; we all have grown up in this culture with films for 100 plus years that have reinforced stereotypes and implicit biases that we don’t even know we have, and the work of coming to critical consciousness. My hope is that Disclosure will help those come to critical consciousness around all these issues, and then we have to continue to come to critical, critical consciousness around race too. That we’re still not there with race, and race is so deeply embedded in so much of the myth of America.
LC: The work though has to be each and every one of us doing this internal work and holding ourselves accountable, and one of the things… I love many things about your work, but you talk about it and the way you talk about accountability requiring vulnerability is so… We as a culture don’t know how to be accountable. There’s so much blame, there’s so much like, “Look over there, this person did this, that person did that, and there is such an inability that I see of people to really be able to sit with themselves and say, “What is my part in this? What is my part?”
LC: And I think that is the work that we have been unable to do as a country and obviously that is just a part of the equation, because we have to ask ourselves is then we have to treat each other better interpersonally, then we have to change ideology, then we have to change institutions, and these things can happen simultaneously, but the work of being personally accountable, we don’t know how to be structurally accountable either as a country. My friend Dee, Dee TrannyBear, who does my hair sometimes, we were doing that show, Who Do You Think You Are? Which is a show where they look into your ancestry, and we were in Alabama, my home state, and we were driving, I think from Montgomery to Selma, and we were driving through cotton fields, and Dee, he was born in Germany, and he was like “What is this?”
LC: We were driving through these fields of cotton in Alabama and it’s just so triggering and my makeup artist Deja, she’s a black woman, we were all… It was deep, and he just doesn’t understand as someone from Germany, how that we have not as a country fully acknowledged the legacy of slavery, said this happened, and these are the things we’re gonna do to make sure that we never forget. The way in Germany, they’ve been very intentional with saying, “This Holocaust is a stain on our history, and we need to make sure that we don’t forget and that we don’t repeat the mistakes of this.”
LC: He was just so shocked that there has not been that in the United States, and there hasn’t been, and so this is the thing that we’re reckoning with. I’m switching back and forth between race and trans. But it’s intersectional and it’s all connected and I’m black and I’m trans. So the accountability piece, I don’t know what your thoughts on that are, but my sensibility, just looking around is we don’t know how to be accountable, and I don’t know if you think that’s a vulnerability deficit, scarcity, just fight, flight, or freeze – what the f is going on?
BB: First of all, there’s no one that could give an answer as eloquent as what you just gave, and I don’t think… I think it goes back to, if you don’t own the story, you can’t write the ending. And if you don’t own a story, the story owns you. And right now, the story of systemic white supremacy and racism owns us, it owns us as a country, like it owns all of us.
LC: Can I put that, I feel like Oprah right now, because that’s the tweet-able moment. That’s a tweet tweet. [laughter] I’m having a Super Soul Sunday moment, but that’s a tweet tweet because I’ve heard you say this before, but if you apply that in the context of our history as Americans around race. Can you say that one more time? Because I just wanna… Either you own the story or the story defines you and when you own this where you can write this brave new ending and that in relationship to… Oh, that’s deep. That’s real deep.
BB: But I think it’s true for race, I think it’s true for misogyny, I think it’s true for transphobia, I think we’re… And that’s why I’m like, “Dammit, I wish I was teaching right now so I could gather a group of people to watch Disclosure.” Because what Disclosure is to me, is laying out the story so it can be owned. It’s laying out the story so it can be owned, so that we can write a different ending, a brave new ending. I gotta ask this question though because this is… Everyone involved with this film is trans, which I think is its beauty and power. The story I make up, is it had to be painful to go back and watch some of those depictions of how trans people have been depicted. To be honest with you, when I think about my own experience coming into awareness, I think about Silence of the Lambs, I think about The Crying Game, I think about that story where the Two Bosom Buddies?
LC: Oh my God, Bosom Buddies, yes, with Tom Hanks and whoever the other guy is.
BB: Yeah. Yeah. Which is not a story of trans, but that’s the only visual. That’s the visual. So is it a mixture of catharsis and pain to go back and see that history? What was that experience like for you?
LC: Pain is a good word, especially preparing to be interviewed for it and re-watching a lot of things, and there’s a moment when I’m talking about Nip/Tuck and just recounting the story line.
LC: One of many trans story lines actually on that show, that were problematic and just saying it, I was talking to my brother on the phone about it the other day, and just saying it is so… Just saying what happened is, there just aren’t even… There aren’t really words to describe the feeling of watching and then recounting some of the representations that exist in the history of how trans folks have been represented on screen. It’s deeply painful at times but I think… What Sam, our director does a really great job of and our contributors, everyone who appears on screen does, is mixing humor with it. Though sometimes the ways in which these representations are so ridiculous, you have to laugh, and then other times it’s just deeply disturbing, and so there’s a mix of that. And I think you have to find ways to laugh, you have to or just, it will take you down.
BB: And I think maybe that’s the beauty of the psychological safety of a film where everyone involved is trans because you can have, like we call it in our research, knowing laughter.
BB: And knowing laughter is usually reserved for people inside the pain and trauma, that we can laugh, that we thought at one time it was just us. I was alone and so that’s… Sometimes I think laughter forces us to breathe in times where we just can’t find our breath, right? It’s…
LC: Yeah. It’s a release. It’s a somatic [chuckle] my therapist is into somatic…
LC: A breath can be a release, a smile, but a laugh is a release and if we can sense into the laugh somatically, we can begin to reset our nervous systems, which is so crucial. For me, at every moment.
BB: It’s so crucial.
BB: So, I read this interview, and this is a tough question. I’m telling you, I think this is a tough question. Okay.
LC: I like tough questions.
BB: I know you do, because you always have tough answers, you’re not afraid of a tough answer, Laverne. So, in an interview that Sam Feder did, the journalist, journalist David Reddish asked Sam if the root of transphobia is both homophobia and sexism, and Sam says, “Absolutely, but it’s more sexism than homophobia.” So, the journalist probes and says, “Why do you say that about sexism?” And Sam says, “There’s nothing worse in the world than being a girl.” And so I make up that very few people… You’ve been talking about intersectionality, which is the intersection of oppressed identities. I make up that very few people understand the role of misogyny and transphobia. First of all, do you agree that misogyny plays a role and… What the hell?
LC: So, Julia Serano in her brilliant book, her iconic book, Whipping Girl coins the term trans-misogyny and it’s quite simply the intersection of transphobia and misogyny, its specifically directed at trans women, and she looks at it within a legacy of feminist theory and trans-misogyny is reserved specifically for… That term is reserved specifically for trans women and making sort of very misogynist assumptions that also intersect with transphobic assumptions about trans women. And so, I think Sam… I would have to ask Sam this, but I think his statement about it being more about misogyny comes from the… It’s about his imagining of the patriarchal imagination, right? So, when he says, “There’s nothing worse than being a girl,” that’s in the patriarchal imagination.
BB: Right, right. Of course, Yeah.
LC: And so then, something I’ve been saying for years is that in that imaginary, that the homophobia and transphobia have been sort of linked because in that imagination, a man becomes less of a man if he dons a dress or if he has sex with another man. And so those two things are linked in that patriarchal imagination even though sexual orientation and gender identity are completely different things, and so then… The ways… It’s… because it’s interesting thinking about misogyny in relationship to the ways in which trans men are erased in media, right? That there’s… You have to really look to find trans men represented in media. They’re underrepresented.
BB: But why is that? That’s true. Why is that? You really have to… It’s hard.
LC: It’s something we explore in the film, and I think one of the things that Jen Richards says is that, “Womanhood, and particularly, certain kinds of femininity, are more easily commodified in consumer capitalism.” So, there’s an intersection of consumer capitalism and the ways in which bodies can be objectified and consumed, and womanhood is something that is always sort of more visible and manhood is something that is invisible. That privilege is something that is that you become invisible and sort of blend in, whiteness is this thing that becomes invisible, but you become visible when you are more marginalized, when you are person of color, when you’re woman and so it’s related to capitalism. And I think, again, all these things intersect, but I think the misogyny piece is… It’s really deep because I can’t help but think about the history of tension between what folks called trans exclusionary radical feminist, TERF, some people think that’s a problematic term or an offensive term, but I think about that legacy…
BB: Say it again, say what that means again. Break it down for me.
LC: Trans exclusionary radical feminists or TERFs, for short, women who identify as feminist, really Janice Raymond’s book, The Transsexual Empire is sort of the quintessential TERF book that basically suggest that trans women are appropriating women’s bodies and that we are always and only the gender we were assigned at birth. And we’re basically like the erroneous argument which I hate to repeat is that we use our male privilege to appropriate women’s bodies and experiences. And that we… Because we were raised male, and every trans person is obviously not raised male. [laughter] But that… The argument is that we are always and only privileged and always and only male. But most arguments against the existence of trans people purport that we are always and only the gender we were assigned at birth. That is the crux of transphobia, really.
BB: I wanna slow down right here because this is like… This is everywhere right now. A lot of it sparked by a Twitter tirade kind of from J. K. Rowling and then a doubling down on her beliefs about this. I wanna stop you here and just go into slow motion for a minute because I’m gonna be honest with you. And you and I’ve had a lot of hard conversations, and smart conversations, and I fancy myself a pretty smart person. I don’t get it. And so what I don’t get, if you can help me, is to me, trans women are women. Trans men are men. How is my identity as a woman… I identify as a woman. How is my identity as a woman threatened or lessened by your identity as a woman? Like I’m not tracking here. Like in this…
LC: I think that’s the question. I think that’s the question, and I think what… I don’t think it is. I don’t personally think it is, and I think a few things are going on. I think there’s the divide and conquer strategy of how power works. Power tends to pit marginalized groups against each other, so we pit women’s rights against trans rights. We saw that actually at the Supreme Court when I was at oral arguments for the Supreme Court Title VII case last year. A question came up of, what about the safety of women in locker rooms and bathrooms. If someone who has… And Sotomayor said this, this is on the records. She said “If someone who has male characteristics comes in, how… What about the safety of women?” And if somebody’s just using the bathroom, I don’t know what the issue is. [laughter] So the question of safety. Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival was a music festival that existed for maybe 20 years, and they’d excluded trans women from going there. But they allow trans men to go there, and their contention was that anyone assigned male at birth had male privilege and then you search and use that male privilege to take up too much space and make cisgender women feel unsafe.
LC: And what I’d say to that is, “If you are uncomfortable with me being in the bathroom with you, there is a difference between discomfort and not being safe.” And I think that is the… I believe this is a really important point because I think a lot of… Particularly with trans debates, but I think with a lot of debates around immigration, around race, that people are just not comfortable because of… I think because of implicit bias that they haven’t fully interrogated.
LC: And so then if I… Years ago I was working in a restaurant in Union Square and I was in the women’s room. And this woman sort of called me out and said I shouldn’t be there and she was uncomfortable. But I was just using the… I was washing my hands, I was not… If you are uncomfortable, and I think in the segregated south, white folks were uncomfortable with black people being in the bathroom with them. Them being uncomfortable with black people in the bathroom did not necessarily mean that they were unsafe. And so I think that is the piece that, for me and my own trauma resilience work, because I have a lot of trauma in my past, I have had to do a lot of work of parsing out. I don’t feel safe a lot, and so a lot of my trauma resilience work, it’s like, is me not feeling safe about some trigger in my past or is it about what’s really going on right now? And so I think all of the folks who are suggesting that trans women are usurping womanhood or making women unsafe, that needs to be interrogated in terms of like, maybe it makes you uncomfortable, but it actually… Me, just living my life shouldn’t… It actually doesn’t make you unsafe. So I think that’s the work that needs to be done. Does that make sense? Is that clear?
BB: Oh my god. Yes, because I’m thinking about talking to Ibram Kendi a couple of weeks ago, where he said, “There’s a difference between fear and danger.” What makes you afraid is not necessarily dangerous, what makes you uncomfortable is not necessarily unsafe. And it’s like, I am really… I’m just trying to understand… I think you taught me this. I was getting ready to say it like it was my own, but I’m pretty sure you taught me this. If you don’t let trans people use the bathroom, you’re basically are saying they can’t leave their homes. Do you know what I mean? It is… I go back to the paradox that I heard in Disclosure. The more confident we become, the more positive the representation, the more danger we’re in. And the more visible you become, the more positive, the more violent and negative the erasing efforts. At some point, it’s like there’s so much, Laverne in the… And this is one of the things I enjoy doing with you more than anything is getting into these great debates about these things. But I wonder at some point… We have a mutual friend, Murdoch, who always says, “We can’t stop fighting until no one on the playground is getting the shit beat out of them.” And I think about, in Disclosure, the trans historian Susan Stryker saying, “Why have trans rights become front and center in the culture wars?” Where are the people saying, “You know what, you can’t beat the shit out of anybody anymore, including our trans friends.”
LC: Those people are there. Those people are out there, and there are brilliant allies, and even having this conversation is creating… You are that and you’re creating more allyship in this process.
LC: A lot of this is unfortunately about political expediency, I think when marriage equality became the law of the land five years ago, that was an issue that was used to divide people to turn out a certain kind of vote. We saw that in the 2004 election very, very strongly. Karl Rove, that was his strategy, this very winning strategy to get George W. Bush re-elected. So I think those groups were looking for someone else, and trans people seemed a good target. So a lot of this is about that. A lot of this is about sort of ginning up people’s fears of the unknown, ginning up people’s fears of, I don’t know, just fears and using that and…
BB: Just fear.
LC: Yeah, just fear, to turn out a certain kind of elector to win elections. A lot of it’s about that, and then some of it is just… I think a lot of it is again about if I am uncomfortable, where is the self-reflection? Where is my part in this? If this person is just trying to get from point A to point B and not bothering anybody, what is my part in this? And I think over and over and over again, their efforts to dehumanize trans people, and my contention for many, many years is when we focus on transition surgery and body parts for trans people, even if we have humanizing conversations, that becomes the takeaway for most audiences, and then we’re objectified, and when we’re objectified, we’re dehumanized, and then we can just take rights away and whatever. And I think we’re in an interesting place now with the debate around trans people and sports teams. And this has been something that’s difficult for me to talk about because when we talk about performance and sports and whether who has an advantage or doesn’t have an advantage, we’re talking about physicality, we’re talking about hormone levels, we are…
BB: Yeah, speed, strength, yeah.
LC: Objectifying conversation. it’s a conversation that reduces people to bodies and performance and body parts sometimes and testosterone levels, and that is a very deeply dehumanizing conversation. In Idaho, the day before Trans Day of Visibility, which I guess that would have been April 30th, they passed into law in the middle of a pandemic, a law that would ban trans kids from competing on… Particularly trans girls, from competing on sports teams that are consistent with how they identify. And they were able to win that argument, objectifying trans bodies, and then pitting the safety of young girls and the ability of young girls to be able to compete in sports, against the rights of trans people. And this is why when people ask me about JK Rowling and I don’t really wanna talk about her, because I don’t ever wanna be pitted against another woman, or against anyone. I don’t feud with people, I don’t engage in that, but I think the conversation about pitting marginalized people against each other is what we’re seeing there, and it’s so crucially important because that could be a winning strategy if we allow it to be. It could be a way to deny young kids… I never wanted to play sports, that wasn’t my thing. But for the kids who do wanna play sports…
LC: For a trans, the team… I mean the people I know who have played on sports as kids, teamwork and friendships and just the physicality of it was transformative for them. And trans people shouldn’t be denied that right just because they’re trans. And here we are. So it’s we’re… [laughter] It’s a really interesting time, and I think the other piece is that many trans people have always existed, but we lived in the shadows for so long, as we come forward and say, “We have a right to be here.” That means that the culture, this culture that’s been very binary for a very long time has to grapple with the reality of gender not being binary. It just isn’t. I mean I’m a trans woman, I identify as a woman, so that is a binary distance, but non-binary people are real, and they exist, and we have to contend with that as a culture because these people are here and they shouldn’t be relegated to the shadows anymore. No one should be. Everyone deserves to live in the light. And so this is the issue, really, with trans folks right now. It’s that we have to grapple with the existence of people that we have discounted, discarded, for hundreds of years.
BB: And it’s gonna take… I mean it is really gonna take the personal interrogation and self-work, the policy work, it’s gonna take it all. And you, you’re changing the world. You’re changing us. I think Disclosure is going to matter so much, and I think the fact that it’s coming out this week with this Supreme Court ruling…
LC: Interesting timing.
BB: It’s amazing timing. It’s coming just as there has been… I just wanna make sure we talk about this because this is hugely important. I’ve seen last week, the Trump administration announced The Department of Health and Human Services is going to enforce sex discrimination protections according to the plain meaning of the word sex, which rewrites the Obama era regulation that included a person’s own sense of being male and female. Really incumbent upon physicians right now to declare safe spaces in their offices and their practices for trans people until this is overturned again.
LC: Well, the really cool thing about the Supreme Court decision today, based on my understanding, my friend Chase Strangio, who’s a lawyer who works with the ACLU, told me yesterday, is that because we now have a federal law, that the Supreme Court basically made today, stating that sex discrimination is indeed discrimination against someone for being trans or someone for being gay or lesbian. That rule that the Department of Health and Human Services announced on Friday, it’s now moot because we have a federal law…
BB: Is that true?
LC: That is my understanding, it could be challenged, but now we have… Because basically what. And that rule in Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act basically is the non-discrimination section, and it says that you can’t discriminate against someone on the basis of sex. And so now federal law has said that sex includes sexual orientation and gender identity. So then, because of the Supreme Court case today, what the Department of Health and Human Services announced on Friday, based on my understanding, what my friends at the ACLU tell me, is now moot. They can’t enforce that. And what Chance reminded me of yesterday is doctors can… Insurance companies can choose not to discriminate. We can make that choice. This administration really wants people to discriminate against trans folks, and there are localities and there are different states that have already had protections in place for trans folks, for gay and lesbian, and bisexual folks.
LC: So there’s been a patchwork of non-discrimination protections, depending on where you live. For the first time in the history of this country, we have federal non-discrimination protections for trans people, and for gay and lesbian folks, and unemployment, which should extend to public accommodations, healthcare, etcetera, it should. And this is a huge, huge decision today, and it can’t be underestimated. And I think… And the piece of what this administration has been doing, a similar thing was argued at the Supreme Court that sex is this… Can I tell you? I had never been in Supreme Court before. It was really quite an honor to be there. It was super emotional on October 8th last year. But the opponents of civil rights, [chuckle] the folks who argued against Aimee Stephens, Mr. Bostock and Mr. Zarda’s case, their arguments were really flimsy. They were these sorts of outlandish kind of scare tactic that folks have been using to scare people about trans folks that really had no legal merit at all. It felt like they were like, “Oh, we have a conservative majority. We can go to the Supreme Court with some really flimsy arguments and win.”
BB: We can come half-ass prepared, yeah.
LC: It was really half-ass, in my opinion, I’m not a lawyer. But we won, and that feels really, really good. Obviously, it’s only one part of the equation. Laws had been in place for a long time. Banning murder, banning discrimination.
LC: And people still do those things. So again, it’s a work to change people’s hearts and minds, and folks to really do the work to be vulnerable and to be more loving, and to think critically. I think we have a whole propaganda system in place that is Fox News, that is… And honestly, I was on MSNBC earlier. We have to really think critically. We really do. We really have to get some… A lot of what we’re getting in most of our media is so skewed, and so biased, and so sorted, and tribalized. And everybody needs to be able to think critically, and hopefully, from a place of love. I think there’s so much fear, there’s so much scarcity, there’s so much… My therapist would say we our collective resilience zone, it’s been really narrowed. And I think a lot of us are just in this, we’re deeply traumatized by so many things going on, like record unemployment, a global pandemic, just literally seeing black people murdered on camera.
BB: Violence. Yep.
LC: The collective trauma of all this, we’re still in the collective. And Tarana Burke said we’re collectively traumatized in the reckoning around Me Too. There’s trauma, on top of trauma, on top of trauma; jobs have been shipped overseas. People are going through it and don’t have any tools to deal with trauma. The collective trauma that we are going through as a nation, and so we are in the trauma, we are in fight, flight, or freeze. So we’re blaming, as you would say. We move away, move towards, or move against, this is how shame works. That is what we are doing. That is what we’re doing in this moment. And so then how do we… Everybody, I don’t care, Republican, Democrat, Independent. How do we get to this space of moving away from the fight, flight, or freeze. Moving into this re-centered nervous system collectively, so that we can then look at each other and say, “Let’s work together.”
LC: And people in power, Unfortunately, want us to be here. They want us in scarcity, they want us in fight, flight, or freeze, fighting each other, fleeing, and just in… They want us here so that they can maintain control, maintain power, corporations, big money, it comes down to so much of that. But I believe in people, I really do. I believe in love. And I believe if we can… You say love is the most, and I believe you, joy is the most difficult emotion to feel. And I think joy for me is tied to love. And to really drop in to loving ourselves and loving each other, I think, is the work. Cornel West says justice is what love looks like in public, and what tenderness feels like in private. And where is the love? Where is the love?
BB: I think we end there with that question. Where is the love? You are all of those things, Miss Laverne. Okay, so can we do a rapid fire 10 questions?
LC: Of course.
BB: You ready? Fill in the blank. Vulnerability is…
LC: Risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure. My Brené Brown definition.
BB: I was like, “What?” [chuckle] Okay. I can tell y’all, I’ve done talks with her in public where she’s like, “Remember when you write this?” and I have no memory of it, and she can quote me. It’s the scariest. Okay, number two. You’re called to be brave, but your fear is real and you can feel it, it’s caught right in your throat. What’s the very first thing you do when you’re called to be brave?
LC: My prayer is, God, give me permission to do this imperfectly and allow me to be of service. And I take a deep breath and I go.
BB: Oh, God. Okay, it’s beautiful. Something people often get wrong about you?
LC: What other people say about me is none of my business.
BB: [laughter] I can’t high five her because we’re on Zoom but I’m doing it here. Okay. Last show that you binged and loved?
LC: Oh my gosh, what was the last one? The Good Fight on CBS All Access.
BB: Oh Jesus, I’m obsessed. Okay, that’s so good.
LC: So good.
BB: One of your favorite movies?
LC: Dangerous Liaisons [laughter] from the 1980s with John Malkovich and Glenn Close.
BB: Oh my god.
LC: “Vanity and happiness are not compatible.”. One of my favorite lines from the movie, Dangerous Liaisons.
BB: That movie is so intense, okay. A concert you’ll never forget?
LC: Beyoncé, everything… Beychella, the homecoming Coachella concert, Beyoncé at Coachella. It was like molecule shifting, everything like, oh my god. Yeah, religion. It was like a religious experience. I was like converted into the church of Beyoncé. [laughter] I was already there, but I was reconverted. [laughter]
BB: Yeah, how could you not be. Okay, favorite meal?
LC: What I still eat or what I would like to eat but don’t eat anymore? [laughter]
BB: This can include what you could… Anything you want.
LC: If I could still have it, it would be spicy tuna rolls with the rice, with… [laughter] With Ben and Jerry’s chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream for dessert. Sushi and ice cream, wow, that sounds whacky. It is what it is. [laughter]
BB: Sushi and ice cream. Sounds so good to me actually. What’s on your nightstand?
LC: Estrogen. [laughter]
BB: Okay. What else?
LC: Estrogen, my iPad… Yeah. [laughter]
BB: Perfect. A snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that brings you true joy.
LC: Me in the shower with Leontyne Price blaring on my little wireless speaker, [laughter] singing along. To probably Leontyne Price singing Damo suele from El tuba Torre like the Bell Telephone our performance that’s on YouTube from like 1963, I think. Epic, everything. [laughter]
BB: Epic. Okay, one last one. What’s something you’re deeply grateful for right now?
LC: Everything, everything. And when I say everything I mean every challenge that I’ve had recently and there’ve been many during this pandemic, I’m grateful that our movie is premiering in a few days, I’m grateful that I’m having this conversation with you, I’m grateful for all the things that I’ve gotten wrong and imperfect. I’m grateful for the pain, I’m grateful for the sort of devastation I’m still in a year after my breakup, my boyfriend broke up with me well my ex-boyfriend broke with me almost a year ago and I’m still devastated. I can’t believe I’m saying this publicly, still devastated, I’m grateful for it, though. I’m grateful because I’m leaning into it… And I said to myself, I’m still devastated a year later, and it’s because the love was so real, the love was transformative. I never thought I could be loved like that, I never thought I could love that way, and it changed me. And to just get over that in a few months or a year, actually doesn’t even make any sense that it took me 45 years to find that is it means it’s gonna take a minute. And that that vulnerability just leaning into the truth of that and acceptance of that. I’m so grateful that I’m still devastated because it means it meant something to me, it means that it changed me, and I don’t have to like… I’ve been wanting to just tell myself, “Get over it, get over it, move on, move on, move on.” And it just… Grief is grief and it takes however long it takes.
BB: We don’t get to call that shot do we? The grief call.
LC: Apparently not, or I would have been over a long time ago. [laughter]
BB: Yeah. Laverne, thank you so much for being on Unlocking Us and thank you for you… I’m always in awe of your intellect, your ability to connect conceptually complex ideas in ways that makes sense. But the thing that always kind of awes me the most about you is your centering and love. And I’m always so grateful for that every time I see you, every time I talk to you. Thanks for being so centered in love and being so consistent with that. It’s a rare and beautiful thing, like you.
LC: Thank you. Can I say to you thank you for the body of your work that has been so pivotal in my understanding of… I think I probably said this to you before, but I had done shame work before yours and I read brought back… I was just like, “What?” I knew that it was a thing for me but I did the thing when you… The TED Talk and then the books, it’s just so clear, it’s so clear what it is. And then it’s like, “Okay, I can address this.” And that changed that that changed my life. I know you’re hearing that it’s like a weird thing. But that is life changing and I think that… But the struggle to I think also what I appreciate, and you understand this because I’ve heard you say you did, I appreciate the struggle with all this stuff, that it’s gonna be imperfect, it’s gonna be messy and that we don’t have to be there yet, but it’s about the journey, and it’s about the process, it’s about not being there yet, and like but exposing the struggle to get there. So that allows me to breathe because I have so many moments of, “You Laverne Cox, you should be this and you’re shoulding, the shoulding, shoulding all over ourselves.” [laughter] The “should” is always a judgment, that “should” is always shame-based. So grateful for you, Dr. Brené Brown. [laughter]
BB: So grateful for you, Laverne Cox. And we’ll do… I’ll give everybody more information around how to see Disclosureon Netflix this Friday, June 19th, a documentary to change hearts, minds and policy.
BB: I’m ready.
LC: Oh, I like that.
LC: Thank you.
BB: Thank you, Laverne.
LC: Virtual hugs.
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