“I look back on where I’m from,
look at the woman I’ve become,
and the strangest things seem suddenly routine.”
So I went to see Laverne Cox the other night. She’s a trans activist and actress known for playing the role of the hairdresser on Orange Is the New Black.
I’ve watched most of the first season of Orange Is the New Black, and have mixed feelings about it. I mean, obviously it’s well-acted and well-written, but I can hardly ever tell what the hell is going on.
I have problems with my short-term memory, not to mention facial recognition, so you throw a whole bunch of similarly dressed women in their twenties and thirties on screen and I’m lost.
Laverne Cox plays one of the only characters I can consistently recognize, because she tends to be better dressed than everyone else. So when Hannah told me she’d gotten tickets for us to hear Cox speak, I was quite pleased.
I’ve been interested in trans issues for the last few years; there’s something about the full-throttled transformation that appeals to me, as well as the blurring between genders, and the idea of a person fully becoming what they were always meant to be.
I wasn’t sure why these ideas appealed to me so much until I went to see Cox.
Most of the time with activism I find that intersectionality is either politely acknowledged or pushed aside. But Cox’s life has been defined by intersectionality: she grew up poor and black, and suffered from frequent homophobic attacks. Later on, when Cox realized she was a woman, she became marginalized on that basis, and also suffered from transphobic attacks.
So during her performance she enthusiastically discussed intersectionality in a way that allowed me to see how much the disabled community has in common with the trans community.
Cox explained how trans people broke the rules. Gender is constructed a certain way, according to a binary system. If you’re born with a penis, you’re male, and if you’re born with a vagina, you’re female. Males make the rules and are granted certain privileges. And that’s how it is.
Trans people defy this just through existing, and a lot of cisgendered people feel threatened by this. And make no mistake, transgendered identity is a threat to the norm. It means that people can gain privilege they weren’t born with, or surrender the privilege they once had. It means that people’s sexualities can change, which again upsets the balance of power in society.
Disability also upsets that balance. Like trans identity, we require that people adopt new attitudes and gain new ways of thinking about very old concepts. Both disabled people and trans people require that society change its fundamental state of matter from solid to liquid.
We are dangerous, and we are necessary.
One of the things that Cox spoke about was the idea of guilt and shame. She defined the two.
“Guilt is when you do something bad,” she said. “Shame is feeling that you are something bad.”
For so much of her life, she has felt ashamed. Me, too. Most of the disabled people I know, as well as the queer people I know, have spent a disproportionate amount of time feeling ashamed.
And you know what the fucked up thing is? Most people, I think, feel like they’re something bad at one point or another. Most people don’t feel normal. A lot of people would identify as freaks, even if they’re cisgendered or non-disabled.
This is why you need us.
By allowing us into your society, and making room for us, you’ll make room for yourselves as well. We can all be shameless.
Here’s why I’m fascinated with trans people and their journeys: I’m jealous.
Their lives and identities are convoluted and fraught with peril. They are much more likely to be murdered or commit suicide than pretty much anyone else. But their goals are concrete. At the end of the road, if they get there, they’ll look like the man or woman they know themselves to be. Or they’ll look like the truest combination thereof, or they’ll simply look like themselves.
What the hell am I supposed to look like? What am I working toward? The identities of autistic people are fundamentally compromised in this society, and I don’t even know if it’s possible for us to live here as ourselves in our purest and freest state.
What’s the autistic equivalent of Laverne Cox onstage with her perfect hair and beautiful gown, or the equivalent of Hedwig Robinson, damaged but free, or Kate Bornstein, who got to the promised land and decided to keep going?
What does it mean to live shamelessly with autism?