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Credit: Annie Luo

Television actress Laverne Cox talked about her experience as a transgender woman of color and her activism efforts Tuesday night in Irvine Auditorium.

At the event, which was hosted by the Social Planning and Events Committee, Cox also spoke about the trauma she has faced and her focus on mental wellness. The actress is best known for her role as Sophia Burset on the Netflix show "Orange is the New Black," and is the first transgender woman of color to have a leading role on a mainstream scripted television show. She was also the first openly transgender person nominated for a primetime Emmy award. The conversation was moderated by Tiffany Thompson, an associate director of Penn's LGBT Center. 

Cox spoke about media exposure and its positive and negative impacts on people's everyday lives — while her work has increased the visibility of transgender individuals, it has not fully erased stigmas.

“It’s complicated because, just because I am on the cover of a magazine does not mean the everyday lives of transgender people are not still in peril,” Cox said. "To really change the landscape, they can't just be included in the media but fully into society."

While Cox said many people view her as a trailblazer, she emphasized that she built on the success of other transgender actors who came before her, including Candis Cayne, the first openly transgender actor to have a recurring role on a prime time television show, and RuPaul, a popular drag queen and television personality.

Credit: Annie Luo

When she started her acting career, Cox believed that fame would alleviate the trauma she experienced as a transgender woman of color. She ultimately realized, however, that healing could only come within, which led her to focus more on her mental wellness. 

“Everyone has trauma," Cox said. "How do we care for ourselves, here at Penn?”

She emphasized the importance of self-care and said she works on her own mindset through somatic therapy, which focuses on relieving anxiety through different areas of the body.

“It is crucial because the pressure never goes away,” Cox said. “It is about how we handle what happens to us.”

Attendees agreed that Cox's message of self-care was important for Penn students to hear.

“I thought Laverne Cox coming to Penn and talking about mental health was crucial in showing that mental health can affect everyone,” Nursing senior Alyssa Vaccaro said. “It was so important to hear her talk about self care and the importance of being able to provide that for yourself.”

College sophomore Margarita Ortiz said she liked how Cox managed to talk about “hard hitting issues with a sense of comfort and eloquence.”

Credit: Annie Luo

“It was inspirational to hear such a successful woman discuss parts of her life that we could relate to,” Ortiz said. 

Cox is SPEC Connaissance's spring keynote speaker, a slot held in previous years by actor and comedian Alec Baldwin and comedian Hasan Minhaj. Cox has also previously spoken at Penn — in 2014, Cox was the keynote speaker for QPENN, the annual week-long celebration of LGBTQ culture on Penn’s campus.

Concluding her talk, Cox emphasized the dangers of division within the nation and the importance of inclusivity.

“In the world we live in now, disability is stigmatized, criminalized and targeted," Cox said. "There is a sense of divide in this country and as we go out into the world and we have conversations, we should try to encourage people to choose love and not fear.”

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