Emmy-nominated actress, equal rights activist Laverne Cox speaks at UC Berkeley

Karin Goh/Senior Staff

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During her first therapy session, Laverne Cox was asked about the difference between a boy and a girl.

“There is no difference,” the then-third-grader replied.

Cox, an Emmy-nominated actress and equal rights activist widely recognized for her role on the Netflix original series ”Orange Is the New Black,” visited UC Berkeley on Wednesday evening as the inaugural speaker in the Campus Climate Speaker Series. Sponsored by the campus’s Division of Equity and Inclusion, this collaborative series seeks to invite speakers from marginalized communities represented on campus.

Her lecture, titled “Ain’t I a Woman?” — paying tribute to a speech of the same title by abolitionist Sojourner Truth — focused on her experiences as a transgender underrepresented minority and pressing issues the transgender community faces.

Cox recalled this therapy session, which was spurred by a moment in the third grade when she had been fanning herself with a “fabulous” peacock fan, emulating Scarlett O’Hara from ”Gone With the Wind.” Cox’s teacher had called her mother after class, warning her to take her son to therapy immediately or the young Cox would end up “in New Orleans wearing a dress.”

It took Cox years to fully accept her identity as a woman — in her address, she recounted intense bullying and a suicide attempt during early adolescence. Now, Cox hopes to advocate transgender rights and “create spaces of gender self-determination for all of our youth.”

“All the things that make me uniquely and beautifully trans, I celebrate today,” Cox said during her lecture. “I’m not beautiful despite those things — I’m beautiful because of those things.”

Oakland resident Evie Ortiz commended the campus for making the event public and free, giving community members greater access to “these necessary conversations.”

“She conveys so much power,” said campus freshman Gino Gresh. “She is part of creating this warm, welcoming environment and a safe space where there’s no more hostility.”

In addition to featuring Cox’s lecture, the event served as the launch of the campus’s “Make the Most of Your Moment” campaign, which aims to promote an inclusive campus climate. According to Matthew Griffith, project manager for the Campus Climate Initiative, the campaign consists of the speaker series, social media projects, posters and other events.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Cox emphasized the importance of students’ roles in improving differences in equity and in “creating spaces where everyone’s lives matter.”

“College students are really at the forefront of this and need to take part in what will be a revolution,” she said. “It’s sad when people go to college and don’t have a better understanding of diversity, because this is the opportunity to expand those horizons — so take advantage of that.”

Ariel Hayat is the lead student government reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ArielHayat.