Speaking in a throaty voice that ranged from a soft purr to an impassioned plea for justice and inclusion, transgender actress Laverne Cox captivated a capacity crowd at the University of Kentucky's Memorial Hall.
The opening moments of her hourlong speech Tuesday night reflected the breadth of Cox's talk.
Wearing a form-fitting pink, sleeveless dress and high but not extravagant black heels, Cox ran her hands down her long, straight, honey-colored hair Tuesday night after entering to a standing ovation. She exclaimed, "Oh, I just noticed the chandeliers. They are beautiful."
"You are beautiful!" came a shout from the crowd.
"Oh, thank you," Cox said with a smile and a shrug. "I just woke up like this."
"Ain't I a Woman" was the theme of the speech, sponsored by the UK Student Activities Board. The playful tone of her entrance shifted as Cox began the narrative of her difficult journey to make what she knew instinctively as a child a reality that others could see.
Referencing literature, feminists scholars, the 1980s television drama Fame and New York's club-kid culture, Cox told of the dramatic arc of growing up poor and different to becoming a transgender actress and a star of the Netflix prison dramedy Orange Is the New Black.
"I am a person of color, working-class, born to a single mother, but I stand before you tonight an artist, an actress and a sister and a daughter, and I believe that it is important to name the multiple parts of my identity because I am not just one thing, and neither are you," Cox said in the careful enunciation she said she learned as a child, making speeches in church.
Cox pointed out the high rates of bullying, suicide and murder for transgender women, especially women of color, and she said she had her share of struggles.
Born in Mobile, Ala., and raised with her twin brother, M. Lamar, she said she was bullied from the time she started kindergarten — taunted for being different and called names she didn't even understand the meaning of.
"I was called the F-word, which is a synonym for 'sissy' which I don't say," she said. "Basically I was bullied every single day, chased home from school by kids who wanted to beat me up.
"When my mother would find out, she would say, 'What are you doing to make the kids treat you that way? Why aren't you fighting back?'"
When Cox was in third grade, her theatrical use in class of a Scarlett O'Hara-type fan that she bought on a field trip prompted a teacher to call her mother. "Mrs. Ridgeway called my mother and said, 'Your son is going to end up in New Orleans wearing a dress if we don't get him into therapy now.'"
Cox said that throughout her young life, she felt she was a girl although she was living as a boy.
Even her mother, she said, shamed her by enforcing gender stereotypes, saying, "Ballet is only for girls."
The idea that she would end up in New Orleans wearing a dress stuck with her for a long time as about the worst thing that could happen.
In sixth grade, in part because of the pressures of puberty and her growing attraction to boys, she downed a bottle of pills, hoping to go to sleep and not wake up.
The next day came and she decided to push all her troubles deep inside and focus on being the best at everything she took on.
She and her twin were accepted into a performing-arts school, and later she moved to New York and attended Marymount Manhattan College. But her real education was in the clubs, she said.
It was there, she said, that she came to know a group of transgender women, including one named Tina Sparkle, known for her flowing Diana Ross-like hair. Sparkle inspired Cox to begin her own personal transformation.
It hasn't been easy, she said. The physical and emotional challenges have been difficult. But since she began her transition 16 years ago, she feels increasingly comfortable with the person she is.
She urged the Lexington audience to think beyond the "binary gender structure" that leaves room for only girls and boys.
"The reality of so many people's lives and their experience is that they don't fit that binary model," she said.
Cox, who had a penchant for following her own comedic asides with a short burst of giggles, said proudly that she visited New Orleans for the first time last week.
She spoke to students at Tulane University.
She wore a green dress.