As part of the World Pride celebrations that are taking place in Toronto this year, TIFF and the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival are hosting the Bent Lens: Pride on Screen series. One of the many great offerings of this program was a live Q&A with Orange is the New Black star, trans advocate and TIME cover woman, Laverne Cox. The “In Conversation With...” event was held at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on July 25 and was hosted by none other than Wilson Cruz (GLAAD national spokesperson and loved by all 90s TV fans for his role as Rickie Vasquez on My So Called Life).
Here are 10 highlights from an event that was brimming with insight, laughs and “teachable moments.”
On how growing up in Mobile, Alabama has shaped who she is today:
“We were poor, raised by a single mother, I was bullied—that part was hard. Being poor was hard, being black in Alabama is deep. A lot of that was difficult,” she said. “The funny thing is, I always feel like I was in Mobile, but I was never of Mobile. I was always in my imagination.” Cox said she spent most of her childhood dancing and performing, and escaping through television. “I understand now that there was a lot of trauma and a lot of shame and that I did not have the tools to really deal with that,” she said. “I also disassociated. It was years later that I was able to, in therapy and safe spaces, actually feel the pain that I didn't have the facility to feel as a child. It was deeply, deeply painful. I still have tremendous amounts of trauma and PTSD around my childhood, where I don't often feel safe. That is a tricky thing to experience now that I'm kind of famous. People running up to me in the street are excited to see me, but I experience someone running up to me on the street as they're attacking me.”
Cox came out as gay in her junior year of high school. “For me, gay was like, I liked to wear makeup. I started wearing makeup in high school and I started wearing girls clothes, but not dresses and skirts because I had a whole thing about that.” This thing was caused by her third grade teacher, Ms. Ridgeway, who told her mother that her “son” was going to “end up in New Orleans wearing a dress” if she wasn't immediately put into therapy. “For me, what Ms. Ridgeway's prediction was about was me ending up as some sort of degenerate on the streets of New Orleans, homeless and in a dress. That's what I thought in my head. I was a kid. It was like the fear of God was put in me around wearing dresses.” So, instead, she turned to culottes, which kind of look like skirts but aren't. “I was really a big fan of culottes,” she said. “I needed to express my femininity. So in high school I became a frequent shopper at Salvation Army and Goodwill—I would call it my Salvation Army Couture, Salvation Armani, if you will.”
On accepting herself as a trans woman:
After a stint at Indiana University, where she was involved in the LGTB organization on campus and where she broadened her aesthetic choices, Cox transferred to Marymount Manhattan College to do her fine arts degree in dance. “When I moved to New York, I was very much in a gender non-conforming space. I had my shaved head and my lashes and my Salvation Army Couture and then it just sort of evolved and got more feminine. Really, getting to know trans people in the club scene in New York was pivotal for me because I had all these misconceptions about who trans people were—based on the media, based on Ms. Ridgeway's predictions. It wasn't until I actually got to know trans people as people that I was able to accept them and then accept myself.”