Let me clarify that question a little bit: I’m not talking about a COVID-19 mask. I’m talking about a figurative mask. Are you hiding who you are? Do you put on a face every time you walk out your door into the outside world, only to come home at the end of a long day, exhausted and empty?
The reality is there is still an overwhelming amount of pressure to conform to societal, gender, and racial stereotypes. If someone tries to break out of their bubble, then other people often shame them for not being like everyone else. If you belong to a minority, then you understand this more than I possibly could.
We are all destined for beautiful things, and we step into that destiny when we accept who we are.
My guest today on Episode 974 of The School of Greatness is someone who stepped boldly into her identity, owns her voice, and is using her influence for good. I talked about healing trauma, owning your truth, and being transgender in America with the wonderful actress and celebrity Laverne Cox!
Laverne needs no introduction, but I’ll give her one anyway.
Laverne Cox is a three-time Emmy Award-nominated actress, an Emmy-winning producer, and the executive producer of the new Netflix documentary, Disclosure, a film that examines how transgender people have been depicted in film and television over the past century.
With various ‘firsts’ in her already impressive career, Laverne Cox continues to make history in her career and significant strides in her activism. She is a pioneering transgender activist with a staggering list of achievements and acknowledgments, including being the first openly transgender person to grace the cover of Time magazine and the first to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy in an acting category. Laverne also debuted in the groundbreaking role of Sophia Burset, in the critically acclaimed Netflix original series “Orange is The New Black.” Laverne is the first trans woman of color to have a leading role on a mainstream scripted television show.
Laverne started her medical transition in 1998 at the age of 26. Along her journey, she encountered racism, classism, transphobia, misogyny — you name it. Her path to becoming the woman we know today was not easy.
“I didn’t have my first surgery until seven years after that. I couldn’t afford everything. Except for my hormone replacement therapy, every aspect of my transition I’ve paid for out of pocket. It’s amazing, but it means I was waiting tables and barely paying my rent in New York. It took a really long time to put that sort of money together.” – Laverne Cox
Throughout our conversation, Laverne shared stories from her life and moments of struggle that brought her to where she is today. We talked about her childhood in Alabama, learning to be comfortable in your own skin, vulnerability, and society’s definition of masculinity, and so much more.
Despite Laverne’s difficult start in life, she’s been able to move through the pain and trauma.
“I’ve had a lot of unfortunate things happen to me, but I don’t need to be defined by those things. I’m not in denial of them, but they don’t define me.” – Laverne Cox
This mindset resonated with me. As a man, I’ve denied my pain in the past, making it hard to release and move past it. I’ve lived behind these masks of masculinity that inflict pain on ourselves, on other people, and on the world. It wasn’t until I started to speak to my past sexual abuse that I was able to stop feeling anger and hurt.
Laverne sees so many men struggle with the way our society values and defines masculinity. Masculinity in our society has somehow become synonymous with being invulnerable. Especially in her dating life, Laverne meets many men who think if they date her, that means they’re gay.
“Men don’t want people to think they’re gay because usually people disavow the womanhood of trans women. They assume [the partners of trans women] must be gay because they don’t accept me as a woman. The man has to be comfortable with that. I think there’s also the piece of, even if he’s comfortable with himself, the potential loss of social privilege and power. One guy that I dated years ago, when we started dating, said he was cool. Then he got really weird. I found out years later he was in insurance and risk management. At his firm, people found out one of his coworkers was gay, and that man was ostracized. He was made fun of and harassed so badly that he ended up quitting. This man saw that while he’s starting to date me and that freaked him out. It freaked him out to such an extent that he needed to distance himself [from me].” – Laverne Cox
The way we define masculinity often feels like a trap. When I was a kid, I was pretty sensitive. My sisters would always call me the sensitive jock because I would go out and destroy people on the football field. Then I would go home and play guitar — I had this emotional side to me, and I remember being a very affectionate kid. I remember vividly so many teammates shoving me with anger in their eyes, saying, “Don’t be gay. Don’t be a little girl. Don’t be X, Y, and Z.” But, when kids get that message, they’re told they can’t be themselves. They grow up putting on a mask, a mask that can be hard to take off as you go through life.
So what’s the alternative to this type of harmful masculinity? Author Brene Brown’s work on shame comes up a lot in this episode, and I had the pleasure of interviewing her back on Episode 899. Laverne refers to Brown’s quote on fitting in: “The greatest barrier to belonging is fitting in.”
“Then when you try to fit in you shapeshift. You do everything you can to get other people to accept you. But that’s not authenticity. True belonging is when you show up and allow yourself to be seen. People like may be into that, or they may not be. It’s the scariest thing to do, but you get to belong to yourself. It’s definitely lonely. I don’t have like this big social circle. I like my alone time, to be honest. It’s way more beautiful to be able to be in the truth of who you are than to try to shape it. I’ve done this shape, shift, trust and believe. I’ve done the shape shapeshift. I just feel yucky afterwards. Why did I do that? Why do I even want these people in my life?” – Laverne Cox
I can totally relate to what she’s saying. Whether you’re man, woman, transgender, non-binary whatever — you’re a human being. Stepping into who you truly are is so difficult, especially if you have parents with a very traditional outlook on life. We come up with so many coping mechanisms to try to avoid being who we really are: we go on our phones, we drink, we do drugs, we hurt someone else. But who are we really hurting? Ourselves.
“Often we act as human beings in opposition to what we really need. That tension often expresses itself in addictive behavior and bullying, or deep and tragic character flaws. I was just thinking about that tension between the unfulfilled need and the public persona. Not allowing ourselves to be fully authentic, not allowing ourselves to be is a tragic flaw. You can’t be in the truth of who you are. It’s a constant tension, and unless you accept this, you can’t accept yourself.” – Laverne Cox
For me, it wasn’t until the moment that I shared being sexually abused for the first time in my life, 25 years of holding in that secret, when things started to shift. Seven years later after opening up, the healing is still a work in progress. This podcast is just one way that my life started to expand. Opportunities became more effortless and abundant. Laverne started to see a similar change when she stopped into who she was fully.
“When I [started] owning my transness, everything changed. That, and my work with Brad Calcaterra. He started this acting class 10 years ago, Act Out, for LGBTQ actors. We got to deal with all the specific blocks that we created in our instruments around being LGBTQ. That’s when I really started to own the trauma. It was another layer of healing: the trauma and the shame of my childhood and of my young adulthood. That was necessary for me to be able to step into my purpose.” – Laverne Cox
I think what Laverne says is so critical: it’s not until you step into yourself that you can find your purpose and your greatness. Owning yourself, believing in who you are, taking off your armor: it’s a difficult process, but one I know from experience is worth the struggle.
Laverne’s acting career helped her find her greater purpose. She talks about seeing transgender actress Candis Cayne on the show Dirty Sexy Money. Seeing Candis allowed Laverne to give herself permission to start marketing herself as a trans actor. And, in turn, that effort led her to the reality show I Want to Work For Diddy.
“I remember saying in my final interview to the executives, I don’t want to be exploited. I don’t want this to be a spectacle. I’m doing this because I want to make a statement and to generate some kind of acceptance. I was assured by the producers at that, that’s not what they want to do. It turned out really well, but the lesson, but long story short was that I learned to be of service.” – Laverne Cox
That caused a shift-change for Laverne. She found a life that brought her into alignment with herself and gave her a purpose.
“Owning my transness and then being of service were the two things that really shifted everything in my life. If you are lucky, you’re going to find something, a shift is going to happen, or you’re going to feel in alignment with an energy that’s bigger than you. That it’s going to be tied to purpose. It’s going to be tied to the reason you’re here. That is a beautiful thing. I think that is the thing that’s waiting for everybody.” – Laverne Cox
I’ll leave you with one last piece of wisdom from Laverne. I asked her what she would say to anyone who is confused, struggling, and trying to find their way – as a nonbinary, trans, or gay young person.
“The truth will set you free. The beautiful thing about 2020 is that we can go online. It’s not the same as having that friend in real life, but online there are support groups to show you that you’re not alone. I think one can feel alone when you’re going through it. Even in 2020, you can feel alone. There’s a local LGBTQ center in most major cities in the United States. Find a community. Find somebody who is like you or who can support you and accept you. Find somebody who can see you and love you.” – Laverne Cox
It was such an honor to speak with Laverne — our conversation was powerful, profound, and at times painful. I could have talked to her for hours, and I highly recommend setting aside the time to listen to the entirety of this episode.
Laverne’s definition of greatness is as powerful and graceful as the woman herself.
“Greatness is fulfilling your higher power or the universe’s plan for you — aligning what you do in the world with a bigger energy that is greater than you. Align with purpose. That is greatness.” – Laverne Cox
For more inspiration from Laverne, follow her on Instagram: @lavernecox. And definitely check out Disclosure, which is a truly incredible, impactful documentary about Hollywood and the trans community. Please find time to go watch it!