Friday, April 25, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Laverne Cox on transgender activism

In an awards season where a heterosexual man has been picking up prizes for portraying a transgendered woman in the movie Dallas Buyers Club, Laverne Cox is the real deal. A transgendered woman, she's best known for starring in the Netflix television series Orange is the New Black, playing a trans character in the series. Just as it helped Tanni Grey-Thompson, another of our Famous Speech Friday speakers, to see someone visible in public life who was disabled--not just an actor playing someone disabled--Cox is a powerful role model and an example of how many feel trans characters should be cast.

All that made her a popular choice for the opening keynote at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force conference, "Creating Change." But it was her content, inspiring and down-to-earth, that helped the speech get shared again and again in the days after it was posted.

Cox began with herself as an example to underscore what transgendered people experience every day:
Some days I wake up and I’m that kid in Mobile, Alabama who’s being bullied… Some days I wake up and I’m that sixth-grader who swallowed a bottle of pills because I did not want to be myself anymore, because I did not know how to be anybody else, and who I was told was a sin, was a problem… Some days I wake up and I am that black trans woman walking the streets of New York City, hearing people yell ‘that’s a man!’ to me. And I understand… that when a trans woman is called a man, that is an act of violence.
Cox's speech was interrupted by cheers and applause some 30 times, in part because she made the speech not about her, but about local nonprofits with a focus on helping transgendered people in the U.S. She name-checks cities and charities and individuals working in the field, and talks about the jailing of CeCe MacDonald, who was convicted of stabbing a man who attacked her and her friends in Minneapolis.

What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Let the details be the people: Some speakers don't name-check well, but not so Cox. Each of the people she names are being celebrated, and you can tell by the tone of her voice, her humorous asides, and her calls to those who are in the room. In name-checking cities and charities, she does more than just congratulate them: Their stories make real the vision she's describing of a supportive world for transgendered people, and show that the issue is found in city after city in the U.S.
  • Use the story arc: Cox creates a story arc, as described in my interview with Marcus Webb, TEDMED's chief storytelling officer, who notes, "you start with a hero, which can be an idea or a product you’re advocating. You open with a first act that describes the problem. You progress to a second act that describes the ideal solution. You conclude with a third act that describes an actual solution or policy or course of action that conforms to the ideal." Here, the hero is the idea of activism to support transgendered people. Cox starts by using herself to describe the problem, paints the ideal solution as she talks about the community that advocated for MacDonald while she was in jail, and concludes by expanding her call to action to the wider community in the room, urging them to do the same in their communities. She includes calls for changes in health policy, criminal justice and other sectors at the same time, bolstering the volunteer call with one for societal change.
  • Be a non-anxious speaker: You can see Cox's non-anxious approach to speaking evident right from the start, when she dances in place while the music introducing her goes on a bit long, and at the many moments when she waits for the crowd to finish cheering. She's not in a rush to cut them off, and takes her time with the crowd's catharsis. Listen as well as look at this aspect of the speech: While she's discussing controversial and provocative issues, her voice remains calm (but not comatose). There's lots of vocal variety here, but not because she's nervous or rushed.
Below is video of Cox's keynote. What do you think of this famous speech?

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