Ariel sat in the back seat of my car staring down at her cell phone, her black bangs covering her eyes. Todd sat next to me as I drove, equally transfixed by his phone. I was expecting a more celebratory mood as we made our way out of Minneapolis. I didn’t know much about Ariel and Todd, only that they both identified as LGBTQ and had experienced homelessness; we had recently met through a host home program that I work with. Now, we were on our way to Minnesota State University to hear Laverne Cox speak.
As way to break the awkward silence in the car I asked Ariel and Todd if they were fans of Orange Is the New Black. They both shook their heads. Cox, a breakout star from the hugely popular Netflix series, is a self-described “proud, African-American transgender woman.” Neither of them had seen it. Did they watch Laverne when she was on VH1’s I Want to Work for Diddy? No, they both said. Why then, I asked, had they agreed to this trip to see her tonight?
“Because she’s a celebrity,” Ariel responded, briefly glancing up. “I’ve never met a celebrity. And she’s trans like me.”
Representations of the LGBTQ experience are often portrayed without much nuance or complexity in the media. In particular, many of the trans youth I work with don’t recognize themselves in the Caitlyn Jenner stories, and certainly not in the caricatures concocted by opponents of trans rights. So when our host home program was given a few free tickets for Cox’s presentation “Ain’t I a Woman?” we jumped at the opportunity. I know from experience that moments like these—moments of seeing marginalized lives holistically—are few and carry the potential to be affirming, even transformational for queer youth.
Not long ago the situation was similar for gay men and lesbians. Growing up in Iowa, I had no role models, at least none who outwardly identified as gay. I came of age during the late '80s and early '90s, before access to the Internet allowed youth to test out their identity anonymously online. I grew up feeling isolated, smack-dab in the age of AIDS. I scoured movies and books, secretly searching for any positive depictions of gayness, desperate to know I wasn’t alone. The messages I heard about being gay were clear from both the media and my peers. I was repugnant, sick, and sure to die a lonely, sad death. I wanted to believe that if people who held these prejudices could get to know me, they’d begin to see past the stereotype. I wanted to believe people could learn to accept me—but I couldn’t yet fathom what that reality might look like.
The auditorium was nearly full by the time we made it through the line. I spotted some empty seats in the front row, and Ariel and I made our way for them while Todd sat near the back snapping pictures on his phone. Positioned a few feet from the podium, Ariel looked around at the crowd. We were both awe-struck by the sheer number of people waiting to hear a transgender woman speak. Even with the recent accelerated shift in public opinion around LGBTQ issues, an event of this scale felt incomprehensible to me. I wished for a moment that my adolescent self could have witnessed such a powerful display of social acceptance for what I had kept hidden.
When Laverne Cox came out and made her way to center stage, the room erupted in applause. She greeted the audience with poise, humor, and sass. A wide smile formed across Ariel’s face, and she clapped hard. “She’s beautiful,” she whispered to herself.
Cox began to talk about her complicated relationship with her mother, who struggled to accept Laverne’s identity. She recalled being bullied and chased home from school as kids called her “sissy” and “fag,” and being put into therapy by her family in hopes of curing her feminine demeanor. She spoke about getting attacked on the street by strangers. I watched Ariel’s posture straighten as she listened intently to Cox describing her experience of swallowing fistfuls of pills in grade school, hoping to end what she was told were her “immoral” thoughts. And she spoke about those who suffered violence—both self-inflicted and at the hands of others—pushed by the crushing belief that trans people are sick and wrong.
“Some folks, they just don’t understand. And they need to get to know us as human beings,” she said. “Others are just going to be opposed to us forever. But I do believe in the humanity of people and in people’s capacity to love and to change.”
Cox brushed her hair back and looked out into the packed audience. She said learning to love herself regardless of what others may think or the rejections she experienced was a revolutionary act. I looked over to Ariel to find her wet eyes fixed on Cox, her hand covering her mouth.
Adolescence is hard. For many LGBTQ teens, the added pressures of a hostile world can lead to troubling risk behaviors. Those risk behaviors can stretch past adolescence and wreak havoc on adulthood when unaddressed. When I moved to New York in my 20s to work in the theater, I instead found myself employed in restaurants and began drinking heavily. The anonymity of living in New York, which I initially found liberating, became crippling. I’d hoped the city would somehow make me feel more real; instead, I felt more alien and isolated. My after-work cocktails with co-workers devolved into a muddy late night ritual. As time went by, I stopped going to the bars, instead drinking alone in my apartment, drifting further away from the rush of the city and deeper into myself.
Feeling a part of a community can help one let go of self-destructive behaviors. By the time my friend Stephen, convinced me to meet him at a group for addicts, I was too exhausted to argue. I entered a reading room in Greenwich Village filled with folding chairs. I looked around at a motley crew of young working-class folks, people in business suits, punk rockers, and yogis carrying their rolled up mats. One of my favorite writers sat in the corner, his glasses pressed down to the tip of his nose, reading a book, waiting for the meeting to start. My admiration for him and the diversity of the people in the room kept me from wanting to flee. I felt my isolation, however minutely, begin to subside. I sat down, and an odd sensation I didn’t know how to articulate washed over me. The man next to me seemed to sense my turmoil and asked how I was doing. That simple act of kindness overwhelmed me. I fought against rising tears. He smiled. “You’ve been going at it alone a long time,” he said. As a woman stood and began to address the group, I realized what that curious sensation was that had been absent from my life for so long. Safety. I felt safe.
When Laverne Cox ended her presentation at Minnesota State, she was met with a standing ovation. Both Ariel and I were left burning for more. After the large packs of students filtered out of the auditorium, we reconnected with Todd, then followed a group of teenagers being ushered backstage to meet Laverne. She was gracious and kind and made time for all the youth. Ariel, speechless, had her picture taken with her.
On the way back to Minneapolis, Ariel sat in the front seat, gesturing wildly as she talked about what she had gleaned from Laverne’s presentation. Todd sat behind her, silent, his face awash in the blue light of his phone. Ariel said she had been going about life alone for a long time. She hadn’t been able to see past the anger, confusion, and isolation of her experience. Now here was someone who showed her a spectrum of possibility and let her know she mattered.
Laverne had talked about growing up in Mobile, Alabama, and struggling to find support in that environment. Similarly, Ariel grew up in a rural area and had to migrate to Minneapolis to find shelter. In the car, she began to reflect on not being a city girl and wanting to return home to the small town near Lake Superior where she was raised. The realization seemed to startle Ariel.
It’s a powerful moment, when you discover a vocabulary exists for something you’d thought impossible. I felt it in the rooms with other addicts, finding myself in their stories. Ariel found there is strength and community in saying, “I’m like you.” Self-recognition through others is a necessary communion, and sometimes the only way to ourselves.
We continued to drive through the quiet Minnesota night. Ariel looked out the window at the darkening sky. She seemed to glow with possibility. Perhaps sitting in that packed auditorium, hearing stories that validated her struggles and affirmed her value, gave her a sense of security that had been absent from her life. Perhaps she now felt safe—or at least safer.
“Maybe people will be able to accept me for who I am,” she said. “Maybe, one day, I’ll be able to go home.”
Editor’s note: The youths’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.