By Emma McGowan
Last week, Laverne Cox made history as the first trans woman to grace the cover of TIME magazine. While the full article – titled "The Transgender Tipping Point" – is hidden behind a pay wall, TIME shared an edited transcript of Cox’s interview online. Cox’s story contains echoes of the experiences that so many trans and gender-nonconforming children face: she was bullied, beaten up, and attempted suicide before hitting age 18. Her isolation growing up in Mobile, Alabama, in a time when there were no public examples of a happy, healthy, successful trans person, is a clear theme weaving through the transcript.
At the end of the interview, TIME reporter Katy Steinmetz asked Cox about an “emotional, electric moment” that happened during her speaking engagement in San Francisco back in March for the California Institute for Integral Studies at the Nourse Theater. A video from the Q&A portion of the event showed a woman bringing a six-year-old child named Soleil to the stage and asking Cox what to do when faced with bullies in school.
“Soleil, you’re beautiful,” Cox told the clearly overwhelmed child. “You’re perfect just the way you are and you’re amazing. I was bullied too; I was bullied and I was called all kinds of names and now I’m a big TV star!” (Scroll down the page here for a clip of the exchange).
Soleil’s mama, Stephanie Perron, told me that going up on stage was never their plan. Soleil (who usually prefers male pronouns), Stephanie, and their friend Ryan Li arrived late, and consequently, were stuck in the nosebleed section of the theater. Soleil was drawing while the adults kept him tuned in by talking to him during Cox’s speech.
“I bring Soleil to events like this all the time, especially since the bullying started in school,” Stephanie explained. “I just want him to be in a room full of possibility models; a room where he can see himself reflected in other people.”
Soleil wrote his question on a big piece of drawing paper, signed it with a heart and his name, and then waited to see if the moderator would pick it from the pile. To help boost his chances, Stephanie’s friend Ryan Li tweeted to the event organizers that they should take the question from the six-year-old.
That was enough to get the attention of the event organizers and Soleil’s question was read on stage. The crowd erupted in cheers when they heard his name, as members of community groups the family knows were in the audience, including youth from Our Space (a program of Bay Area Youth Center/Sunny Hills Services), a queer and trans youth center in Hayward that Stephanie runs.
When I asked Stephanie how Soleil has been affected by meeting Cox, she told me about an encounter that happened couple of weeks later. They were in a long line at their local coffee shop when a guy started to try to chat Stephanie up and repeatedly misgendered Soleil. Stephanie finally interrupted him, saying, “Look, I just really feel like you need to know that I’m super queer and my partner’s a trans guy and this is my son.”
Later, Stephanie checked with Soleil to make sure he was okay with being identified as a boy in that situation. “It’s okay, mama, because I’m a boy and a girl,” Soleil responded. “And someday I might stand on a stage and give a speech like Laverne Cox did.”
That’s when she knew he’d absorbed way more than she’d thought.
While both Stephanie and I felt a healthy dose of skepticism over TIME’s “transgender tipping point” assertion – especially faced with horrifying new news stories like this one – it’s clear how important Cox's fame and visibility is to a lot of trans people – and especially to children like Soleil. I wish every kid could hear the encouragements Cox yelled out to Soleil as her car cruised by in the parking lot after the event. “Bye, Soleil!" she called, "I love your dress! You look fabulous!”
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Image from TIME.