Laverne Cox urged students and community members to challenge the gender binary and to have difficult conversations that can create love and empathy.

Cox, a prominent transgender advocate and actress, spoke to a sold-out Reynolds Theater about her life, struggle to truly express her identity and the necessity of confronting societal expectations. The Friday evening talk was sponsored by the Duke University Union.

“I stand before you today a proud African-American, trans woman from a working class background. I am not just one thing and neither are you,” she told the audience.

Intersectionality was a major theme of her discussion, and Cox noted it was important to recognize all of the aspects that shape a person’s identity and affect their standing in society.

“I hope [her message] will encourage people of all backgrounds to express themselves openly,” said freshman Bryce Cracknell. “I can now list Laverne Cox as one of my favorite people.”

Cox was the first trans woman to be featured on the cover of Time magazine and the first openly transgender woman of color to be nominated for an Emmy for her role as Sophia Burset, a trans woman who is incarcerated for credit-card fraud, on the critically-acclaimed TV show Orange is the New Black.

Cox spoke about her interest in feminist theorists such as bell hooks, Judith Butler, and Simone de Beauvoir and her admiration for Brené Brown’s research on shame. She also described the differences between gender and sexual orientation, noting that the two should not be conflated and encouraging the audience to read an op-ed she published last year in the New York Times.

Though Cox did address her own life story, a major portion of her talk highlighted the plight of trans people in general, particularly trans women of color. She cited statistics showing that as a group, they are at the highest risk of homicide in the United States today.

“I have come to believe that calling a trans woman a man, is an act of violence,” Cox said. “We have to create safe spaces of healing if we want to truly liberate each other.”

Freshman Ebony Hargro thought the Duke community could take a lot from Cox’s message.

“Every day we act, think, and speak in ways that reinforce cis- and heteronormativity,” she said. “In order to really cultivate an inclusive academic community, we need to recognize our role in marginalizing other people.”

Cox ended by fielding questions on topics ranging from the role of churches in supporting LGBTQ individuals to how to confront people who make offensive remarks.

“If we just get to know people who are different than us, misconceptions will melt away,” Cox said. “It’s all about love and justice.”