TIME is known for placing some of the most ecletic public figures on their magazine covers. TIME’s cover this week is another unlikely icon: Laverne Cox of hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black.
After being bullied and harassed for dressing feminine while growing up in Alabama, Cox has become a transgender rights activist in today’s ever evolving society.
Cox eventually came out as transgender while living in New York City and took up acting. Now a star on the drama OITNB, she has emerged as a public leader of the trans movement.
Cox spoke with TIME for this week’s cover story, “The Transgender Tipping Point.” Below is an edited transcript of an interview conducted May 8 in Palo Alto, before Cox addressed an audience at Stanford University.
And what were you like as a child?
I was really creative. I started to dance very young. I loved to dance. I begged my mother to put me into dance classes and finally, in third grade, she did. Tap and jazz but not ballet. She thought ballet was too gay … Throughout all of that, I was very feminine and I was really bullied, majorly bullied. There was this side of me that was this over-achiever that loved learning. But then I was also taunted at school. I was called names. I was made fun of.
Are there any particular instances of bullying that stand out in your memory?
There was this one instance in junior high when I had gotten off the bus and I was chased by a group of kids, which was, you know, pretty normal. They couldn’t really bully me on the bus because the bus driver could see in the rearview mirror, and that wasn’t allowed. But the second we got off the bus, they would try to beat me up. So I’d have to start running, immediately. So that day I was running for my life, basically, and four or five kids caught me. They were in the band. And I remember being held down and hit with drumsticks by these kids. And a parent saw it, the parent of some other student, and called the principal and the principal called my mother and my mother found out about it.
Otherwise you wouldn’t have told her?
No. And I remember being yelled at, because I didn’t tell her and then because I didn’t fight back. I never wanted to fight back. I was scared. I also thought I was above duking it out in the schoolyard with kids. I remember being blamed for having been attacked by a group of kids.
Is there a moment or time you remember first feeling like you might be transgender?
I tell this story about third grade. My third grade teacher called my mom and said ‘Your son is going to end up in New Orleans wearing a dress.’ Up until that point I just thought that I was a girl and that there was no difference between girls and boys. I think in my imagination I thought that I would hit puberty and I would start turning into a girl.