When she decided to move to Asheville, Tina Madison White knew she’d be leaving a lot behind in New York City: a corporate career that culminated with a stint as director of information management for Pfizer, the place where her five children grew up, and the history of her life as a husband and father before she came out as transgender.
What White didn’t count on, however, was House Bill 2, the controversial law that (among other provisions) requires people to use the bathroom and locker room facilities that correspond to the gender listed on their birth certificate.
“I wanted to move to the South,” White continues, “because I think the South needs a stronger transgender voice, but I wanted to move someplace that was welcoming. So I thought: North Carolina!”
Five days after White and her wife closed on their house in Asheville, the General Assembly passed HB2 in a special session during which the bill was introduced and voted on in just a few hours. That night, White says, “I had a nightmare that I was shot in the bathroom.”
While White had thought she was moving to Asheville to focus on her new career as a writer (she’s already published one book on her transition, Between Shadow and Sun: A Husband’s Journey Through Gender, A Wife’s Labor of Love), the state and national conversation surrounding HB2 has placed her in high demand as a trans activist. She’s traveled around the country speaking on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer civil rights organization. She was recently appointed to the board of directors of that organization, and she also spoke at the HRC’s National Dinner on Sept. 10.
Closer to home, White has taken on the role of director of operations for the Blue Ridge Pride Center. Although she has local roots on her mother’s side of the family, “When I moved here … I didn’t want to be some kind of Yankee carpetbagger,” she says with a laugh. White was wary of giving the impression that she expected a leadership position right away. “Blue Ridge Pride just needed someone to help with websites, marketing and data,” she explains. “I’m the chief cook and bottle washer.”
I love a parade
One of the many duties White has been juggling lately is planning for the eighth annual Blue Ridge Pride Festival, a free celebration of LGBTQ pride in Asheville’s Pack Square Park on Saturday, Oct. 1, from 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Activities will include a parade, musical performances, a lip-sync battle, a drag show and a dance party. Trans activist Candis Cox will speak at 1:15 p.m.
Before her transition, White says, “I thought of Pride as just some big party. I didn’t mind it, but I thought of it as a silly thing.” Now, especially after the mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., White says she has a new appreciation for the deeper meaning of Pride events. “When you aren’t allowed to celebrate and live freely in society, and you find that one event where you get to be you … you just celebrate and want to share with the world.” She’s been pleased, she says, that local organizers have been moving beyond the boundaries of the LGBTQ community to invite and include allies from other groups, with a special focus on other minority groups.
The Blue Ridge Pride Center has lined up over 100 booths and vendors to participate in the festival. According to White, the organization expects up to 10,000 people to attend, which represents a big increase over the 2,000 people who attended 2009’s inaugural event.
A fledgling movement
This year’s Pride Festival, as well as the contemporary LGBTQ rights movement, is a legacy of the Stonewall riots of June 28, 1969.
“The Stonewall Uprising is considered by many to be the catalyst that launched the modern LGBT civil rights movement. From this place and time, building on the work of many before, the nation started the march — not yet finished — toward securing equality and respect for LGBT people,” President Barack Obama proclaimed on June 24 as he declared the Stonewall Inn a National Historic Monument.
The uprising, Obama said, began when police raided the bar, which was at the time one of the city’s best-known gathering places for LGBT people. “Customers resisted the police by refusing to show identification or go into a bathroom so that a police officer could verify their sex. As police officers began making arrests, the remaining customers gathered outside instead of dispersing as they had in the past,” he explained.
According to the website of the Stonewall Inn, when officers roughly handled one patron, the crowd fought back, forcing the officers to barricade themselves in the nightclub. Those waiting outside the club swelled into the hundreds and were dispersed only after riot squads arrived. Over the next two nights, thousands demonstrated in the streets outside the Stonewall Inn to protest the treatment of LGBTQ people by police.
A year later, marchers returned to Christopher Street to commemorate the riots with the nation’s first gay pride parade. Since then, other cities have hosted their own pride events as awareness and acceptance of gay rights have spread across the nation.
Pros and cons
Zeke Christopoulos, a local trans activist featured in an anti-HB2 ad that was distributed nationally on social media in May, has advocated for trans and nonbinary folks for years through the group Tranzmission.
According to Christopoulos, the group formed in 2001 to assist trans and nonbinary people to legally change their names. “Over the years we have changed and grown with several ongoing projects: health resource lists, name change projects, training and information sessions, and some support services,” he says. The organization will have a table at Blue Ridge Pride on Oct. 1.
“We anticipate a robust response [against HB2] from Blue Ridge Pride,” Christopoulos says. “It should be an outward expression of the beautiful diversity that Asheville has come to be known for.
“Last year there were no protesters that I saw,” he continues. “I have no idea if there will be protesters this year, but feel certain the creative, zany and enthusiastic individuals (including allies to the community) will either ignore protesters outright, or come up with a peaceful response that makes a mockery of the ridiculous position taken by those protesting.”
Aaron Sarver, who is the communications director for the Campaign for Southern Equality, says his organization will be sharing its new Trans in the South resource guide at the Pride Festival. The guide includes lists compiled by Ivy Gibson-Hill, coordinator of the CSE’s LGBT Rights Toolkit, of Southeastern trans-friendly doctors, attorneys and counselors, as well as resources to assist with funding of medical transitions. “It fills a big need,” Sarver continues, by linking trans people with resources that can help them live safely and authentically.
Asked about organized opposition to LGBTQ rights at past Asheville Pride events, CSE Executive Director Jasmine Beach-Ferrara says the event has drawn only a small number of protesters. “Pride is a place where people can be themselves, and they can come together in community in the middle of downtown in the middle of the day,” she comments. “People come in from counties across WNC, from Tennessee and South Carolina. For LGBT youth, Pride may be their first event after coming out. They often bring their parents.”
Since HB2 passed in March, local psychologist and former Asheville City Council member Carl Mumpower has organized several Asheville rallies to highlight support among some groups for the law. In July, Mumpower told Xpress that HB2 was a rational response to the nondiscrimination ordinance passed by Charlotte City Council in February that would have allowed people to use the bathroom which matches their gender identity, even if that identity differs from their sex at birth.
“In any responsible culture, we have to make an effort to be considerate of all parties,” Mumpower said. “HB2 was an urgent reaction to the bullying behavior of the Charlotte City Council. Charlotte’s Council’s actions created a tremendous amount of angst and anxiety in the community by trying to force people to allow male parts in female bathrooms.”
Another local who’s spoken out in favor of the law is Andrew Sluder, pastor of Bible Baptist Church. “In Asheville, I felt there was a lack of a voice for the conservative side,” he says of his decision to advocate for HB2. “The majority of North Carolinians don’t want transgender bathrooms. I would be willing to go out to fight for the right of private businesses to make their bathrooms unisex, but in public facilities like schools and public buildings, we need to keep separate restrooms.”
‘Cesspool of sin’
Ben Graumann, development manager for Equality NC, the largest state-based and oldest national equality group in the country, explains that HB2 is far from the first fight LGBTQ advocacy organizations have waged in North Carolina. “We started as a legal defense firm for people that were being convicted of crimes against nature laws or were being kicked out of the military for who they loved,” he explains. “Since then, we have expanded our work and we were a major part of the fight against Amendment 1.”
Amendment 1 brought out some vehement LGBTQ detractors, including then-Sen. James Forrester, a co-sponsor of the amendment. As Xpress reported in 2011, while the N.C. General Assembly readied to vote to add the amendment to the May ballot, Forrester argued that homosexuality was an “unhealthy lifestyle” and urged gay people to “change their lifestyle” back “to the normal lifestyle we can accept.” Forrester described Asheville as a “cesspool of sin” because of its high concentration of gay people.
In 2012, N.C. voters approved Amendment 1, which proposed to amend the state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage, but the measure was declared unconstitutional by a federal court in 2014.
Graumann, like Christopoulos, has strong sentiments regarding the most recent LGBTQ legal challenge. “HB2 is the big issue right now,” he notes. “It currently stands as the worst anti-LGBTQ law in the nation and must be repealed and replaced by comprehensive nondiscrimination policies.”
Asked about his expectations for the upcoming Pride Festival, Graumann again refers to HB2. “This year will certainly be different,” he says. “The LGBTQ community and their allies are more motivated than ever. As we are getting closer to the elections, there will be a heavy focus on registering people to vote and getting the vote out for pro-equality candidates.”
Even though HB2 remains a major focus, Graumann and Equality NC are looking forward to a joyous occasion. “Pride festivals are an opportunity for the community to come together,” he says. “It has never been more important to come together than in the time we are living right now. We are hoping that this year’s pride festival will both be a celebration of the LGBTQ community and a catalyst for people to get involved and take action.”
Hearts and minds
For her part, White says she believes that attitudes will change only as people realize that gay, trans and queer members of the community are “just as diverse as the rest of society.”
“It’s a long-term investment” that goes far beyond a one-day celebration — even one as joyous as the Blue Ridge Pride Festival — she continues. “You change hearts and minds first and foremost by sharing personal stories.”
At the same time, White doesn’t minimize the importance of laws in shaping individual experiences and attitudes. “When you make a law,” she explains, “you’re telling society that these are our moral standards.” If laws create a set of practices that are different for one set of citizens than for another, she says, “they’re sending a signal to people that it’s OK to treat me as ‘other.'”
Even as she continues to work with the Blue Ridge Pride Center and other groups to repeal HB2 in North Carolina, White says she’s happy with her decision to move to Asheville. “I have developed so many friendships,” she notes. “I’ve joined the women’s tennis league, so I’m out there playing with all these middle-aged mothers in their 50s and 60s. We just sit and chat. I feel so comfortable anywhere I go. It’s the best damn city in the country.”