When transgender activist Allison Scott had a face-to-face with Gov. Pat McCrory in mid-May about North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill,” what she said probably wasn’t quite what the governor was expecting.
“I said, ‘You’ve done more to give us a platform and a place to speak, and to unite with other minority groups, than we’ve been able to do in 20 years. So I just want to give you thanks for being one of our biggest proponents,’” Scott recalls with a laugh, adding, “I don’t think he liked that very much.”
In June, the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law, released its latest estimate of the transgender population: 0.6 percent of American adults, or 1.4 million individuals.
And Scott’s tongue-in-cheek comment summed up what many transgender activists and supporters are coming to believe: that alongside the tangible damage done by HB2, there’s a silver lining to the law the state hastily passed back in March. More than ever before, people are talking and learning about gender identity issues, and the focus on this once-overlooked community is dispelling myths and inspiring empathy in some surprising places.
The Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, aka House Bill 2, became law on March 23, the same day it was introduced in a special session of the General Assembly. Besides requiring people to use public bathrooms or changing rooms corresponding to the gender listed on their birth certificate, the law revoked North Carolinians’ ability to bring employment discrimination claims in state courts. (In response to massive public outcry about the “bathroom bill,” legislation reinstating the latter right was signed into law July 18.) Finally, HB2 bars municipalities from passing their own nondiscrimination ordinances. Charlotte’s City Council had done just that on Feb. 22, triggering the General Assembly’s action.
Zeke Christopoulos works with Scott in his role as executive director of Tranzmission, a local advocacy group. “The discussions around HB2 are bringing the circumstances and the everyday reality of what many transgender individuals experience to a wider audience,” he says, pointing out that the increased attention also has a downside. “I feel like we are placing ourselves under greater scrutiny, and we become a greater target.”
Describing himself as a “white, male, middle-class, cisgender person” (see sidebar, “Gender 101”), Michael is one of many people who say they’ve been motivated by HB2 to take a more public role in advocating for the trans community. A pastor at a local Presbyterian church, Michael asked Xpress to use only his first name to protect the privacy of his 16-year-old son, who came out as transgender last year. Although Michael and his wife know other transgender people, realizing that their own child is one caused the couple to “dig even deeper” to develop a fuller understanding of gender identity, he says.
“His internal identity — and that’s tied to how the brain is formed — is not matched with his body and the gender he was assigned at birth,” Michael explains. “The dissonance between how the body is and who he feels himself to be,” says Michael, causes his son pain and distress.
Michael believes education is the key to increasing public understanding and empathy. “I think there’s a lot of misinformation — or no information — about the science, the psychology and the actuality of what it means to be transgender,” he says.
Six months after his son came out, the General Assembly passed HB2. Michael’s first reaction, he recalls, was “We don’t need this now: all this attention to kids, high schools, bathrooms. We don’t want to deal with this.” But ready or not, the law pushed the family to be more open about their son’s identity and their opposition to what they feel are discriminatory laws. Michael, his wife and son took part in a Pack Square rally protesting HB2. “It was on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week,” he says. “At that point, I knew that being more public about all of this with our family and friends was inevitable.”
When McCrory visited the Governor’s Western Residence in May, Michael’s family waited their turn for a chance to speak with the state’s top executive. Their son, Michael recalls, “said something like ‘I hope you don’t hate me: I’m just trying to be myself.’ And the governor responded by saying, ‘I don’t hate you: I love you.’ And they kind of hugged each other.”
But that conversation, says Michael, “probably did us more good than it did [McCrory].” In Michael’s view, HB2 and laws like it are part of a conservative backlash against the rapid pace of change. “In 2012, we didn’t have gay marriage,” he notes. “All of this is moving really fast in a direction that I’m really happy with.”
In an interview with Xpress that day, however, McCrory said: “I go from one group of people to another, and there’s just an extremely huge divide on this very complex issue. … Even here this afternoon, I’ve had people come up to me and go, ‘Thank you: You hang in there, don’t budge,’ and I’ve had other people come and go, ‘I’ll make sure you never get elected again.’”
Only girls want to be girls
Brynn Estelle was raised by her father in a rural community outside of Asheville. “Growing up, he was the chief sergeant of the gender police,” she recalls. “When it was time for me to go to school, he sat me down and told me I was a boy and I needed to start acting like it.”
After a difficult childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, Estelle had an epiphany that changed everything for her. “I just realized,” she says, “that boys don’t want to be girls: Only girls want to be girls.” She suddenly understood that her lifelong yearning to be a girl meant that, in the most essential way, she already was one.
At age 27, Estelle came out as trans. “Going into it, you never know who’s going to be on your side,” she explains. “After I came out,” she says, her best friend, who’d been “casually trans phobic” up till then, “went online, educated himself and did all he could to become an ally to support me.”
When she broke the news to her father, his response was, “Well, at least you’re not gay.”
“Are you kidding?” Estelle told him. “It’s like double gay!” And though accepting Estelle’s identity was hard for her father, she says he saw that she became a happier and more functional person after she began taking estrogen. “He’s my dad; I’m his daughter,” she explains. “At the end of the day, we love each other. … I remember the first time he got me a ‘for daughter’ card. That was a big one.”
Pink box, blue box
For some, accepting that a person’s gender identity may not match the sex they were assigned at birth may be a stretch, but it’s just the tip of the emerging gender iceberg. Increasingly, people — and particularly younger people — are experiencing gender identities that don’t neatly fit either “male” or “female,” says professor Amy Lanou of UNC Asheville’s Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program. These “nonbinary” or “genderqueer” identities may be associated with any physical presentation or sexual preference. Lanou, for example, describes herself as a “cisgender-appearing, female-bodied person” whose identity is genderqueer. But other genderqueer people might present themselves in an almost unlimited variety of ways — and ask others to use language in a way that they feel better matches their gender identity.
To illustrate, Lanou tells the story of a recent dinner with friends. A married gay male couple were the hosts, and the guests included a heterosexual couple with a 13-year-old child, Lanou and her spouse, and Lanou’s mother and her husband (who are 76 and 84, respectively). The 13-year-old has a gender-neutral identity and uses the pronouns “they” and “them” rather than “he/him” or “she/her.”
“The whole night,” Lanou recalls, “all of the older folks were misgendering this young person in language. And it was not from ill intentions or lack of effort: It’s just hard to make that shift.” But the logistical difficulties, she emphasizes, don’t mean gender variations should be seen as something negative. “Just because a person’s sexuality or gender identity is different doesn’t mean it’s problematic or lesser.”
Two years ago, Beck and two UNCA classmates started the Trans Student Union. “In alliance with the campus Black Lives Matter group, we organized a rally against HB2 as it affects UNC Asheville students. We also hold weekly support meetings, do community outreach, create connections with different trans communities, organize a free clothing swap closet, and do fundraising projects for students and nonstudents,” Beck explains.
Beck came out as nonbinary four years ago. Parents, classmates and professors, says Beck, “are trying” to use the requested “they/them” pronouns, but on campus, “It mostly doesn’t happen.” Nonetheless, Beck finds the campus atmosphere largely supportive and safe.
In the broader community, however, Beck isn’t always up for pushing those boundaries. “HB2 has definitely brought a lot of attention to trans-ness,” says Beck. “Now, I often think that a simple request to use a different pronoun might spark a big political conversation that I don’t feel like getting into. Having those conversations constantly requires a lot of energy from trans people.”
Deven Balsam, a trans man who’s raising three sons, has a masculine appearance and a traditionally female legal name. “Sometimes I just want to cash a check at the bank or get a book from the library, and I have to talk about deep personal issues,” he explains. “But since there’s nothing I can do about it, I’m going to make it as positive and comfortable for everyone as possible.”
For the most part, however, those conversations have gone smoothly. “Once you get to meet someone and see that they’re just a regular person, it takes all the mystery and darkness away,” he says.
The workplace can present particular challenges. Already working in the community while still a student, Beck, like many other trans people, is concerned about finding a way to live authentically while pursuing a career.
Ivy Hill, a transgender activist with the Campaign for Southern Equality, works on employment discrimination issues and education, running clinics, job fairs and resource banks. “The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,” says Hill, “has ruled that not using a person’s pronouns constitutes sexual harassment. People are bringing these cases, and they are winning them.”
Language, continues Hill, who also uses “they/them” pronouns, “is very important to all people, but especially for trans folks. Through language, we are affirmed or not affirmed on a daily basis. When people intentionally gender trans people correctly, it has an impact that changes lives. But on the flip side, if you are questioned in a bathroom, that can really compound the stress in a trans person’s life.”
Local social worker Heather Branham counsels transgender clients and their families in Asheville and, remotely, throughout the state. Branham helps families move past the idea that a gender difference is something to be corrected.
“People want to find a reason why their loved one is trans, and they want it to be something they can fix,” she says. “So I spend time trying to normalize this gender fluidity, and I point out that not everyone feels comfortable their entire life with the gender they were assigned. It doesn’t mean your loved one was traumatized; they may have been, but it doesn’t have to be. So I try to help people understand that they didn’t do anything wrong.”
Even the conventional biological understanding on which gender assumptions are based, Branham maintains, is incorrect. “In our culture, we say people who have this kind of genitalia are men, and people who have this kind of genitalia are women. But it’s not even the case that our genitalia are so easily categorized. We assume that you either have a penis or you have a vagina, and that’s actually not true. Human diversity is much more complicated than that in terms of anatomy, physiology, hormones and all of the things that go into assigned sex. It’s much more complicated than most of us know.”
According to the website of the Intersex Society of North America, “A person might be born appearing to be female on the outside but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or … born with genitals that seem to be in between the usual male and female types. For example, a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia. Or a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of her cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY.”
Sometimes, the site notes, “A person isn’t found to have intersex anatomy until she or he reaches the age of puberty, or finds himself an infertile adult, or dies of old age and is autopsied. Some people live and die with intersex anatomy without anyone (including themselves) ever knowing.”
In a July 3 article on female athletes titled “Too Fast To Be Female,” The New York Times Magazine reported that estimates of people with gender variations “vary widely, from one in 5,000 to one in 60, because experts dispute which of the myriad conditions to include and how to tally them accurately.”
Branham goes further still, saying, “This organizing principle of gender is something we made up, but we think it’s real, in the same way that we think race is real. Being categorized by these constructs of race and gender has huge implications and impacts on people’s lives, but that doesn’t change the fact that we made it up.”
Many families she works with, notes Branham, believe their child’s life would be easier without the added complication of a gender difference. One reason for this, she says, is the lack of good examples in our culture of queer and trans people living thriving, successful lives. “My younger clients tell me they don’t know what it looks like to be a trans adult.”
Local psychologist Carl Mumpower has a decidedly diferent view. “Gender confusion,” says the former Asheville City Council member, “is a terribly painful reality … something we should approach from a position of thoughtful care, not social celebration. … Even if you decide to change genders, it’s the beginning of a very arduous journey that for most people doesn’t have a good ending.”
On the day of the governor’s May visit, Mumpower helped organize a prayer chain down the mountain from the Western Residence to show support for HB2. “Politically,” he asserts, “the LGBTQ community has gone from trying to right a wrong — namely, the culture’s condemnation and meanness of spirit toward them — to duplicating the model that was aimed against them. They’ve become bullies and judgers, and they are behaving like those they’re accusing of being wrong.”
Andrew Sluder, pastor of the Bible Baptist Church in Asheville, also helped organize the prayer chain. For him, it’s a moral issue. “I believe that God makes no mistakes,” he explains, “so I think if God intends you to be a male, you ought to live as a male. If God intends you to be a woman, you ought to be a woman. There’s a moral wrong in trying to change or modify the gender that God made you.”
And morality aside, continues Sluder, “From the common-sense standpoint, when we begin to allow men into women’s bathrooms and women into men’s bathrooms, in my opinion, we’re creating an unsafe environment, especially for women and children.”
No place in the world
Laura Vance approaches gender issues from several angles. She teaches sociology and gender studies at Warren Wilson College, has worked with trans and other gender-nonconforming students for over 20 years, is a lesbian and has a partner whose professional work focuses on LGBTQ issues. Vance uses an alternate pronoun, “per,” which Marge Piercy coined as an abbreviation of “person” in her 1985 novel Woman on the Edge of Time.
In studies, 80 percent of trans people report being subject to discrimination and harassment in education, says Vance. About half report verbal or other forms of discrimination in such areas as employment, transportation, housing, doctors’ offices and public restrooms.
Those high rates of negative experiences, Vance explains, take a shocking toll on transgender people’s mental health. In the Williams Institute’s national research, 41 percent of trans respondents self-reported having attempted suicide. The figure was even higher for those who said they’d experienced rejection or harassment. In the general population, the study noted, the self-reported rate of attempted suicide is 4.6 percent.
And even if the broader conversation triggered by HB2 eventually moves society toward greater knowledge and acceptance of trans people, says Vance, “In the meantime, the greatest harm is to children in conservative religious communities who have a trans or gender-nonconforming identity.”
Mariel Epstein Olsen, the new director of Warren Wilson College’s Center for Gender and Relationships, says she’s seen firsthand the negative psychological effects of forcing people to conform to stereotypical gender roles. “I’d like to think that by 2016, we can be off this train of telling people, ‘There’s not a space for you in this world.’ That just doesn’t seem like what life is for.”
For social worker Heather Branham, one of the most positive outcomes of the discussions surrounding HB2 has been the broad support trans people have received from the community. When the law was first passed, she says, “There was the expectation that no one’s going to come to the aid of trans people, no one’s going to stand up to speak for them; that trans people were easy to bully.”
But as the state has experienced significant pushback from the business community, tourists, artists and even the federal government, that belief has proved to be mistaken, says Branham, adding, “I think that was a misjudgment and a miscalculation on the part of the governor, Republican legislators and others who were behind this law.”