As a 43-year-old transgender woman living in Asheville, N.C., for the past three years, I have been blessed to find western North Carolina, on the whole, to be very accepting of me. While I know this hasn't been the case for all trans people in the state, for me it has been fairly easy to integrate my transition and gender presentation over the past year into the social fabric of this surprisingly progressive mountain town.
Up until last month, I haven't had to give much thought to what it means to be a trans woman living in North Carolina -- most people have been tolerant, if not celebratory, of my authentic identity. When I moved here from Boston, I knew I was stepping into a very conservative, Christian region of the country that could be much less willing to embrace my beliefs and values. But I loved the Asheville community and landscape enough to forge a life for myself here, and the community has returned that faith -- until this spring.
It was February when transgender rights first came to the forefront of public conscience in North Carolina. Charlotte's City Council passed an ordinance guaranteeing equal access to public accommodations for transgender residents and visitors. It felt like North Carolina was taking a positive step into the future with the passage of this ordinance, and I hoped that the inclusive trend would catch on in Asheville.
Inspired and hopeful, I took a huge step out of my own comfort zone during the Asheville City Council meeting in March. I publicly discussed my gender identity, going on the record as a member of Asheville's transgender community, and expressing my support for a trans-inclusive ordinance in our town. Coming face-to-face with the opposition at that meeting provided my first taste of the fight to come. The opposition's comments were negative at best and hateful, outright lies at worst. After hearing public testimony that featured twice as many people supporting the LGBT ordinance as opposing it, I was stunned to hear the mayor say that Asheville doesn't believe it needs such an ordinance, because the town doesn't have any "broken" laws to fix. I left the meeting in tears, visibly shaken, and fearing for my safety as I walked back to my car.
The next day on Facebook, one of the local leaders of the opposition celebrated their "success" with a vitriolic statement that equated me, specifically, to a predator who targets women and children for lewd and unforgivable acts of aggression and violation. This post painted me -- and everyone like me -- as someone who "chooses" to be transgender, and as someone who is living in sin and going to hell.
Two weeks later, the governor and the state legislature sent that same message loud and clear from the General Assembly in Raleigh. Contrary to my own lived experience in the state, House Bill 2 made it crystal clear that North Carolina is not a welcoming state for law-abiding transgender persons. The devastation and dehumanizing effect of the hateful rhetoric coming from those elected to represent my friends, my community, and me, was profound. I couldn't believe that state lawmakers were so hell-bent on depriving me of basic equal rights that they would shotgun a bill through both houses of the legislature and the governor's office in a 12-hour period, spending more than $40,000 of taxpayer funds to host a special session that pulled lawmakers out of a scheduled recess.
In case we weren't sure whether this Republican-led effort was really about transgender people, lawmakers laid bare their denial of our humanity by including a key provision of the bill that bars us from using public restrooms, locker rooms, and other spaces that match our gender identity. To add insult to (very probable physical) injury, the bill also prohibited localities from passing equal rights legislation on their own.
Before the bill passed, and before the vocal backlash arose in opposition to the Charlotte ordinance, I never thought twice about entering a women's bathroom in the state, whether it was at a rest area on the interstate, a local business, a city building, or a church. Now, unless that restroom is in a business or organization that I know has expressed support for the transgender community or has posted gender-neutral bathroom signage, I hesitate. I think about how I look and what I'm wearing -- am I passing? I look around and see who's looking at me. I try to determine in advance if the bathroom is a single-stall or multiperson facility. I seriously consider the risk to my person, to my career, my loved ones, and my community if something were to happen based on my choice. I take personally the comments on social media, the repeated, but still provably false statements equating transgender people to sexual predators. It's impossible not to feel anguish at the hatred with which some people regard me -- even to the point of stating that I should die.
As I stood at the Vance Monument in downtown Asheville April 2 protesting House Bill 2, people swore at me from passing cars or gestured obscenely through their windshields. I saw supporters of HB 2 parading a 20-foot-long banner of so-called transgender "mugshots," presenting this exhibition to passing motorists as if to "prove" that "transgender" equals "criminal."
But despite of all this negativity, there is a groundswell of support for me and for the transgender community locally, regionally, and nationally. For every person who has been negative or hateful, there have been just as many who have expressed support. At the Saturday rallies in Asheville, attendance in opposition to HB 2 far outweighed support, and we had many Asheville citizens encouraging us. I am gratified every time I read about another company or organization signing on to the Human Rights Campaign letter to Gov. Pat McCrory demanding that the state repeal HB 2. I am encouraged by each new company that announces it won't do business in our state in the wake of this law, because I believe economic pressure might be the most powerful way to force lawmakers to reconsider their position.
During a community walk in Asheville March 31, members of our local trans group secured support from many businesses that were happy to put up gender-neutral bathroom signage and sign pledges of equal service for people of all genders. People from all over the world are expressing their solidarity with us on social media. It's this reality that gives me hope, that allows me to have faith that those who speak -- and legislate -- with hate will not be victorious. I know this is true, because I have seen the beauty, the bravery, and the strength of my community, here in North Carolina and beyond. We will not relent until we have secured equality for everyone in the Tar Heel State.
LACEY WINTER is an Asheville resident and information technology manager, who actively participates in the western North Carolina circus and aerial arts performance community in her spare time. She is also a member of Transformers, a local transgender support group, and she helps lead the programs and outreach of Tranzmission, a local transgender advocacy, education, and support organization.