North Carolina’s ‘Bathroom Bill’ Forced Me To Protest To Protect My Daily Life

By Joanne Spataro

On a Wednesday evening in mid-April, I shifted my weight in a parking garage elevator. I wore an oversize pin that read, “His Name Was Blake,” the background emblazoned with transgender pride flag colors. The pin felt heavy, a stinging reminder of the local 18-year-old trans man who died from suicide over a year ago. It reminded me why I was here today: to fight with my community against an unprecedentedly draconian anti-LGBT bill that passed on the one-year anniversary of his death.

While in the elevator, a Land’s End mannequin woman I didn’t know moaned, “Oh, I chipped a nail.” I could only think about how this woman was free to worry about her mauve manicure instead of her own basic rights. Her apathy became hot fuel for me as I prepared for the Charlotte Against House Bill 2 rally in uptown Charlotte, the same place Blake once marched for the Black Lives Matter movement.

As the elevator door opened, I was nervous, but had the resolute power of a newborn colt staggering into the world. I was going to shut down the intersection of South Tryon Street and East Trade Street with other protesters.

When HB 2 passed, I was thrust into activism to protect my daily life.

***

More than 200 cities in the United States have anti-discrimination ordinances that include protections based on gender expression, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Charlotte, one of the fastest growing cities in both North Carolina and the whole country, was achingly close to enacting one. On February 22, the Charlotte city council passed a non-discrimination ordinance to protect gay, lesbian and transgender individuals — in addition to providing protections based on race, age, religion and gender — while using public restrooms, going to restaurants, and engaging in transactions with businesses.

But the moment was short-lived.

Before the non-discrimination ordinance went into effect on April 1, the Republicans of the General Assembly called for a special session on March 23. In 12 hours, they and 11 Democrats passed HB 2. The legislation not only slashed the protections from the non-discrimination ordinance, but took away the ability of cities and municipalities to set their own minimum wage and employees to sue their employers for discrimination at the state level, their only recourse now to sue at the federal level.

My girlfriend Lara, a transgender woman, and I watched in horror for most of the 12 hours of debate over the bill, which washed away 18 months-worth of progress toward instating Charlotte’s non-discrimination ordinance. We paced from the pews above the House floor to hard chairs in the senate committee room all day, recoiling as Republican representatives writhed in their fear about their granddaughters sharing a bathroom with “a man in a dress.”

Every time they said something ignorant, I squeezed Lara’s hand a little tighter. I squeezed her hand a lot.

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Under this law, LGBT North Carolinians are in more danger than ever before — in the year 2016. It’s illegal for Lara to use a public restroom that doesn’t match her “biological sex.” And going to the bathroom was hard enough before HB 2; one January night, a man verbally harassed her at a bar. When Lara and I each went into two single-stall restrooms, he banged on her door and then gawked menacingly as she left the bathroom.

This was our life before HB 2. What will fear-mongering vigilantes do now that they have a state-sanctioned license to hunt us down?

***

From 2008–2014, I was in the closet as a paralegal working for a mid-size law firm in uptown.

Sexual orientation wasn’t added as a protected class in our employee handbook until my fourth year. This didn’t make me feel safer among back-biting attorneys and legal assistants. I played the change-the-pronoun game if someone asked about my personal life, especially the day my girlfriend at the time sent me pink Gerber daisies, roses and tulips. Dana, one of the legal secretaries, said, “Oh, you have a beau! What’s his name?”

“Charlie.”

“What does he look like?”

“Short blonde hair and blue eyes.”

My lies were a little too easy.

One day it was just us in the break room. She was eating a salad out of Tupperware and said, “Tell me about more about your beau. You haven’t said much about him!”

I took a deep breath.

“He’s not a he,” I said. “I have a girlfriend. I’m gay.”

She put down her fork and sighed. “That’s all right,” she said. “I’m still your work mama.” Then I told her she had lettuce on her shirt, visible the entire time, and that’s when she was mad at me. “You should have told me earlier!” she said.

***

If I were still working at the firm under HB 2, I would have almost no protections as an employee. Today, if Dana told the wrong person I was gay, I would have possibly been fired and unable to sue in state court for workplace discrimination. My only option would be to pursue action in federal court. This is now the reality for all LGBT individuals working in North Carolina.

And the legal discrimination doesn’t stop at the workplace.

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The author and her girlfriend kissing at a protest

As its moniker “bathroom bill” suggests, HB 2 affects lives down to the most basic human needs. Lara is, understandably, more anxious about using public restrooms. Now, I must either go into the restroom as her swarthy bodyguard or hope there’s no one creepy lurking around a single stall bathroom. One week ago, she was with friends at a bar and messaged me to say a stranger harassed her. It was seemingly regular harassment and not because she was trans. But I didn’t know at the time. I immediately called her, going a little grayer as I waited for her to answer. She was — this time — fine.

I’m also nervous about being refused service in small cities across North Carolina. Charlotte may be mostly progressive, but drive out 20 miles and you’re among the hardcore Republicans. I no longer feel comfortable stopping at gas stations, rest stops, and restaurants in the rural parts of my own state.

***

The only good to come out of HB 2 was the reaction from my local LGBT community. My friends and I see each other more often now at town hall events, rallies, and protests. There are a lot of hugs and high fives, necessary support in a dark time. We send those in the community who are too depressed and afraid to leave their homes messages and attend trans and queer-related support groups.

We spend most of our time, however, fighting the bill on the ground.

And the community does have some new support from allies. People who were quiet allies of equal rights before HB 2, like Dana at the firm, are now vocal. They finally see how silence equals oppression, and are taking baby steps to enter conversations on the issues facing the LGBT community, some even joining in the movement. Of course, I’ve heard other cisgender heterosexual friends say, “I’m sorry about what happened; we’ll get them next time,” as if we lost a Super Bowl instead of our basic rights. I know they mean well, but I also hope they learn more.

***

Outside of the elevator, I joined 40 activists, including the group of organizers called the Queer and Transgender People of Color Collective, and marched from First Ward Park to South Tryon Street. “If we don’t get it?” cried the protest leader, Ashley. “Shut it down!” I roared along with the crowd on the half mile march to the intersection.

Even though HB 2 is law, I must publicly oppose it. This bill is not about bathrooms. HB 2 legalizes the false and bigoted perception that transgender and queer people are predators. Republicans are punishing people they don’t want to understand by legislating injustice and destroying people’s daily lives.

I won’t stand for it.

***

Images provided by the author

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