Queering North Carolina

The outrage surrounding North Carolina's bathroom bill has reawoken old insults about the state's character as backwards or reactionary. What if NC's true character is in reality better expressed by its resistance to that law?

June 6. 2016

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Queering North Carolina

The outrage surrounding North Carolina's bathroom bill has reawoken old insults about the state's character as backwards or reactionary. What if NC's true character is in reality better expressed by its resistance to that law?

North Carolina has been getting more than a little bad press in the world lately. The controversial House Bill 2, better known as ‘that dumb bathroom bill in North Carolina’, has caused a serious headache not just for the reactionary administration of Governor Pat McCrory – who introduced it – but, more importantly, for the ordinary people of North Carolina.

There are significant pockets of progressive activity in North Carolina

The majority of voters here can’t stand it. I was involved in reporting the state’s embarrassment about their government for the Guardian, and we spoke to several people, including conservatives, who were riled up about the way HB2 has made North Carolina both a laughing stock and a bogeyman in the global media. The British government even issued a warning to LGBTQ tourists thinking of travelling to the state – not to give those fighting against it some rhetorical support but because McCrory’s stubborn antics have directly encouraged an increase in literal violent assaults against queer and transgender people.

And, of course, a good amount of this outrage from outside the state has been framed in explicitly anti-Southern language. Culturally speaking, North Carolina is still considered by many outside to be a red state, and it’s true that when you drive away from the big cities you’re in Trump country: blighted houses with trees growing through shattered roofs, gas-guzzling pickup trucks with six-foot Confederate flags flowing from the back, creaking and pathetic infrastructure in small towns ruined by the cruel departure of the tobacco and furniture industries. There is very much an America here that wants to be made great ‘again’.

But there is also an America that sees gender identity as a vital aspect of individual freedom. And I don’t mean bland picket-fence #ImWithHer America either; I mean the big-hearted Southern America, that speaks with a twang and eats grits for breakfast. There are significant pockets of progressive activity in North Carolina, for instance Charlotte, the 2.5 million-strong liberal metropolis whose city ordinance that codified transgender bathroom rights this February sparked McCrory’s insane backlash in the first place.

“There are people here who support us, and that’s something that’s overlooked.”

Then there’s the Research Triangle area, which includes the cities of Chapel Hill, Durham, and state capital Raleigh. “It’s a southern city that’s really stepping up to the modern world,” Ellen Powley, a systems analyst from Raleigh, told me. “It’s on the map as one of the top places in the country to live, it’s great for the low cost of living and a lot of people are moving down here.”

Ellen was raised in a conservative Methodist household but has been living as a woman for about 15 months now, a change her family supports, and she’s bothered by the way her home is now being perceived thanks to HB2. “I think it’s important for people to see North Carolina in a way that can humanize this struggle, and to let these people know that it’s not just a state of backwards conservatives. There are people who support me, who support us, and that’s something that’s overlooked.”

I’ve lived in nearby Durham since last August, so I’ve been able to witness in person the Triangle’s progressive lifestyle with its distinctly Southern flavors. Punks and hardcore kids, now in their thirties, tell me that back in the 90s it wasn’t uncommon for people in their counterculture down here to stitch a rebel flag onto their jackets, until black friends got it through to their community that this is Not Okay. Southern punks who aren’t fans of white supremacy recount bloody tales of trying to uproot its imagery from their subculture, but they’d worn those Confederate colors in the first place as a fuck-you to northerners, to the Yankees who malign the South while never bothering to pay a visit and listen. The acute hurt and shame they feel at their home being associated with HB2 – or indeed any kind of regressive redneck bullying – is probably greater than that of the middle class liberals making most of the noise.

The gay rights movement of the past few years has put too much energy into gay marriage, and favors middle class white homosexuals over queer and trans people of color

They’re the working class punks whose working class queer friends are the ones being beaten up in bathrooms across the state, being attacked and abused by police officers, being hounded out of their homes by families who don’t want to understand them, being gentrified out of neighborhoods that don’t want to house them. But taking that rebel flag patch off their vest twelve years ago didn’t convince any northern liberal to change their views on Southern kids who don’t want to hurt anyone.

But those liberals, not just in the Atlantic northeast but their counterparts all across the country, still need to be brought on board if transgender rights are to be secured. There is a sense among many LGBTQ activists that the gay rights movement of the past few years has put too much of its energy into distinctly normative dreams of gay marriage and representation that favors middle class white homosexuals over queer and trans people of color. The powerful Washington-centric political lobby that movement crystallized into is often referred to disparagingly as Big Gay not only by panicked conservative homophobes but by the transgendered people that movement left behind.

I spoke to Qasima Wideman, an organizer for the Queer Trans POC Coalition of North Carolina, to find out how activists on the ground see the current terrain:

“This is definitely an important moment but we’ve noticed that with all of the work that we were doing earlier in the year to bring up these issues, and of being erased by the mainstream gay rights movement, that we did not have a lot of white folks behind us. And since HB2 has passed a lot more white folks have shown up to support us because they feel that this bill affects them.”

This nascent shift in priorities for the mainstream gay rights movement and for middle class white liberals is the cause of a tentative sense of hope for activists like Wildman, but the message is still heavily controlled by the business end of Big Gay. Within the GOP sits pro-LGBT interest groups like the Log Cabin Republicans whose President, Gregory T Angelo, stressed to me that his chief concern is that HB2 is displeasing the masters of the universe:

“I do appreciate the conservative position of saying we can’t necessarily have a patchwork of laws across a state because businesses generally have concerns when there’s variation, right? But historically we have precedent around the country specifically regarding non-discrimination provisions in municipal governments and there has not ever been to my knowledge instances of business that have disapproved of those types of policies. If anything, pro-LGBT non-discrimination policies show that a municipality or a state is welcoming of all people, and their concern is not policing bathroom but attracting the greatest talent possible to the workforce of the state. One of the things businesses like least is over-burdensome regulation and variation, and what has happened as a result of HB2 is a total distraction from being able to conduct business in the state! There’s something to be said for the power of the voice of corporations in all this and it’s made sure the governor’s office has had a significant amount of attention and heat turned on him in the aftermath of the passage of this totally unnecessary bill.”

Angelo isn’t wrong that HB2 is considered a disaster by big business. In the Guardian piece we reported how the Bank of America, who employs 15,000 people in North Carolina, came out against the bill almost immediately. BoA’s position stands beside the 120 business leaders that Tea Party blogger Dustin Siggins whined had “teamed up with gay lobby to pressure North Carolina” (premised on the fantasy that HB2 represents the wishes of the NC electorate), as well as the heavily publicized artists boycott of the state by big names like Pearl Jam, Bruce Sprinsteen, Ringo Starr and Cyndi Lauper. That’s to say nothing of the mounting pressure to withdraw the federal funding on which the state’s government depends.

Governor McCrory used to be a moderate, too, which has caused much dismay among Republicans like Angelo who prefer to defer to business than to the Tea Party. The deep split down the right has shown in the broad political camps that have formed around HB2: in the business corner you have gay-friendly Conservatives Against HB2, of which the Log Cabin Republicans are sponsors; and in the rural extremist corner you have the Tea Party and even the KKK, who are using resistance to the bill as a recruitment opportunity.

McCrory made a pact with that seething mass to feed their rage and terror in exchange for their votes

Angelo was careful when talking to me not to say the words ‘tea’ and ‘party’ in the same sentence, but he was hardly being opaque when he said that “what’s surprising to me personally is the drastic break from common sense conservatism that Governor McCrory seems to have embraced.” He had a theory about McCrory’s reasoning: “part of the cynic in me wonders if the passage of HB2 was something of a political ploy to try to drive conservatives to the polls in November.”

But in swerving to the right to please the transmisogyny of the base, McCrory made a fatal strategic error: he forgot that what the Tea Party despises more than anything is a traitor. Making a pact with that seething mass to feed their rage and terror in exchange for their support has allowed many moderate GOP politicians to cling office since 2010, but failing to carry out their sadistic wishes and refusing to enable the violence they crave once it’s already been promised to them has led to voting booth desertions that have put several conservative politicians in serious electoral difficulty nationwide.

In McCrory’s case, he shows no sign of breaking that pact while he remains in office. But the original logic behind it – that he needs those votes in order to continue imposing his corrupt and ineffectual austerity program on his state – has instead backfired, and now seriously threatens McCrory’s electoral chances. Several polls now show that his Democrat contender, Roy Cooper, has made huge gains against the Governor as a result of his response to HB2. Cooper, currently the Attorney General of North Carolina, won great public support when he declared in March that he would refuse to defend the state in any legal challenges to HB2.

The captain has chained himself to the mast in a ship of fools

The governor had obviously already alienated the small-government liberals with whom he once had some traction after introducing HB2, and it’s too late now to beg for their forgiveness. Rather than make some futile attempt to wriggle free and run back to the voting consensus he’s trashed, McCrory appears to have accepted his fate, that the captain has chained himself to the mast in a ship of fools and has decided as they hurtle towards the jagged reef that he might as well glide over that last mile of waves with his pirate captors still believing that he is one of their own.

What remains aside from the gubernatorial tragicomedy is the deeper struggle: to protect trans people from immediate harm, and to win the culture war in the long run. And it’s starting to look like the GOP’s ugly backlash against transgender rights in the past couple of years has opened a rupture in the soul of America from which real societal change could spring.

“Trans people are treated as some brand new reality in the world, as if we appeared in, like, 1985 or something.” That’s Vivian Taylor, a leading trans rights activist in the Episcopalian Church and a transgender preacher in her own right. “But the reality is that transgender and gender nonconforming people, people who inhabit their bodies in a way outside a hard masculine-feminine binary, we’ve always existed.”

Something about the inhabitants of this state is being overlooked

Vivian’s heavy involvement with LGBT rights since leaving the military in 2010 has been notably multifaceted, not just writing columns in major news outlets across North Carolina but also agitating for direct social change, for instance in being part of the Episcopalian group which in 2012 had gender identity as an expression added to the Church’s canon laws. She was one of the seven people who testified against HB2 at the house committee hearing on March 25th.

Her observations about the strategic aspect of fighting HB2 reflect on the notion that by forcing the issue into public debate by making such an explosive struggle, the Republicans have made people think about the issue, which had been almost invisible in public discourse until very recently. Qasima Wideman had conveyed a similar attitude:

“I see this moment as a really exciting and important moment in terms of other LGBTQ folks’ and white LGBTQ folks’ consciousness, this sense that [although] gay marriage is passed doesn’t mean that it’s over for us now. And so I think that this moment is to think beyond it and talk about how we can really build community and bring back the power that the LGBTQ liberation movement had back in Stonewall, when queer and trans folks of color were in leadership and were being centered.”

McCrory picked a fight that he thought he was big enough to win, but Vivian sees his impending electoral doom as evidence of his failure to properly understand his electorate:

“In the army we have a saying that is ‘this is the hill you want to die on’. The fact is, we’re a state that is working to deal with our past, and we are working to become something better. There are very few places in America that are working as hard as Durham, North Carolina towards racial conciliation, gender conciliation, sexual conciliation, class reconciliation, that’s what we see in Durham right now.”

Perhaps, then, McCrory’s error of judgement is not so different to that of the northern liberals, who boorishly mistake the South as inherently reactionary? “I was living in Massachusetts when I was transitioning,” Vivian said, “but I moved back down here to become a minister because, you know, this is where I’m from, this is my home and I love it.” The gently twanging notes of her North Carolina accent added an earthiness to her words that speaks directly against the misconception that this state’s character is essentially backwards. Her choosing to exist here and to love her land stands as proof that clearly something about the inhabitants of this state is being overlooked. I asked her what she feels is the real character of North Carolina:

“North Carolina, we have extremely unpleasant things in our past; it was originally founded as a feudal estate to be a financial benefit to the Lords who had holdings in Virginia during the Restoration…and it lead directly into the larger use of slavery, and we still see the effects of it. But on the other hand, we have the oldest public university in the nation, we are a place where we are extremely diverse, where right now the majority of North Carolinians are against HB2. The fact is, we’re a state that is working to deal with our past, and we are working to become something better.

In transitioning, one is also changing the world around them

“There are many, many, many people who are working extremely hard, and yes we do have some rich and powerful people who would like to keep us in the dark ages, but the fact is as a state we are moving forward. I think a lot of [the stigma towards NC] is very painfully classist, I think that classism does a great deal of harm, I think that while it’s important that places like North Carolina be held accountable for the actions of our leaders, it’s also important for people to recognize that are many good people here. There are people who are working to make a real difference, who are working to move forward. My goodness there are problems; my god we are trying.”

The religious element of Vivian’s work and worldview was especially salient in the context of how cosmopolitan liberals in the USA and elsewhere view the American South – that is to say, the Bill Maher type belief that the chief wellspring of oppression in such places is in the greater presence of religion. But I found Vivian’s energetic reading of Christian scripture to speak of a wholly different kind of piety:

“You know, in the Book of Isaiah, God shows his love for us, he talks about the eunuch. God’s love for the eunuch is spoken about as an important sign of God’s love for the whole world. Did you know that the first gentile Christian was a trans person? In the Book of Acts, there is an Ethiopian eunuch who was going down the road – reading the Book of Isaiah! – and a saint runs up and jumps into his litter and they are talking about scripture and the saint asks the Ethiopian eunuch ‘do you understand what you’re reading?’ And he says ‘how can I understand if no-one teaches me?’ And the saint explains the scripture to him and tells him about Jesus Christ, tells him how the love of Christ is there for all who want it, and the Ethiopian asks ‘is there any reason why I shouldn’t be baptized?’ And the saint tells him ‘no’, and the Book of Acts says they ran to the water, they didn’t walk to it, they ran to it for baptism!”

The queer and trans radicals of red states can attest very strongly to fact that faith and family are not blocks to liberation, but conduits that can lead to it if they’re given the proper conditions. For Ellen, years of tussles and struggles with her parents lacked a language with which she or they could understand her turmoil, until the moment she came out to them.

“Once I told them about my youth, they kind of recognized that that was something that they did not see when I was a child,” she said to me. “They understood some of the conflicts we had in my childhood and disagreements and such, and I think it definitely opened their minds a lot.” The classic tenets of American liberalism focus so much on the individual ‘getting along’, ‘being yourself’, ‘having a right to do/say/think’ and so on, that they tend not to offer much insight into the profoundly important familial and societal aspect of transitioning: that one is also changing the world around them by becoming who they are.

That’s even true for McCrory’s sudden rightward shift – he wouldn’t have dug in his heels if he didn’t sense a change in the wind in the first place. Trans people wouldn’t be suffering this increase in attacks if civil society had kept them invisible, but society has changed, even the parts of it that don’t enjoy that change. Their repression and their fear bifurcates and becomes something new when it cringes in its nakedness: either loathing or loving.

These are the growing pains of a nation becoming queer

There was only one option as far as Ellen’s family was concerned. They were “a little bit worried about accepting something they really had not had much experience with, but they warmed up to it eventually, and now they’re fairly tolerant of it.”

She added, “I’m their child.” I asked her if this affected their position on HB2:

I think that others knowing me has changed many of their opinions. It often takes a personal connection to show that someone who they know is struggling against these preconceptions and assumptions. The way I came out was like throwing a rock in a pond, it has affected others around me so drastically by just knowing who I am and what I’m dealing with. Many of my friends and family now oppose HB2, and have told me that knowing me has changed their beliefs.

What all of these stories reveal is that struggle against HB2 isn’t a battle that will simply be won and then the North Carolina before HB2 will be restored intact. Rather, here on the ground level, it’s the growing pains of a nation coming to terms with what it really means to have a multiplicity of genders, of a country becoming queer. As one of the places where the most pain is felt, it’s increasingly apparent that North Carolina is stretching and contorting and growing into a state that knows and feels much more of the subject than the outsiders who dismiss it. They deserve that we listen.




Image: Kae Diaz

June 6. 2016