Privilege, Passing, and Peeing in North Carolina

A sign many businesses in Carborro, NC featured in their shop windows.
A sign many businesses in Carborro, NC featured in their shop windows.

Last weekend, my partner and I took a mini vacation down to North Carolina to attend an old friend’s wedding. We were excited to be part of the celebration and get out of DC for a few days – but as we left the city behind and made our way down south, something was nagging at the back of our minds. We were willingly driving to a state that recently criminalized my partner’s existence, and legalized discrimination against both of us.
I am a queer, cisgender woman, and my partner is a queer, transgender man. Coming from DC, a place that is often a leader in laws and policies that affect queer and trans people, to a place that aims to be the exact opposite was worrying, but we anticipated few challenges.  We even spent a good part of the car ride down joking about it. Every time we saw a port-a-potty on the side of the road, we’d say that it was the only legal bathroom my partner could use in all of North Carolina. We even brainstormed how to get inside the state capital building and governor’s mansion so my partner could break the law on state property by merely existing (spoiler alert: we didn’t succeed).
The joking stopped when we pulled off at a rest stop off of Highway 85.
As we walked in the building that housed the bathrooms, we encountered the words “Women” and “Men” painted in capital letters as large as our bodies on the entrance walls. At first we laughed, but the signs felt strangely ominous, and seemed to magnify the anxiety that had suddenly gripped both of us.
Normally, I don’t worry about my appearance and whether or not I “pass” as straight and/or cisgender. I’ve been misgendered in public a fair amount, including in the bathroom, but it’s never bothered me. As I walked into the restroom however, my mind began replaying a recent video circulating of a woman taken out of a restroom by police because she appeared masculine. I felt acutely aware of my short haircut and baggy shirt. Should I have worn a different outfit? The idea of getting kicked out of a bathroom had not even crossed my mind a half hour ago driving through Virginia, but in a place with bigoted politicians and rampant fear-mongering of gender non-conformity, violence became an uneasy possibility that I couldn’t shake.
While I worried for my own safety, I worried even more for my partner’s. As the partner of a trans person, I worry a lot. Typically though, the type of discrimination he faces tends to be in doctors’ offices, like when medical providers have refused to see him because he is trans, even when seeking treatment for unrelated issues. We’re lucky he hasn’t faced violence in the men’s bathroom before, and that for the most part that’s not something we have to even consider. As I waited outside the restroom for him that day though, my anxiety increased with every moment that passed.
My worrying amounted to nothing as he came out unscathed, although visibly stressed, and jokingly suggested we “lay low for a while” since he was now a criminal by North Carolina standards. While we both laughed, we felt relieved. Regardless of where they live, trans people still face the risk of violence every day. At a distance, HB2 was just part of that possibility. In person, we felt the weight of being in a place that is actively validating discrimination and violence against LGBT people. Whatever distance we had felt from the law went away the moment my partner had to break it in order to pee.
The rest of the weekend was a beautiful celebration of our friends, many of whom are queer and trans. The joy of their celebration felt like a defiant act against a government that has wasted so much time and money causing our community pain. When it came time to leave though, we couldn’t stop thinking about how we were going home to a place where we were legally protected, and our friends would still be in North Carolina. It shouldn’t be a privilege to be protected by the law – but these days it is, and it’s a privilege I feel more intensely than I ever have before. Every day that this law stands, and similar pieces of legislation pop up in state legislatures across the country, is a day of mourning. I grieve for queer and trans people who live in fear that they will be turned away from accessing services, or lose their jobs, or be victims of violence spurred on by these hateful laws. I never felt so scared to exist as I did that weekend, and I can’t begin imagine the toll it takes on people who feel that fear every day. In some ways I don’t have to imagine though, because we know for a fact that discrimination is a direct contributor to suicide amongst trans people.
The news that the Department of Justice is threatening North Carolina with taking away its federal funds is great, and hopefully it leads to the repeal of HB2 (though right now the governor is not looking to change). But LGBT people shouldn’t have to endure state-sanctioned threats of discrimination and violence while they wait for politicians to have a change of heart. We need clear protections everywhere – and laws like HB2 prove that that protection can’t come fast enough.