When my girlfriend, Mary Anne, suggested I accompany her to Charlotte, North Carolina, to meet her family and help move her childhood things out of her dad's garage, I somehow wasn't listening to the "North Carolina" part.
The only place in the South I'd been was New Orleans, where I had sex with a woman in a pool five feet away from a hot tub where two men were having sex, surrounded by people lying around naked on lawn chairs who didn't care enough to lift their sunglasses. I figured my experience in North Carolina would differ from this scenario, but honestly I hadn't been watching the news. Mary Anne told me Charlotte was like Bellevue, so I imagined it as sort of a fancy strip mall featuring narration by William Faulkner.
Then, of course, I started reading about House Bill 2, a piece of legislation signed by Governor Pat McCrory that went into effect earlier this year and that prevents local municipalities in North Carolina from passing LGBTQ antidiscrimination laws. It also infamously requires trans people to use the bathroom corresponding to the gender assigned to them at birth.
The imaginary strip mall in my mind became populated by heavily armed bigots. "Will we get shot if we hold hands?" I asked Mary Anne.
"We'll be fine," she said. But she also said, "You never see out queer people there."
I was scared. Growing up in Seattle, I've never had to be careful. My biggest fear when I came out at 14 was that I would have to wear clogs. I imagined absentmindedly kissing Mary Anne in a Charlotte Olive Garden parking lot and getting beaten and raped by some investment banker in a Confederate flag–draped Hummer. (My apologies to the good investment bankers of the world—bear in mind, this scenario in my imagination also involved commentary by a long-dead author who never even lived in North Carolina.)
As a mostly male person in a woman's body, the big issue for me was bathrooms. I usually use men's rooms—I figure if I'm going to get stared at anyway, I'll use the pisser whose decor looks best with my shoes. I pass well enough that my presence in women's rooms alarms some women, but not well enough to completely avoid the same alarm from cis men when I use men's rooms.
I didn't know where I would be able to excrete anything in North Carolina. What if I used the women's room but (given how I dress) ended up scaring a conservative woman and had to show my cunt to a security guard just to get myself out of a legal cesspool and his own rapey power trip? What if I used the men's room and some cis guy tried to "put me in my place," desperately bolstering masculinity he defined by one fragile body part?
My one idea: What if we just tried to pass as a straight couple the whole time?
I wondered what my grandpa would do. Having never known the guy as an adult, it's easy for me to think of him—a man who held hands with Martin Luther King Jr. in a civil rights march and who, as a psychiatrist, was not afraid to hug gay AIDS patients when even their families wouldn't go near them—as an ideal male role model. Realistic me knows he adhered to fragile American gender roles as much as any Hummer driver, and that he was a fucking maniac. If someone outside a bathroom demanded he drop his pants, he'd have pulled a .45 and blown their brains out. That is not the kind of American I want America to consist of—but in his spirit of fierce individualism, I decided to be myself completely on this trip unless my life or someone else's depended on hiding. As I got on a plane with the love of my life at 3 a.m., I thought of him playing pirates with me at an age when most people wanted to know why I wasn't wearing a dress. I resolved to be brave.
At the Common Market, a bar, cafe, and grocery store in a Charlotte neighborhood called Plaza Midway (which seemed to be an appealingly catch-all subculture gathering place), the signs on the bathroom doors were labeled "whichever," their emblems each a stick person wearing half a dress. Someone had drawn Prince symbols on both, and glued Bernie Sanders's face over one of them. I was stunned. Metal kids smoked with the local yoga crowd out front, and the back patio had an impressive wooden canopy decorated with tapestries and crocheted potholders. A sculpture of steel flames rose over the back gate, above a flower garden. Graffiti included a green mandala and the word "wanker" splashed in drippy purple.
After a stop at a pirate-themed bar called Snug Harbor, we drove through Mary Anne's old neighborhood, full of McMansions. I had a powerful urge to pee on the lawns of these ugly wastes of resources. Mary Anne thought this was funny, but was too surrounded by former neighbors to encourage it.
I thought Mary Anne and I would be afraid to express physical affection in public, but nothing happened that even made us think twice. We kissed and held hands in the aisles of Belk, a department store whose slogan is "modern southern style." I bought a perfectly fitting boys' seersucker suit for $50. The cashier called me "sir/ma'am," and the casual and consistent way the words ran together suggested she actually gave less of a fuck about whether I was either or both than some employees in Seattle department stores. We exchanged retail horror stories with another clerk, laughing about people pissing in dressing rooms and littering floors with king-sized boxes of Goobers with all the chocolate sucked off.
One night, we went looking for gay bars. A supposed lesbian bar called L4, whose website advertised a '90s faux-futuristic aesthetic comparable to Man Ray (RIP), was closed at 10 p.m., if it was ever open. A bar called the Station was also closed. Next door was the Plaza Midwood Country Club, with a sign that said "members only," though they were happy to serve us. Inside, people played pool and watched sports on enormous flat-screen TVs. We were told the Station used to be a gay bar, but is no longer.
In the parking lot, we met a young woman who was really into being Wiccan, a tall black guy in jogging gear, and an elderly plaid-wearing white guy who loved birds and reminded me of my dad. When I told him my dad shared his interest in bird-watching, he actually ran into the bar to tell his wife he wasn't the only one. I mentioned that I planned to write that North Carolina appeared to be populated by friendly people, no more bigoted than Seattleites, whose local government was failing them, and they agreed with that. When my plans to move in with Mary Anne came up, all three congratulated us.
We heard a drag night was going on at Snug Harbor, so we had to go back. The place was packed. I was surprised that the drag queens were exclusively cis women, but femme drag is awesome, and it was definitely a queer party. It was more intersectional than any queer party I've seen in Seattle. Young danced with old; people of every ethnicity crowding the stage when Peaches' "Fuck the Pain Away" came on. One woman was there with her mom. A guy approached me and Mary Anne just to tell us we're a beautiful couple. I noticed less kissing and hand-holding and people in leather dog masks exchanging blowjobs on pool tables than one sees at Seattle parties, which caused me to wonder if Mary Anne and I had been less cautious in public than we should have been.
At one point, the DJ stopped the music to talk about the recent changes in Charlotte. The gist of his speech was that the new and old residents should be good to each other, and that, after all, they had gathered to have a fun party. There was a roaring toast and the dancing resumed. Though moved by his words, it was clear no one present needed encouragement.
From there we hurried to our first official gay bar, which oddly would be closing at 11 p.m. It had magenta curtains and I think a disco ball, though as I'd been going hard for several hours, it may just have been a really sparkly shot glass. We drank with a guy in dramatic lavender makeup and a floor-length mink coat. He complained of being eighty-sixed from a gay bar for using the women's room while in drag, which no one present could make sense of. We made our way to a nearby metal bar where we closed out the evening getting pool lessons from a group of guys who were dressed like bros but acted like they'd known us forever. It struck me that the language of style is different in every city—every outfit a subtle description of identity conveyed by combinations of garments. As I'm reminded of the music of language by the sound of languages I don't know, in Charlotte I was reminded of the benefits of not reading too much into appearances.
We saw bros again later at a place called Angry Ales, but this heavily-tattooed-linebacker variety of bros made Seattle bros look like crystal swan figurines in backward baseball caps. These North Carolina bros were much quieter, but the stares seemed meaner. "These are, like, bankers," said Mary Anne's friend from high school. "They just graduated from college and are making a lot of money. This is a high-end place." I dared not use the men's room. There were two women's rooms, "divas" and "dames." Deciding that a diva is basically an extra-feminine dandy, I used that one.
A gas station outside Raleigh was the first place I used a men's bathroom. Men stared, nothing happened, Mary Anne and I drank Red Bulls and continued on our way. We saw a dude in a truck with a Confederate flag license plate and a guy on a motorcycle wearing a Nazi military helmet. We passed ancient, decrepit tin-roofed farmhouses (which brought Faulkner to mind again). I wanted to meet Civil War soldiers, or at least buy a switchblade from one of the pawnshops emblazoned with silhouettes of rifles. The hypermasculinity of the place appealed to my own gender identity in a confusing way, though I knew my identification as a man would be seen as a threat here.
I was simultaneously disgusted by the obvious bigotry and celebration of violence I saw (gun shops abounded) and excited by Wild West danger and adventure. I hated the idea of hurting anyone, yet recalled with great fondness my grandpa's shooting lessons, which seemed a celebration of life and its brevity. I wanted to hold the scary guy on the motorcycle and the old guys having a Bootsy Collins dance party in a parking lot and the man in the pickup with the Confederate flag plate—I wanted us all to love each other and revel in our similarities, and tears slid down my face at the impossibility of that childish wish. I hoped at least that none of them would kill each other as my girlfriend and I sped by beneath the pines.
The next gas station bathroom I used deserves mention—there were signs all around the women's room saying "WOMEN ONLY, NO EXCEPTIONS." No such signs surrounded the men's room, so I peed in the men's room. Perhaps they don't know transmasculine people exist? I thought.
After dinner in Raleigh with Mary Anne's dad and her brother at a vegetarian restaurant, the first place I'd seen openly queer people since Snug Harbor, Mary Anne and I went for a nightcap at Hooters, out of a combination of morbid curiosity and both being dirty old men. Tables of guys shared wings, couples watched TV, and one woman sat there looking distinctly stood up. I wanted to buy her a conciliatory drink but worried the gesture would be misinterpreted. In the parking lot, I asked to buy a cigarette from a young couple. "We'll just give one to you," said the woman.
"Those things are expensive," I said. "Are you sure?"
"Don't be black," she replied, handing me a Newport menthol.
"I was being equitable?" I said. Mutual stares ensued. We left.
The next morning was a Mother's Day celebration for Mary Anne's grandma, Grandmerrie, whose first words to me over the phone at Christmas had been "I love you." I expected tension from a certain Mother's Day guest, a relative of Mary Anne's we'll call Cotton. Sure enough, Cotton brought up HB2 before we even sat down to brunch. "I just don't want any little girls getting molested," he said.
"What's to stop that from happening now?" said Mary Anne. "A door?"
"A door and a cop," said Cotton.
"Cotton," I said, "imagine you, just as you are right now, in a woman's body. You'd feel uncomfortable using the women's room, wouldn't you?"
"Yeah," he said.
"This is my life," I said. "I don't feel any more comfortable being forced into a traditionally feminine role than you would."
He seemed to consider that. I wanted to get into how the binary is a crock of shit anyway, and had I really wanted to play hardball, I'd have mentioned little boys were no less likely to be molested than girls, but this day was about Grandmerrie, so I abandoned the conversation and devoted my attention to her, whose enduring beauty is a testament to the cosmetic powers of love and gentleness.
Later, Grandmerrie took Mary Anne, Aunt Emma, and me to mother-daughter tea at the spiritual center she frequents. There was a queer priest, a real witch with a coven (one of the coolest surprises about NC was the apparently large population of witches), and a wide variety of ideologies, ages, and professions. I was touched that Grandmerrie included me, and by her unconditional value of Mary Anne's happiness. She had recently learned to text and, touchingly, often included the women holding hands emoji in her messages to Mary Anne. This women-only space didn't make me uncomfortable—the part of me that is female felt celebrated. So many spaces designed "for" women are a thinly veiled means of controlling them. This event, designed by women, made me feel comfortable with my binary-smashing gender identity and closer to my new family.
Later, we returned to the small Raleigh arts district, on Person Street, where Emma runs a hair salon. Mary Anne and I talked about the way Mother's Day had gone. She explained that in the South, your options are either to abandon the culture you are raised in or to create your own culture by starting a liberal business like Emma (who surrounds herself with like-minded people and answers to no one but herself) or moving to Seattle and becoming an artist like Mary Anne.
It must be terrifying, I thought, being from a place like North Carolina—you conform regardless of your identity, personality, and desires, or essentially face exile from your loved ones, community, everything you came out of. I felt an uncomfortable pang of sympathy for bigots who have spent their lives in fear, struggling to conform, often aware they are something entirely different than who they are forced to present to the world.
The funniest (and hottest) part of the trip was when Mary Anne and I re-created the iconic photo of the sailor home from war, dipping a beautiful girl for a kiss, in front of North Carolina's state capitol. No one was around except for a young couple with a baby who looked like they'd just come from church. We were half-drunk and wearing mostly clothing we bought from a goth taxidermist. We thought the whole scenario was hilarious. Despite the cameras and the cars going by, we couldn't resist taking topless photos in front of Governor Pat McCrory's mansion. I would have expected this to be a scary endeavor—we were in Mordor—but we'd just come from a bar full of North Carolina citizens who felt the same way about McCrory that we did, and I was certain if my grandpa had tits, he would have done exactly the same thing (probably while waving an AK-47 over his head).
Engrossed in conversation on the way back to Charlotte, we didn't notice we were nearly out of gas. We figured out there was a gas station three miles away, only to discover an empty parking lot where the gas station should be. It was very dark by now. Fat bugs slapped loudly against the windshield. About every 10 blocks was an old farmhouse or a double-wide. There was something profoundly creepy about the place, which was called "Jonesville," too close in both of our minds to Jonestown and its massacre. There were more churches than houses. A billboard looming over the two-lane arterial read "Marriage = one man + one woman."
On the way to what we desperately hoped was a functional gas station, we discussed what to do if we got stuck out here. Normally it would be safer to knock on a door together, but having no way to know whether the residents of that area shared the billboard's sentiment, we decided it would be safest for femme Mary Anne to do the talking while I watched, ready to call 911.
When we saw the lights of a Shell station ahead, we embraced. It was open. We were going to be fine. The building the gas station was in also housed a church, a law office, and a live bait shop. We couldn't get out of there fast enough.
On the plane home, we talked about how weird it was that the scariest moment of our trip was essentially in our heads. Had I been alone, I might have thought, "Well, there are billboards with delusional right-wing messages on them in Seattle; who's to say I have more to fear here?" But I was with someone who grew up in North Carolina, whose intuition told her something really bad might happen if the car broke down.
My overall impression of North Carolina was that few people seemed to have what they actually wanted, or even to be aware that they could want something. There are people living a "traditional" lifestyle, which seems to involve the inclusion of big corporations in every aspect of life, and striving for "normalcy" based on biblical values. Then there are people like the DJ at Snug Harbor, or my girlfriend who, after 13 years of Catholic school, moved to Seattle, started making art, and now plans to marry a genderqueer person at a ceremony officiated by a vacuum wearing a gold wig and googly eyes.
I suspect the bigots, the Pat McCrorys of the world, have lived lives grotesquely contorted by this iron maiden of "normalcy" and by the fear of losing every comfort and relationship if they fail to squeeze into it. They lash out, trying to punish those who have had the courage to escape, or people like me who have had the unbelievable luck of being born free in a place like Seattle.
These hateful people do not represent the average citizen of North Carolina. No one I spoke to could figure out how McCrory and the other politicians in favor of HB2 even got into office, though "gerrymandering" was a word I heard a lot. The way people behaved to me and Mary Anne, even those who encountered us drunkenly squeezing each other's boobs through shirts covered in hush-puppy crumbles, reflected the desires of every human—for connection, friendship, and love.
While I was in Raleigh, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch officially condemned HB2 and announced the federal government would sue the state of North Carolina. "None of us can stand by when a state enters the business of legislating identity and insists that a person pretend to be something they are not," said Lynch. "No matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama administration wants you to know that we see you, we stand with you, and we will do everything we can to protect you moving forward."
Doesn't that fill you with pride for our country? I was shocked at the directness and moral correctness of this address to the trans community. The good news is that the forces of bigotry and fear are rapidly weakening. Mary Anne speculates that HB2 was a panicked response to widespread positive change—in the South, gender roles are a big deal, she explained, and it would make sense that a threat to something so crucial to a large number of people's validation would incite a backlash. Emma told us that an article has been circulating in Raleigh that explains the idea of gender as a spectrum in a way that people are receptive to. If I'd spent my life stifling my desires and denying my own identity for an ideology now crumbling before my eyes, I'd be panicking too. All over the United States—all over the world—it's sinking in that people no longer have to be isolated and scared. They can be who they really are, and be loved.