A recent town hall exemplifies the repeated contempt and disdain of several local politicians for Asheville’s non-binary and transgender community, signaling that they do not deserve to hold office
Above: State Sen. Terry Van Duyn, at right in white suit, standing alongside activists (including the author) from multiple LGBT and civil rights groups at a March 24 anti-HB2 rally last year. Van Duyn, against the wishes of those same groups, recently backed a bill that left HB2 functionally intact. Photo by Bill Rhodes
I was often asked, as I participated in media coverage surrounding the election year story that was HB2, several variations on “what is it like to be a trans woman in North Carolina?” It’s a shame said interest in the affairs of transgender and non-binary folk in the state has dried up in months since, as I found a fitting analogy on May 13, at a town hall for N.C. Sen. Terry Van Duyn and Rep. John Ager, hosted by the Buncombe County Young Democrats. Although I was not given an opportunity to speak at the event, I’m excited to share with you the resultant series of similes:
Being a trans woman, it turns out, is somewhat like sitting in a gymnasium with your hand up for over two hours, bombarded with repeated assurances of “we’ll come back for you” that never come to pass. Being a trans woman is kind of like spending the better part of a year watching your community find itself relentlessly exploited by seemingly every politician in the state, only to a day later see them sold out for the sake of a basketball tournament. Being a trans woman in North Carolina is, in some admittedly subtle ways, almost akin to being told, to your face, that your supposed representatives in Raleigh had no choice but to, in the oft-repeated refrain of Sen. Van Duyn, “put North Carolina first.” Please note that in this analogy the term “North Carolina” does not include You, and no, you do not get to hold the microphone so stop asking.
You are as much a voiceless spectator here as anywhere else, and indeed the event will conclude without the comments of a single transgender woman. While it is indeed equal parts horrifying and unsurprising that those affected most harshly by the legislation were not given an opportunity to speak their truths at an event ostensibly intended for exactly that, it was heartening to see so many transgender men and cisgender allies use their time with the microphone to speak to hold their representatives in Raleigh accountable for signing off on a non-repeal of the notorious anti-LGBT and anti-worker law in accordance with hitting the deadline for a basketball tournament.
However, there seemed to be some fundamental misunderstandings concerning what HB2 and HB 142 actually did: Van Duyn began her defense by suggesting that before HB142, it was legal to fire a trans person simply because of their identity, only to be met by a glum chorus of “it still is” in response (full disclosure: I’m among many in Asheville’s transgender community to lose work as a result of cisgender discomfort with my identity and body). Undaunted, the Senator resorted to citing a personal, conveniently inarguable “truth” that guided her to support HB142, while Ager puzzlingly suggested that, despite the objections of literally every organization with the word “equality” in its name or mission, he honestly believed that four more years of HB2 would be “good for LGBT people.”
If Van Duyn and Ager seemed caught off guard by the displeasure of those assembled — and they did — maybe that’s because this isn’t how the conversation was supposed to go; immediately after the election, liberal pundits and entertainers alike lined up to finger so-called identity politics as the culprit. In order to win elections going forward, the thinking goes, Democrats will have to stop talking about “niche” issues like civil rights for millions and start doing more to appease racist white voters. And so again, the liberal inclination is to allow Republicans to set the rules of engagement, because that always works out so well. The message to transgender constituents, coming off of a year of “We’ll Fight for You” and “I stand for ALL North Carolinians” is this: “Hey, we tried, too bad it didn’t work out, I know, but Donald Trump is President now and so the only people we’re fit to fight for or protect are ourselves, actually.”
Indeed, there was no media presence to be found at Asheville’s observance of the 18th International Transgender Day of Remembrance, just under a fortnight after the election. Governor-elect Roy Cooper moved fast in an apparent race to sell out the community a month later before even assuming the office; HB2 stopped being a civil rights issue with economic implications and became a purely economic problem to be waved away with a cynical, and effective, change of name. In the noted liberal oasis of Asheville, Mayor Esther Manheimer voiced her enthusiastic support for that strategy, perhaps unsurprisingly coming off of Council’s refusal last year to so much as lift a finger in support of our local community before HB2 and then HB142 illegalized the very act; the city would later decline to fight HB2 in court this past September, even when they were offered a free legal defense team to do so. All the while, likely Democratic voters who happen to be transgender were told that it was time to come together, if only to defeat those dastardly Republicans who, we’re told, are solely at fault for our every perceived slight, nevermind the turncoats.
But Democrats can no longer rely on fear of Republicans to maintain their supposed coalition; it didn’t work last year and it won’t work next year if for no other reason than, as Oliver Wendell Holmes once helpfully observed, “even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked.” Sen. Van Duyn in particular could be seen smiling with local transgender activists in photographs taken at the countless demonstrations, articles and panelist discussions in which she participated in the wake of HB2 (I know, I was there) only to turn around in subsequent months and proudly stand by her decision to cast a meaningless and therefore symbolic vote with the sole effect of communicating to every transgender constituent and supporter whose inspirational story brought tears to her eyes that the economic success of our now perpetually bigoted state is of greater import than securing the ability of those North Carolinians to participate in said economy, or indeed public life at all. This is a clumsy betrayal, cheapened by its shamelessness.
Tone deaf calls for unity are particularly insulting given the profound disillusionment that has resulted. It is absolutely fair to wonder how many of the transgender North Carolinians invited by Roy Cooper’s campaign to come have their picture taken voting with him are going to get excited about another Democrat who promises them the world (in this case, “the world” being relative freedom from explicitly state-endorsed persecution and maybe even access to public facilities)? The fact is that after all the panels, the crocodile tears, the photo ops and human interest fluff pieces, we ended up with none of that.
Toward the end of the event, Ager and Van Duyn were asked to pledge that, assuming N.C. Democrats ever return to power, they would not re-gerrymander districts to safeguard themselves from the will of voting North Carolinians, and of course they fell over themselves to agree. But that’s the problem: when our rights, our access to basic human dignity, are on the line we don’t want a Democratic party that plays nice and rolls over as told. We want a ruthless party that values the interests of its supposed coalition as much or more than the GOP values the fancies of white evangelicals and billionaires. We want a cunning party, one that does whatever it has to in order to carry out and defend the best interests of its constituents, because politics isn’t some silly spectator sport to us; these are our lives at stake. We are worth more than basketball, and we deserve better than betrayal.
See you at the primary.
Brynn Estelle is an Asheville activist, organizer and artist.