Candis Cox-Daniels is a married professional, an aunt who dotes on her nieces and nephews while planning to someday have a family of her own.
She’s also one of an estimated 38,000 transgender North Carolinians.
Now she finds herself on the front lines of the latest battle over the rights of America’s sexual minorities.
Gender identity was the spark that ignited last week’s passage of North Carolina’s HB2, the law that overturned Charlotte’s anti-discrimination ordinance and sparked a national firestorm.
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We’re watching the latest chapter in a quarter-century-long struggle. Trans has become the flashpoint in a much broader conversation about the role of minorities in society.
Susan Stryker, director of the University of Arizona’s Institute for LGBT Studies
After years of social and legal victories for the gay rights movement, ‘trans’ has become the latest frontier in a long fight.
“We’re watching the latest chapter in a quarter-century-long struggle,” says Susan Stryker, who directs the University of Arizona’s Institute for LGBT Studies. “Trans has become the flashpoint in a much broader conversation about the role of minorities in society.”
Transgender people perceive their gender to be different from the one recorded at birth. They manifest it in different ways. For some it’s the clothes they wear. Others can undergo hormonal treatments, plastic surgery or, in some cases, sex reassignment surgery.
The UCLA-based Williams Institute estimates transgender people make up 0.3 percent of the U.S. population, about 700,000 people. In Charlotte that translates to around 2,400. Despite the relatively small numbers, advocates say they pay a disproportionate price.
“If you look at those who are discriminated against today, it is hard to find any member of the population today that faces more discrimination than transgender folks living right here in this city and across the state and across this country,” says Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign.
Supporters of HB2 cast the law not as an attack on transgender people but as protection for women and children. They say Charlotte’s ordinance would have allowed men claiming to be transgender gain access to women’s bathrooms or locker rooms.
We’re not accusing transgender people of being sexual predators. We’re saying there’s no way to tell … You’re giving the sex offenders license to be in a place where they can attack women.
Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition
“We’re not accusing transgender people of being sexual predators,” says Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition. “We’re saying there’s no way to tell … You’re giving the sex offenders license to be in a place where they can attack women.”
Cox-Daniels, of Raleigh, says most people don’t understand what it means to be transgender. It’s not about which gender you’re attracted to, she said, it’s deeper.
“People find themselves confused when it comes to the transgender community because we’re not talking about sexuality or who you love,” she says. “But we are truly addressing who you are and how you see yourself.”
It was in the early 1990s that transgender became the T in LGBT, a term coming into use to encompass the range of people whose sexual or gender orientation put them outside the norm.
A couple decades earlier, “gay” was an umbrella term that referred to a wide range of people. Lesbians and bi-sexuals later were acknowledged in their own right. Then, according to Stryker, it was the fight against HIV-AIDS that helped galvanize a more political movement that became known as LGBT.
It wasn’t always a smooth alliance.
“Historically there’s been conflict between a lot of trans people and … people who happen to be gay and lesbian,” says Stryker, herself a transgender woman. “(It was) the re-thinking of identity politics where trans came back into the fold.”
Over the years gays and lesbians saw increasing acceptance, both socially and by law. Vermont became the first state to recognize civil unions in 2000. Four years later Massachusetts because the first to legalize same-sex marriage. 2011 saw the end of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage everywhere.
It was also in 2015 that Olympian Bruce Jenner debuted as Caitlyn, bringing more attention to the transgender cause.
The gay rights movement everybody thinks was the fastest-moving civil rights movement in history. But the trans movement has been lightening fast.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality
Even before that, according to the Human Rights Campaign, over 225 cities had extended anti-discrimination protection to people based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“The gay rights movement everybody thinks was the fastest-moving civil rights movement in history,” says Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “But the trans movement has been lightning fast. So we’ve been expecting some kind of backlash for years.”
Several states responded to the high court’s marriage ruling with measures that allows officials to refuse services to same-sex couples or transgender individuals for religious reasons. Among those reasons in a Mississippi law awaiting the governor’s signature: the belief that a person’s “immutable biological sex (is) objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.”
“We’ve been tracking more than 200 anti-LGBT bills this year,” says Cathryn Oakley, senior legislative counsel with the Human Rights Campaign. “That’s almost double what we were tracking last year … which was an all time high. Fifty of those bills are specifically anti-transgender, which is also an all time high.”
LGBT advocates also cite the physical threats. Last year, they say at least 21 transgender people were murdered, many because of their gender identity.
“The danger and the risks are real,” says HRC’s Griffin. “There is an epidemic of violence in this country against transgender people, particularly trans women of color.”
A ‘visceral discomfort’
Erica Lachowitz knows about violence.
A trans woman, she was 19 when she was walking along a New York City street with friends when they were assaulted. Three men threw her to the ground. As she covered her face, they began kicking with steel-tipped boots, fracturing ribs and knocking her unconscious.
She’d known she was different since she was 5. That was when she looked in a mirror and started crying. “When are my girl parts going to come in?” she asked her mom. For years she led a double life: privately as a woman, publicly as a man.
Now 40, Lachowitz works in Monroe and is a director of the Charlotte LGBT Chamber of Commerce.
“The support I’ve received … has been overwhelmingly positive,” she says. “The only areas unfinished are creating legitimacy from our state government to help others accomplish the same thing.”
Brian Harrison, who teaches about LGBT politics at Northwestern University, says people have a hard time coming to grips with transgendered people.
There’s a visceral discomfort with transgender people. But there was a visceral discomfort with gay, lesbian and bi-people 15 years ago.
Brian Harrison, Northwestern University professor
“It’s a new and unnerving idea to a lot of people,” he says. “LGB people have become normalized over the last 15 to 20 years … I think people are uncomfortable with transgender people …
“There’s a visceral discomfort with transgender people. But there was a visceral discomfort with gay, lesbian and bi-people 15 years ago.”
Candis Cox-Daniels spends time talking to people about what it means to be transgender. She talks about growing up as a man in New York and gradually changing. By the time she moved to North Carolina in 2003, she’d come out as transgender. She surgically completed the transition the next year.
Most people don’t question the gender they were born into, she says. “So therefore I think it scares people because they can’t rationalize it and can’t relate to it. And quite frankly, it can be confusing.”
This week she tried to explain it to Gov. Pat McCrory when she and gay rights leaders met with him at the Capitol. She also told him how HB2 has affected her.
She no longer feels she can use the women’s restroom at RDU, the airport where she works. Instead she uses a bathroom intended for families and people with special needs. More than that, she says she told him, she feels “dehumanized.”
“I felt somehow I have been turned into this person you should guard your children from,” she said.