The political storm around North Carolina’s House Bill 2 has focused on its implications for transgender individuals, but much less has been written about what it means for the “gender nonconforming.”
By that I mean those women and men, girls and boys whose appearance doesn't fit neatly into traditional male and female boxes – or restrooms. To be blunt: It has been cruel.
Gov. Pat McCrory has been quick to blame outsiders, notably the “PC elite” and the media, for “smearing our state” over the HB2 debacle, which by some estimates could cost the state’s economy hundreds of millions of dollars. But that’s not all that concerns North Carolina native Jamie Lamkin, 50, a former librarian, who said the new law invites discrimination and harassment against women like herself and her daughter.
Because of her height (5-foot-10), hair (short) and build (she calls it “square”), Jamie has been called "sir" more often than she can recall – even when she has worn a dress. "It's happened to me my whole life," she said with a sigh.
Double down on that for her 15-year-old daughter, Sofie, who has short, spiky hair and sports "fuzzy legs"; she's often mistaken for a boy. Women like Jamie and Sofie are likely to be the most frequent victims of the law.
"People have all these misconceptions about gender, a very narrow view of what a boy or girl should look like," Jamie said. She recently posted on Facebook that she has seen reports of "folks being questioned about their gender identity, simply being looked at funny, or being thrown out of places because they don't match a norm for the bathroom they're entering."
I sat down to talk with the two women in their Chapel Hill townhouse last week and got quite an earful.
Jamie started off by talking about a deeply unsettling visit to a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop in Durham recently: "We had our milk and doughnuts, and I went to the bathroom, a single-use restroom that said 'Women.' As I was walking out, and Sofie was about to go in, this lady stopped her, called her 'sir' and told her she was going to the wrong restroom. That's when this 'Mama Bear' pretty much lost it. She's not transgender. She's a girl. Just because she has short hair, wears jeans and T-shirts - and doesn't have that 'girly' look, they question my child's gender."
Sofie smiled awkwardly as she listened to her mom tell the story, adding that many people seem to think girls should be wearing "skirts and dresses and (carrying) a little handbag."
Since the passage of HB2 last month, Jamie said, "it all feels different now." Fearing the proliferation of self-appointed restroom gender monitors, she said, "I've had to have a serious conversation with Sofie about safety entering the women's bathroom. I told her if anyone questioned who she was, to immediately fetch me."
Jamie's friend Kathleen Roose, a registered nurse, shows her support on Facebook: "Without (diminishing) the very real discrimination and danger trans people are facing, HB2 also constitutes a way to police gender conformance in people who do identify with their chromosomal sex but don't conform with normative gender expression."
In fact, gender nonconforming tweens and teens, such as Sofie, outnumbered trans youth by nearly 2 to 1 in a study done of Los Angeles-area foster youth by Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
"The statistics showing relatively high prevalence of gender nonconformity mean that (HB2) puts more youth at risk than many realize," explained Gary Gates, an expert in LGBT demographic and policy issues. "It's a Catch-22 for these kids. Trying to use the bathroom can result in verbal and physical assault while avoiding bathrooms can bring health problems like urinary tract and kidney infections."
As you can tell, my sympathies lie with those who are judged and discriminated against on the basis of their appearance. I know just how hurtful these kinds of comments are. When I was in my mid-teens, my grandmother hated my shoulder-length hair (which I was convinced made me look like David Cassidy or James Taylor), telling me harshly, "You look like a girl." I tried to explain that I looked like a boy with long hair, but no, I had to fit into either "the boy box" or "the girl box." Neighborhood boys thought much the same, using that as an excuse to beat me up and call me various slurs.
At the same time, I also understand that most Americans haven't thought much about gender identity, and such out-of-the-box thinking is new and, to some, deeply unsettling. Take Lee Tart, a North Carolina farmer, who told the (Raleigh) News & Observer that he didn't think he had ever met a transgender person. When asked what the term meant to him, he described a man "all dolled up with makeup and clothes." Once he learned more, he immediately worried about "some guy dressing up" who might put his daughters in "jeopardy." It's that lack of familiarity and understanding that defines the challenge ahead.
In many respects, the United States has come a long way since my long-haired days. Facebook now allows users to add their own gender, so maybe we are getting accustomed to living out of the box. Unless, as Jamie cautions, "you're going to the bathroom. Then you do have to fit into one of those little boxes."