If I’ve learned anything from reading and listening to the histories of trans° and LGBQ activism in the South, and from my own experience of being queer in North Carolina, it’s that folks here are fierce. Last semester, students in my “Archiving LGBTQ Lives” course at Duke researched the history of trans° and LGBQ activism in the South, and helped Luke Hirst and the Durham LGBTQ History Project transcribe oral histories Luke had done with long-time community activists in Durham, North Carolina. These stories illustrate how trans° and LGBQ North Carolinians are showing up—and have been for generations—for hard fights against discrimination and injustice, building communities and coalitions that will win the fight against North Carolina’s House Bill 2 (H.B. 2).
The histories of trans° and LGBQ activism in North Carolina, and in the South more generally, are as-yet under-written histories that add texture to both dominant narratives that locate fights for trans° and LGBQ liberation in major metropolises on the West Coast and in the Northeast—and that either implicitly or explicitly dismiss the South as a conservative “backwater” and a threat to trans° and LGBQ people. Despite real conservative undercurrents and a legislature seemingly intent on violating the civil rights of people of color, trans° people, LGBQ people, immigrants and workers in their state, North Carolina is also a place populated by folks who share an awareness of the intersecting oppressions that people here face, and where communities can also be characterized by their commitment to and struggles for social justice.
Telling these stories—trans° and LGBQ people’s experiences and the work they’ve done on behalf of their communities—feels especially important in the context of H.B. 2, one of the most extreme anti-LGBTQ bills in the country, a bill that criminalizes trans° and gender non-conforming people for using bathrooms in public schools, colleges, and government agencies that match their gender identity; overturns previous local non-discrimination ordinances that protect gender and sexuality in counties such as Mecklenburg, Buncombe, and Orange, and cities such as Asheville, Greensboro, Charlotte, and Chapel Hill; and limits the ability of local governments to enact future non-discrimination ordinances, and otherwise regulate public accommodations and terms of employment.
Despite the law’s naming of protections against discrimination on the basis of race, the trans° and LGBQ community in North Carolina knows that a law that expands opportunities to criminalize trans° and gender non-conforming people will render trans° people of color, especially those that are least gender conforming, particularly vulnerable; we know that a law that fails to protect people from employment discrimination will most severely impact the poorest among us; and we know that any law that limits the ability of local governments to regulate employment and public accommodations is a limit on the civil rights of all.
The histories of trans° and LGBQ activism in North Carolina that have brought us to the fight against H.B. 2, that allow us to recognize the uneven distribution of vulnerabilities among us and the ways in which our liberation must be collective, and that makes me certain that we will win, is a history of the present to which I’m going to fail to do justice in this short essay. It’s a story that can and should be, and that if we listen, is being told from many starting places, along multiple trajectories, from more perspectives and other knowledge than mine, especially given my limited perspective as a white queer person not from the South. They are stories being collected and told via the Durham LGBTQ History Project, the Southern Historical Collection at UNC, the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke, and importantly, in the sharing of experiences within and across our communities, in living rooms and in the streets.
One possible story begins in 1985, when a then newly-formed Durham People’s Alliance, organized a multiracial coalition that helped elect both the first progressive majority to the Durham City Council and Mayor Wilbur “Wib” Gulley. Gulley would go on to risk recall by issuing a proclamation that designated an anti-discrimination week in Durham, and endorsing the 1986 Triangle Gay and Lesbian Pride March, only the second march of its kind in North Carolina. In the weeks and months that followed the proclamation, Durham’s political establishment attempted to recall Gulley for his support of Durham’s gay and lesbian community, and in response, an equally fierce alliance turned out in opposition. The recall election was never held.
In a 2010 panel organized by the Durham County Library, Gulley described opposition to his recall and the 1986 Pride March as turning points in the political landscape of Durham. In that moment, in Gulley’s words, “Durham was not who you thought it was, and… was going to be about something different [moving] forward.” And I would argue that in the years that followed, fights for trans° and LGBQ visibility, acceptance, and rights significantly changed—are significantly changing—not just the political landscape of Durham and the Triangle, but the political landscape of North Carolina as whole.
Given Attorney General and Gubernatorial Candidate Roy Cooper’s refusal to defend the State of North Carolina in the lawsuit brought against it in the wake of H.B. 2 ’s passage, the concerns and rights of trans° and LGBQ folks are now also unprecedentedly shaping the governor’s race in North Carolina. In other words, trans° and LGBQ North Carolinians are, quite literally, in the process of, once gain, making history, helping to remake the South, retelling the story of what it means to be Southern, saying as Triangle-area activists did in 1986, “This is not what we’re about.”
It should be acknowledged, however, that the groundwork for these unfolding changes began before and continued after Gulley. The 1970s saw the formation of the Triangle Area Lesbian Feminists, whose projects included a collaboration with the Hard Times Prison Project to publish Break de Chains of U$ Legalized Slavery, the story of a 1976 work stoppage and prison rebellion at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, told from the perspective of women incarcerated there. The 70s and 80s saw the publication of Feminary: A Feminist Journal for the South Emphasizing the Lesbian Vision, Sinister Wisdom, and Out in Black.
In 1982 and 1985, the Healthline and the North Carolina Lesbian and Gay Health Project were established in the context of the AIDS crisis. Cedar Chest, a Black lesbian organization, and A Safer Place Youth Network (ASPYN), which served LGBTQ youth in the absence of now more prevalent gay-straight alliances in North Carolina high schools, formed in the 1990s. LGBTQ North Carolinians went on to organize in opposition to the re-election of notoriously homophobic senator Jesse Helms in 1990 and 1996. And the early 2000s saw the opening of faith communities to LGBTQ members, and the transformation of the Calvary United Methodist Church into the first Reconciling Church in the Carolinas, an important shift in a state where faith communities, for better or worse, have played a significant role in the lives of trans° and LGBQ people raised here.
There’s a longer list, other stories, but even this short list offers some insight into the groundwork that was done to build a feminist, trans°, and LGBQ community that continues to work in opposition to policing, criminalization, and incarceration; in support of community-provided healthcare for trans° and LGBQ North Carolinians; in service to trans° and LGBQ youth in the form of the organizations that make up the North Carolina Queer Youth Power Coalition; for political representation; and for control of the stories told about trans° and LGBQ lives in the South.
In 2012, in the aftermath of the approval of North Carolina Amendment 1, the amendment that banned same-sex marriage in North Carolina, Southerners On New Ground produced the short film, “Our Win is Bigger.” In that film, activists reflected on the fact that despite the passage of Amendment 1, the fight against it served as an important opportunity for trans° and LGBQ people, people of color, queer and trans people of color, local businesses, faith communities, and other allies in North Carolina to build stronger, broader coalitions than they ever had before, coalitions now serving us in opposition to H.B. 2.
I would argue that we saw another deepening of these alliances in the context of Michael Brown’s murder and local protests held in solidarity with Ferguson, Missouri and the larger Black Lives Matter movement. At the 2015 North Carolina Pride, Black Lives Matter activists marched behind a banner that read “No Pride for some of us without liberation for all of us,” but were later silenced by Pride organizers when they attempted to read a statement in solidarity with murdered Black queer and trans° women, and subsequently left the march. These organizing efforts moved us a step forward in a dialogue that is ongoing about whose voices get privileged in our organizations, movements, events, protests, and histories, and have played an important role in efforts to center the voices of queer and trans° people of color in the fight against H.B. 2.
Stories like these also illustrate the reality of political divisions, conflicting priorities, personal animosities, alliances that still need work, and bridges that still need building, both within trans° and LGBQ communities and across North Carolina. All of this is to say, though, that I love this place and its people because they show up to do that work over and over again. For me, the story of that work, they way it demonstrates the resilience of trans° and LGBQ North Carolinians, and the lessons learned, and coalitions and communities that have emerged from it, is the story of North Carolina, and the reason I believe that we will win.