I publicly came out as transgender while living as an immigrant in Washington, D.C. — less than a week before Donald Trump was elected president.
I was allowed four whole days of excitement before election night turned that feeling into fear and anger. Still, I somehow felt I could count on a sense of hope that the new administration would be met with resistance; that the political center would still hold. It took another year before America convinced me otherwise. And I ended up moving back across the Atlantic in terror and despair.
The reason I had such high hopes to begin with was North Carolina, where I’d previously lived and worked as a reporter from 2015 to 2016, covering topics like the anti-trans bathroom bill (HB2). It was a formative experience, for two reasons. The first was interviewing all the incredible LGBTQ activists fighting back against then-Gov. Pat McCrory (R), who led Republican lawmakers in discriminating against trans people. Witnessing their courage firsthand, gave me the courage I needed to finally come out as transgender. The second reason was that it was Southerners, the Americans most widely maligned overseas as near-ubiquitously unprogressive, who showed me the mettle and decency of ordinary U.S. citizens when they are galvanized to act.
North Carolina had been particularly horrified by the way HB2 was used as a recruitment tool for the KKK, and so disgust at an extreme right resurgence made the state vote even harder against McCrory in 2016. And on election night, it was Southern friends — on the left, skeptical of endorsing Hillary Clinton — who phoned me to say they’d held their noses and voted Hillary specifically to protect people like me.
Even after Trump’s inauguration, I regarded this, along with widespread liberal outrage at the new administration, as a sign of the resistance we were about to witness nationwide. But there were other signs that caused me to start doubting that North Carolina was a blueprint for America’s political will after all.
Trump’s election saw an immediate spike in hate crimes nationally, and a ThinkProgress study of 261 hate incidents found 41.7 percent were connected to Trump’s victory. Pro-Trump hate crimes proceeded to rise for a second straight year. A far-right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 demonstrated not just the extreme right’s commitment to hate and assault, but also the White House’s commitment to validate the perpetrators.
To the horror of trans people across America, and devastatingly counter to what North Carolina’s resolve had led me to believe, the White House found it easy to divide progressives on the matter of our right to exist in record time. We watched as liberal public intellectuals nastily wrung their hands about whether trans women should be called women. And we watched as the left split like ripe fruit over Trump’s proposed ban on trans troops, as if it were somehow anti-imperialist, rather than a calculated move to devalue the existence of trans people in a national culture curiously dependent on the honoring of soldiers.
Trans people predicted each new blow before it happened, and each time we were shrugged off as either irrelevant or overly dramatic.
Meanwhile the political center ultimately chose to prevaricate about “both sides,” almost unanimously smearing the now-exonerated inauguration protesters while running puff profiles on prominent fascists and defending the promotion of ethnic and transphobic cleansing (by known opportunists) as a valid topic for which public platforms must host debates to serve the “marketplace of ideas.”
Trans people predicted each new blow before it happened, and each time we were shrugged off as either irrelevant or overly dramatic. That we were an easy target for oppression became increasingly obvious to ourselves, and to the White House, but for some reason not to several ostensibly pro-LGBTQ institutions and leaders on the center right — such as the Log Cabin Republicans and well-known trans Republicans, like Caitlyn Jenner.
The past week has been the worst, so far, for trans Americans. It was revealed that the Department of Justice is pushing the Supreme Court to rule in favor of housing and employment discrimination against trans people. Perhaps even more horrifying, a leaked government memo has proposed genetic testing (a “federal registry of genitals” which could affect anyone) to define sex as “either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with.”
Trans writers and journalists with far less inconsistent track records than Jenner et al expressed despair last week at having their voices kept out of legacy media outlets during their most devastating week of this administration. A slim but growing majority of Americans poll in support of trans rights, yet powerful media institutions remain stubbornly disinterested in reflecting the lives and needs of their own readerships. Perhaps just for the clicks, trans rights and the ordinary voters who support them remain smothered by editors overwhelmingly committed to unscientific, bad-faith coverage from professional concern trolls.
The moral majority, and the fine activism of progressives against this government’s increasingly rabid transphobia, still have too little traction in the corridors of power where Americans should expect their day-to-day realities to be reflected.
This is why, by the time Heather Heyer was murdered by a far-right activist who drove his car through a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, I was already thinking it might be time for me to flee. I’d been forced to consider that America was unwilling, after all, to stick to its own declarations of outrage at the rise of fascism.
It was impossible to place any faith in the spluttering condemnation of Trump’s “many fine people on both sides” comment, because I felt too certain those outraged progressives would soon be aping that same rhetoric in misguided acts of appeasement. I remembered that premonition particularly strongly last week, when Democrats were sent pipe bombs and Chuck Schumer’s top priority (perhaps thinking of rape survivors yelling in restaurants at his poor frightened Senate colleagues) was to broadcast the absurd pretense that “despicable acts of violence and harassment are being carried out by radicals across the political spectrum.”
My last home in the United States was a small college town in Ohio, a progressive haven for queer and trans people to live as themselves. Last fall, in the dead of night, a local far-right group rolled into town to cover it in flyers proclaiming their commitment to preserving the “traditional American family.” Local police dismissed offhand people’s fears that this was a threat to LGBTQ families and people of color in town. Members in my own household responded with irritation to my fear that the government could end up doing something that might define me out of existence, angrily refusing to discuss such a surely histrionic and absurd prediction of a thing that very much took place last week. I had nothing left to give, and I was gone within the month.
Though I fled the country in fear, I was only able to because I was lucky enough to have somewhere to go. But for the vast majority who cannot leave (and who are, in any case, entitled to live safe and free in their own country), I still think North Carolina shows us the way in how best to support trans people, from seeking out and amplifying trans voices, to supporting and donating to trans organizations, to remaining vocal and turning up the pressure on those in power. The fight against HB2 represented the best of America. And it’s the kind of advocacy and leadership trans people deserve.
Laurie Charles is a British journalist covering transgender topics in the U.K. and U.S.