By Lindsey Danis
This summer, I prepared to visit North Carolina by growing out my hair for four months. I hoped this would help me, if not pass for straight, at least look more female—and thus forestall violence.
This would not be my first trip through the South. But it would be my first time since the passage of HB2, the North Carolina bathroom bill requiring individuals use the bathroom that matches their gender assigned at birth.
Normally I use the women’s restroom, because I’m generally read as female. But with my short hair, androgynous attire, and lack of makeup, jewelry, or other feminine markers, I worried I’d face harassment in North Carolina. When a viral video of a lesbian getting yanked out of the bathroom by police officers surfaced, my stomach clenched in fear. This could happen to me.
I’d gotten bathroom policed before. In a baseball cap, hooded sweatshirt, baggy pants, and sneakers, I looked masculine enough to frighten an airport employee. As I walked toward the ladies’ room, she called out, panic rising. “I’m a woman,” I yelled back without breaking stride. She relaxed and I got to pee in peace.
My North Carolina vacation was in honor of my mother’s birthday, so not a trip I could cancel. As the departure date drew closer, anxious thoughts kept me up at night. Would I have to get my mother to accompany me to the bathroom in case anyone challenged me? Would I get verbally or physically abused trying to pee? Should I buy some mace to make myself feel better? Or take along one of my wife’s pink tee-shirts so I could conform to gender norms?
The worst part wasn’t the fear that stole my appetite and my sleep, it was the total lack of understanding I received when I spoke up. “I’m really afraid of someone harassing me, because of this bathroom bill,” I said.
Liberal friends, fellow gays, and even my wife rolled their eyes.
“You’ll be fine. Just be quick,” they told me.
Or, “You’re going to a college town. You are not going to get beaten up using the bathroom.”
Or, “You’re a woman. People are more likely to beat up a guy.”
Maybe my loved ones were trying to soothe my anxiety by brushing it under the rug. Maybe they thought my concerns were overblown. Whatever the reason, I did not get the support I needed to feel safe—and that stung.
When I came out at 18, it was the era of civil unions and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I lived with fear over my safety on a daily basis. Back then, I assumed that getting gay-bashed for dating women was just a matter of wrong place and wrong time that would inevitably happen to me.
As the attitudes toward the LGBTQ community changed and my home state of Massachusetts granted gay marriage rights, my fears dissolved. I stopped assuming I’d be the victim of a hate crime. I started thinking it was safe to be myself.
While I was in North Carolina, no one said anything rude or hateful. None of the things I feared came to pass. A few of the stores in Asheville had even put up posters supporting the LGBTQ community. So in a sense, I was fine. I made it out.
Asheville’s streets—filled with buskers, young homeless travelers, families, and tourists of all ages and races—reminded me of Cambridge, where my mother lives. One night over barbecue, we got into a discussion with a bartender about the sizable homeless population. “Yeah, they bus ‘em here for the summer, because we got air conditioning and social services,” he said with a shrug.
My mother and I joked we’d driven 900 miles when I could have just come home for the weekend instead. It was odd to pass through a place that felt as familiar as my mother’s neighborhood with my guard up against a potential attack. I wrestled with these contradictions for the four days we spent in Asheville.
I hurried into and out of restrooms and looked over my shoulder as we listened to live music in the streets. I flinched reflexively when people yelled out. Despite the overlaps between Asheville and Cambridge, I wanted was to leave before I met the wrong person, walked down the wrong street corner, or wore the wrong outfit.
To manage my fear, I turned to the gay community’s time-honored coping mechanism: Booze. Pre-dinner pints from Asheville’s craft breweries almost made me feel normal. And I spent nights, after my mother went to bed, in the hotel lobby reading or talking to my wife. There was a whole city to explore, but it wasn’t one I felt safe in.
Only when we left the state did I relax mentally and physically. I would soon enjoy the relative peace and stability of my everyday life—or so I thought.
My tiny upstate New York town has a moderate LGBTQ population and a good-sized population of New York City “weekenders.” I don’t think twice about my safety, my physical appearance, or my bathroom usage, and I’m full aware of this privilege.
Election night, my wife and I went to a local bar to celebrate, but to our horror we watched as state after state fell to Trump. We could feel what was coming, but we held out hope anyway.
Later that night, my wife put on a children’s movie as I sat glued to my phone. I cycled between Facebook and CNN and the New York Times as my gut tightened. I was crying and shaking, and I wanted to vomit.
Somehow, a bully was elected to the national pulpit. Someone who has spoken out against women, LGBT people, people of color, Muslims, Jews, and many more groups was elected by white men (and yes, white women and 25 percent of gays).
We all live in North Carolina now.
Even if we live in blue states or blue cities. Lines were drawn in the sand the night half of the country decided party affiliation and the promise of a job were more important than the right to life of anyone who isn’t a white guy.
Listening to NPR pundits begin to normalize the “stunning” election results the day after, my stomach turned again. “It’s about the economy,” a male voice said. “They’ve just thrown a brick through the window of liberal America.”
A vote may have been “about” the economy, but it legitimized xenophonia, oppression, and suppression of the truth. It legitimized the KKK and climate deniers and the HB2 bathroom bill and rape on college campuses and racist rhetoric on the playground. It elevated hate to the highest office in the land, and that will come for us all.
The majority of us now stand together, united by fear for our lives. We make donations and sign petitions, attend conference calls and plan protests. We gear up to fight with whatever power or resistance or solidarity we can muster. We do what we little can, because we cannot bear the thought of sitting and waiting and staying silent and being complacent in the dismantling of the free and open country we thought we knew.
As we get organized, we indulge in anxious whispers and list-making over our personal tipping points and red flags. The friends and loved ones who thought I overreacted about North Carolina now whisper of fighting for our lives or getting our papers in order.
“We need to save up in case we need to flee the country,” I’ve told my wife, more than once in the days since November 8.
My wife is a realist. She never believed Donald Trump would win, just as she never believed anything would happen to me in North Carolina. I expect her to remind me that her nine to five job means that she can’t pick up and leave, like I can.
Instead, she says, “Keep reminding me of that.” As we head home for leftovers instead of getting dinner out, as we skip a second round of drinks with friends, as we move through the fog of each day.
“Keep reminding me of that.”
I will. I do.
Lindsey Danis is a writer living in the Hudson Valley. Her work has been published most recently in Matador Network, The Avalon Literary Review, and Helen. Find her at lindseydanis.com or @wordhack.