House Bill 2 has brought seldom discussed matters – especially rural parts of the nation like Eastern North Carolina – to the forefront. Namely, sexuality and gender identity.
For our “Beyond Binaries” series, Chris Thomas speaks to locals residents who find themselves outside of traditional, socio-economic demographics.
Sexuality and gender identity is getting confusing. New labels, definitions, and even pronouns seem to emerge daily.
It’s one of the drawbacks of non-conformity – and it’s a point of empathy for Terry, who is pansexual and gender queer. The singular “they” and “them” are their preferred pronouns and they requested a pseudonym be used to identify them for this story.
“I don’t remember who said this, but you have to give your family twice as much time to come out as you gave yourself and I didn’t come out until I was 19-years-old, so, you know, the confusion is valid.”
They gradually realized and came to terms with their sexual orientation and gender identity during their teen years and throughout their stint at East Carolina University.
But Terry remembers having feelings for members of the same sex as they reached adolescence, which was further complicated by the church they began attending which had decidedly strong convictions.
“The youth leaders were indoctrinating us for future indoctrination of other children. They did the whole ‘righteous judges’ thing with us and told us that 9/11 was a punishment for the homosexuality in this country because of the military apologists for gays in this country and 9/11 was a result of that.”
Terry still lives in eastern North Carolina and now has a partner, who is also gender non-conforming.
Figures from UCLA’s Williams Institute place Pitt County in the top half of the state for rate of same-sex couples, along with several other, eastern counties – including by Dare, New Hanover, Duplin, and Craven.
The couple hasn’t experienced much harassment, Terry says, since they’re “stealth” and look like a heterosexual couple. But Terry said avoiding aggravation isn’t always possible.
“There have been acts of violence towards us that don’t happen to other people. I mean, we’ve been called out on a drunk bus at ECU where we were harassed and told that we were freaks and that our sex life doesn’t make sense and that we should be ashamed of ourselves…and I think the fact that we’re stealth at all speaks volumes of what it’s like to be part of the LGBT community in this part of the country.”
The stigma surrounding the LGBTQ+ community, especially “non-conforming” individuals, led August Branch of Greenville to become an active advocate for the community. He is a volunteer for the “Trans Lifeline.”
According to statistics from the Trans Lifeline, incoming calls from North Carolina have spiked since House Bill 2 passed on March 23. The new law has broad repercussions for everyone in the state, especially the estimated 250,000 members of the LGBTQ+ community – a Williams Institute approximation.
“Custody of their children could become a battle because of it. Veterans also lose protection. People of color, race, religion, no longer have the right to fight discrimination in this state.”
Proponents of House Bill 2 and “religious freedom laws” debated and passed across the south and Midwest have said these laws underscore a desire for personal liberty among those with more traditional values.
Terry says personal liberty is exactly what members of the LGBTQ+ are looking for, too.
Seven eastern communities – Wilmington, New Bern, Greenville, Rocky Mount, Wilson, Fayetteville, and Jacksonville – are among the top 27 for rate of same-sex couples in the state, according to the Williams Institute study, based on the 2010 census.
“We disagree with you and we don’t like a lot of the things you believe in and we’re not telling you that you can’t believe those things and that you can’t live that way – so just to do us the same courtesy. You don’t have to agree with us, you don’t have to like it, you can condemn us to hell all you want in your private spaces. But, at the end of the day, we’re all Americans and America awards us the right, will multiple amendments to our Constitution, to live the way that we want to live authentically and that doesn’t affect you.”
But they said things can be just as disheartening within the LGBTQ+ community. They said there’s a lack of recognition from those within the community who are “cis-gendered” – that is, those whose gender identity aligns with their given sex.
“Cis” is derived from a term used in the field of chemistry in which two atoms land on the same side of a molecule.
“Often times when we go to gay parties, particularly in the south, there’s space for white, gay men, and you don’t always feel included...homonormativity is a huge problem in the LGBT movement in the United States but people don’t like to talk about (it) because they’re like ‘well, gay marriage is legal, shouldn’t you be happy?’ But there’s a whole (other) group of people being persecuted.”
Studies show gender and sexual non-conforming individuals make up the majority of the LGBTQ+ community, but are more prone to suicidal tendencies, unemployment, and homelessness.
East Carolina University Sociology Professor Melinda Kane believes much of the neglect and hostility toward this segment of the community comes from the ambiguity and confusion associated with it.
“Any time someone does not fit into those assumed to be…clear cut categories where physicality and social identities match that that can be very threatening to those who see those categories as very fixed and very real. And I think that’s why you see the violence, in particular, for trans-women.”
Non-conforming individuals have played integral roles in developing the LGBTQ+ community and image, including Marsha P. Johnson – a trans-woman who is often credited with firing the modern Gay Rights Movement’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” on June 28, 1969 (the first night of the Stonewall Riots in New York City).
Dr. Kane says it goes even further than that.
“But there’s lots of evidence that many of the early protests within the LGBT community, not just Stonewall, but other riots and protests like the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco (1966) involved people who we would call ‘gender non-conforming’ – that it was members of what we would call the ‘trans-community’ today
Yet, gender non-conforming individuals and those who fall between the “gay” and “straight” binary – also called polysexual in some circles – for their sexual orientation are, over all, having a tough time finding recognition within the LGBTQ+ community and by mainstream society.
Dr. Kane said there’s always been tension within the community since, like most communities, needs and goals of individuals don’t always coincide.
“Women, for example, early on, were much more concerned about parental rights because they had children from previous, heterosexual relationships and custody was really key, and for gay men it could be other issues that were focused on, so there’s always some debate on who should speak for the movement, the goals that the movement should have, and those types of tensions continue today, especially around issues of bi individuals or people who are trans.”
The discussion on sexual orientation and gender identity is far from over in eastern North Carolina or anywhere else. It’s a matter far from the norm in the tobacco fields, fishing docks, and country churches that are still fixtures across the region.
I’m Chris Thomas.
A short glossary of terms associated with the LGBTQ+ community
(Source: Human Rights Campaign and Amnesty International USA)
Ally: a person who is not in the LGBTQ+ community, but still supports equality and progress for the community.
Asexual: a person who is not sexual attracted to anyone or who doesn't have a sexual orientation.
Cisgendered: a person whose gender identity aligns with their given sex.
Gender Dysphoria: the American Psychological Association's term for a condition in which a person's "whose gender at birth is contrary to the one they identify with." It was added to latest edition of the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM-5).
Gender Variant (or gender non-conforming): A person who either by nature or by choice does not conform to gender-based expectations of society.
Genderqueer: A gender variant person whose gender identity is neither male or female, is between or beyond genders, or some combination of genders.
Intersexed person: someone whose given sex a doctor has a difficult time identifying as male or female due to a number of physical and genetic factors.
Pansexual: a person who is attracted to all or many gender expressions.
Passing (or "stealth"): when a person is able to be accepted as their preferred sex or gender.
Queer: an umbrella term often used to describe people with fluid gender identities or orientations. It's often referred to as a reclaimed term for the LGBTQ+ community as it was, and still is used as a pejorative term for members of the LGBTQ+ community.
"Singular they": a gender neutral pronoun often used with trans for gender non-conforming individuals.
Trans: an umbrella term used for many gender variant individuals.