Last month, I took a dear friend on a trip to the North Carolina mountains. For months, I’d been telling him about the spiritual impact the Appalachian landscape has on me – about how my heart opens when the skyline first comes into view, with its arches pushing skyward from the horizon, sculpted curves rising up from streams that wash through valleys. He’d heard me talk about my favorite spaces – the river whose water wraps me in tiny galaxies of dazzling mica on brisk, soul-awakening swims, the rock by the river where I sit to meditate, and the wooded paths and bamboo forests who’ve been watered by my tears when my heart was heavy. He confessed that while he’d visited the mountains a few times, he’d never had the opportunity to dive into the lush beauty of North Carolina’s mountain forests and stunning views, and we planned a quick trip for before his mid-July move to Canada.
The county where we live is a tiny area of North Carolina whose deep blue always stands out in votes-by-county maps after elections. We voted strongly against NC’s marriage amendment a few years ago, and have numerous churches – even Baptist churches – that are welcoming congregations. After HB2 was passed in March – the controversial “bathroom bill” that prevented trans people from using the restrooms that correspond to their identities – dozens of new restrooms showed up in online databases of safe bathrooms, and after the Pulse nightclub massacre, our city governments put up rainbow flags, as well as trans, agender, asexual, and bisexual flags. Even in our progressive bubble, though, transphobic people found themselves empowered by legislative support to speak louder and more harshly to gender nonconforming people – not just in the context of protests and counter-protests, but as they were going about their everyday lives.
My trans friends have told me of being mocked while out around town and misgendered intentionally in the workplace, in addition to experiencing the kinds of abuses I won’t break confidence to divulge, and these abuses being on top of the ever-present stresses of being unintentionally misgendered, asked intrusive questions by acquaintances and coworkers, and frustrated at the kinds of support sometimes received from well-meaning friends and family. Even in a reasonably well-protected bubble, things are not ideal. Leaving that bubble for two days of rural travel with a trans friend provided a thread of tension that followed us throughout much of our trip, as every glance, every bathroom break, every interaction with strangers, and every meal stop had the potential to become upsetting at a minimum, and possibly frightening.
Our trip turned out to be lovely – we swam through the sparkle-clouds of the Swannanoa River, discovered dens of garter snakes along parkway overlooks with awe-inspiring views, and hiked trails by waterfalls. As relaxing as so much of the trip was, throughout it all we were sharply aware that the predominant culture in those parts of our state made rural NC a not entirely safe place for my friend. Restroom choices varied over the course of the trip based on where we were, and glares from strangers reminded me that HB2 has made trans people more visible, more acknowledged (for better or worse) than they were before. When we arrived at the motel near Linville for the night, my friend sized up the look of the place and the people heading in and out, and told me he’d let me do the talking. Disappearing into a display of rocks in the lobby gift shop, he watched as I transformed into a hardcore southerner with a thick country accent, trash-talking with the innkeeper as he teased and joked. While I live in one of the more progressive areas of the Southeast, am college-educated, and hold some intensely leftist political and social views, I come from a long line of poor Southern farmers and that accent was my natural one until I was a teenager and realized the stigma in academic circles against Southern accents. I still slip into it unintentionally when talking to my family who live in rural areas, and had slipped into it without conscious thought in my interactions with the innkeeper.
Whether we’ll admit it or not, there’s a certain prejudice in the South against anyone perceived to be an outsider. “You ain’t from around these parts” is not usually considered high praise, and those of us who are from “these parts” but live a little differently know that rule number one of avoiding conflict in deeply Southern, rural areas is not to stand out. This is where my privilege becomes obvious – as a white, Southern, cis woman, I can easily blend in if I choose to. I’ve never really thought about the ways in which I code-switch when around other Southerners; for the most part, it just happens around my family thoughtlessly and without pretense. On this trip, however, I became more aware of the ways in which I do it as a protective measure around other Southerners with whom I am attempting to establish rapport, smooth out awkwardness, or defuse conflict. The underlying intent, subconscious though it may be, is to be accepted as “one of the crowd” so as not to be on the receiving end of any of white Southern culture’s negative tendencies. And when it comes to passing as “one of us,” I can usually succeed, because as long as nobody pays attention to the bumper stickers on my car, I visibly look like a white, cis woman and can readily sound like a Southerner.
Not everybody has that option. Not every person who does chooses to take it in every circumstance, and I can guarantee that had anyone been aggressive, unkind, or violent to my sweet friend while we were on this trip, I would easily have thrown out any chance of passing for mountain folk in order to stand by, support, and defend him. Any obstacle he encountered on this trip, he wouldn’t have encountered alone, and while my role isn’t to speak or fight for him, I definitely call out transphobic bullshit when I see it and would have encouraged people to respect and listen to him. I’d speak and fight with him against those who would harm him. I don’t have any idea what it is like to be trans. I’m an ally, a friend. But I’m a friend who tries to listen carefully when people tell me about their experiences. I’m a friend who knows what it’s like to see an interaction unfold from several meters away, listening to hushed tones of voice for frustration or stress, narrowed eyes watching body language and facial expressions. I’ve done it enough times with different people in different situations – friends and family who are vulnerable for one reason or another – that I can feel my energy transform when I go from relaxed to alert, can feel the way my eyelids tighten and eyebrows shift. My way of looking changes as I try to assess any need for me to step up, to stand behind my loved ones, or to put myself between them and harm. On this trip, I spent a lot of time alert. I spent a lot of time paying attention.
And I spent a lot of time learning.
Anyone who’s read an article or seen memes about privilege knows that one of the key concepts is that just because something isn’t a problem for you personally doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. Just because bathroom bills don’t affect you personally doesn’t mean they don’t harm people – good people, wonderful people, loving people who have already experienced too much discrimination, abuse, and violence. Just because they don’t make you feel unsafe doesn’t mean they don’t make others far less safe than they would be otherwise. Just because you can travel your state feeling relatively safe in its small towns and rural areas doesn’t mean others feel safe in the midst of conservative, evangelical, Christian culture, or that they feel welcome, or that they feel loved. Hospitality extended to those we think are like us is easy; hospitality extended to all people – hospitality that includes compassion, acceptance of differences, and genuine respect – that’s harder. We have a lot of work to do. Let’s join with those who are already doing it for their own communities, adding our voices, our strength, and our power to theirs.