The lobby of the Caldcleugh Multicultural Arts Center in south Greensboro buzzed with energy and activity early Sunday afternoon as members of the Cakalak Thunder drum corps filtered out of the auditorium after the opening ceremony of NC Trans Pride, which honored 21 trans women of color who have lost their lives to acts of violence in the United States this year.
A young black person — bearded, bespectacled and dressed in a felt suit jacket and pants — gave the lobby a quick visual scan. Then, like a butterfly from a cocoon, whipped off the outer garments, stuffed them into a backpack and emerged in a turquoise tutu.
Most of the people in the big hall were between the ages of 15 and 35, a rainbow array of races and ethnicities. To say the group represented a spectrum of gender identifies would be a misnomer considering the mish-mash of body types and physical characteristic, with flourishes of punk, goth, casual athletic and preppy fashions bursting from the room.
Chasity Scott, a singer with a big personality, was giving shoutouts to a row of people from an array of agencies and vendors, from testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases to personal safety devices.
“Some people are too afraid to go over to the tablers,” lead organizer Z Shane Zaldivar told me afterwards. “We want them to at least know they exist. Later, they might find them online.”
This was the second annual NC Trans Pride event; the first was also held at Caldcleugh, an arts-oriented recreation center operated by the city of Greensboro near the Smith Homes public housing community. He estimated that 500 people turned this year.
“It’s the only trans pride event in North Carolina that’s stand-alone,” he said. “From everything we researched on the internet we could not find another one. We are the first, and consequently, the largest.”
Part of the purpose of the gathering was to educate trans allies.
“It’s a space that we make it comfortable for allies to ask questions in a respectful way and it’s safe for members of our community to answer without feeling pressured,” Zaldivar said.
A common misunderstanding is the notion that trans people choose either to be male or female. Zaldivar mentioned as an example Jacob Tobia, the gender nonconforming keynote speaker at the festival.
“When thinking about trans people, folks think we should fit in a box,” Zaldivar said. “They think we go from one gender to another, and that’s it. What they don’t understand is that the binary doesn’t exist. I’m comfortable in a binary, but that’s not the majority. People do that to us all the time. Jacob, for example wears this beautiful, red lipstick with awesome nails, a great fashion sense, but still has a beard. People say, ‘What’s going on? Are you in transition? Are you waiting to make the change?’ ‘No, this is how I feel comfortable.’”
NC Trans Pride took place one day after Greensboro Pride, representing the larger lesbian, gay, bi and trans community. The scheduling was intentional so that trans people attending Greensboro Pride could also come to NC Trans Pride. Zaldivar said he’s working to get a trans component incorporated into all pride celebrations across the state. For the foreseeable future, however, he sees a need for a standalone gathering.
“Having us in their space and also inviting them to our space can create a lot of healing,” he said. “Right now, the trans community is so marginalized that we still need our own space because we’re not given respect at their event.”
Zaldivar and others told me the trans gathering is more political and more revolutionary than the big-tent pride events. “Our pride event is different than GLB pride events,” he said. “We’re taking it back to the roots. Stonewall was a riot. It was led by trans community members. That story gets missed.”
Jenn Goodman, who leads a trans support group in Greensboro and helped Zaldivar organize the event, sees the relationship between the two groups as symbiotic. Measured public acceptance of trans people today is similar to how gays were viewed 15 or 20 years ago, she said.
“Trans has always been at least technically a part of the whole LGBT puzzle,” Goodman said. “We are already connected to the community that is making things happen. It’s easier for us to organize because the framework is already there.”
One person in particular was drinking in the scene at Caldcleugh with evident relish. Mandy Carter, the co-founder of Southerners On New Ground and the National Black Justice Coalition, told me that when she came out in 1965 at the age of 17, there was only one word for people like her — gay. Then, with advocacy and struggle, lesbian, bi and trans were added to the fold. Bitter political fights took place within the movement over whether trans people should be included.
That the term “LGBT” is widely used by the mainstream media is a mark of progress, she said, as are the high profiles of Caitlin Jenner and Laverne Cox, the black trans woman in “Orange Is the New Black.” Yet, she added, “we have also seen ever growing numbers of the brutal violence and murders of trans people of color.”
There’s still a lot of work to be done.