Despite America’s dramatic shift toward acceptance, LGBTQ residents across North Carolina are routinely singled out for condemnation and discrimination – sometimes even physical violence – because of who they are.
Last month in Charlotte, a 24-year-old transgender man said he was confronted outside the restrooms at PNC Pavilion by several women who demanded to know if he was “a boy or a girl” and then lifted up his shirt to see.
Early on a Saturday evening in June, a lesbian chef said she was body-slammed to the ground in Uptown Charlotte by a teenage girl hurling homophobic slurs.
In Waynesville, in the Smoky Mountains, a newlywed gay man left work late one night last fall and discovered “DIE FAG” spray-painted in huge black letters on the side of his Jeep.
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For young people especially, psychological and physical attacks can have profound and sometimes tragic consequences.
In Rowan County, 45 miles north of Charlotte, Daniel Safrit grew up believing he was a bad person. From third grade to sixth grade, his classmates told him so.
They called him “loser” and “gay” and a word he never had heard before. He had to ask his mother what “fag” meant.
Next to the swagger of other boys, Daniel appeared effeminate. He enjoyed gymnastics and cheerleading.
“He became confused,” said his mother, Jamie Safrit. “Everybody put it into his head, and he was trying to figure it out himself. He wrote down in his journal that he was gay. He was ugly. He was a loser.”
Daniel grew so depressed after the start of middle school in 2013, Safrit said, he tried to kill himself in early September. He was hospitalized for a week. When he returned to Erwin Middle School in Salisbury, she said, the bullying resumed.
One day after school Daniel seemed troubled by something, she said, but he didn’t say what was bothering him. Before he went to bed that night, she remembers his last words to her: Love you.
The next morning, they found Daniel in his bedroom closet. He had hanged himself with a necktie.
The moment from which her 11-year-old son never recovered might seem insignificant. She said she was told that it happened in health class: Another student refused to share his sunflower seeds.
You’re too gay, the boy reportedly said to Daniel.
Daniel’s short life is one among dozens of stories of bullying, harassment, discrimination and violence against North Carolina residents who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer – or people perceived to be. Jamie Safrit said she doesn’t know whether her son was gay but other kids assumed he was and targeted him because of it.
Public records and interviews across the state suggest that targeting of LGBTQ residents is so commonplace that many take it for granted as a sad – and sometimes dangerous – fact of their lives.
‘Time to be afraid’
Since the passage of House Bill 2 on March 23, attention has focused on North Carolina and how it treats its estimated 336,000 LGBTQ residents.
HB2 was nicknamed “the bathroom bill” because it requires people to use restrooms in government-run buildings that correspond with the gender on their birth certificates – thus barring many transgender residents from public restrooms that match their identity.
But the law goes beyond bathrooms.
In what critics call the most anti-LGBTQ legislation ever enacted, HB2 abolished a Charlotte ordinance that added sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes, the same as race, age, religion and gender. HB2 also banned local governments in the state from passing their own non-discrimination ordinances.
Gregory Herek, a psychology professor at the University of California-Davis who is an expert on anti-gay violence, said HB2 sends a broad symbolic message: “It’s conveying to people in the state who are LGBT that they are not full citizens.”
The new law, scholars and advocates believe, has given people permission to hate.
Three weeks after HB2 was adopted, someone responded to a sign critical of the governor by leaving a note on an Asheville woman’s car: “Burn in Hell, nasty faggot! I ♥ HB2!' "
The next day in Charlotte, instead of tipping a waitress who is lesbian, a group of female customers at Zada Jane’s in Plaza Midwood left a Bible verse, Leviticus 20:13, which holds that sex between two men is “an abomination” punishable by death.
In the middle of one night in April, someone set fire to rainbow flags that the United Church of Christ in Hillsborough raised as a statement of welcome and inclusion. Twice since then, replacement flags have been stolen.
Said Josh Burford, assistant director for sexual and gender diversity at UNC Charlotte: “It’s time for us to be afraid again.”
‘We stand with you’
Reaction to HB2 came swiftly from around the world.
Great Britain issued an advisory warning that transgender travelers might be affected by the law. The European Union released a statement saying HB2 violated an international agreement on civil rights.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the U.S. Justice Department was suing North Carolina and reassured the state’s estimated 37,800 transgender residents: “We see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”
Seven months later, the backlash continues. Dozens of major corporations have withdrawn business from North Carolina. More than 50 investment managers representing $2.1 trillion in assets and the CEOs of more than 200 corporations have called for repeal. The NBA pulled its 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte, and the ACC and NCAA are moving some championship games out of the state. Bruce Springsteen and other musicians canceled shows.
Despite the outcry, Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican lawmakers steadfastly defend their decision and blame the city of Charlotte for the fallout. They argue that the state law protects public safety and privacy. They contend the Charlotte ordinance endangered women and children by allowing men into women’s bathrooms and locker rooms.
In defense of HB2, an expert witness for the state wrote in a court document that gender identity that doesn’t match gender at birth is a mental disorder which can be reversed with therapy.
Some elected officials have used similarly dismissive language. The author of HB2, State Rep. Dan Bishop of Charlotte, called transgender individuals “cross-dressers.” McCrory referred to them as “boys who may think they’re a girl.”
Multiple studies indicate that being a transgender person is not a choice. There is a biological basis. The American Psychiatric Association specifically states that “gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder.”
‘Hate in their eyes’
At a luncheon in Charlotte in September, McCrory defended HB2 and said he wasn’t aware of “one example of any type of discrimination that’s been directed toward individuals that have visited this city during my 14 years as mayor or since then or in the state of North Carolina since I’ve been governor.
“Because that's not the type of state we are. And I don't know of one example that the media's brought up where we've discriminated against anyone at our arena or football stadium or anything else – and if you know of one, will you let me know? I'd like to find out."
Law enforcement agencies throughout the state told The Observer they are aware of few, if any, instances of discrimination, intimidation, harassment, bullying or violence against LGBTQ residents.
A different picture emerged from stories the Observer heard.
One case police investigated involved Shelby Lechner, the chef in Charlotte who was assaulted in June. Lechner said she was walking with a co-worker after work around 7 p.m., when a group of teenagers taunted her.
The way Lechner looks – 180 pounds with with a short, blond Mohawk – appeared to be the only reason they targeted her.
“Faggot, dyke, queer, you name it,” she said, “they were calling me basically everything.” She said she ignored them, but that seemed to anger them more.
As she crossed the street, she said a girl ran up, hit her in the face, body-slammed her to the ground then kicked her in the ribs, yelling, You’re f------ going to die!
“Never have I ever felt so alone,” Lechner said. “I had seven girls staring at me, looking at me, with hate in their eyes.”
She said her co-worker pulled the assailant off, and a second girl turned on the co-worker and punched her in the face.
Lechner is a lesbian. But North Carolina’s hate crime statute does not include sexual orientation or gender identity. So police did not have the option of charging anyone with a hate crime, which carries a stiffer penalty. They charged two 17-year-olds with simple assault.
For a North Carolina case to be prosecuted as a hate crime, the federal government has to bring charges under the Matthew Shepard Act, named for a student who was tortured and murdered near Laramie, Wyoming. Since the law took effect in 2009, no one has been charged in North Carolina.
Police referred the case to the FBI as a possible hate crime – but only after the Observer questioned whether officers intended to do that. An FBI spokesperson said the investigation is ongoing.
Hate crimes underreported
As a majority of Americans become more accepting, those who disagree find themselves on the fringes of society – and it angers some of them, said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that monitors hate groups.
“There’s an enormous amount of rage because it’s closely connected to very deep dark feelings people have about sexuality,” Potok said. “If you think about things said about gay people – they’re different than what is said about Jews or black people: ‘They are perverts.’ ‘They’re coming to molest your children.’ ‘All the things they do is disgusting.’ ”
Last year, the center added seven organizations to its list of anti-LGBT hate groups, bringing the total to 48, nearly double the number in 2010 – a reflection, Potok said, of the angry backlash.
Polling by the Pew Research Center found that 63 percent of Americans believe homosexuality “should be accepted by society” and over half favor allowing same-sex marriage. Roughly 28 percent of Americans believe homosexuality should be discouraged.
Potok analyzed 14 years of FBI statistics in 2011 and found that LGBTQ people were targeted at higher rates than any other minority group in the country. They were twice as likely to be victims of violent hate crimes as Jews or African Americans, four times as likely as Muslims and 14 times as likely as Latinos.
Many thousands of anti-LGBTQ crimes go unreported, Potok and Herek said.
There are several reasons: Some victims fear further reprisals by outing themselves to employers and family. Some arresting officers don’t recognize what constitutes a hate crime. Many law enforcement agencies don’t report cases for inclusion in yearly FBI statistics because reporting is voluntary.
In North Carolina, from 2009 through 2014, law enforcement agencies submitted 101 cases to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report involving people who were allegedly assaulted, intimidated or had their homes vandalized because of their sexual orientation.
Herek noted that only 41 of 524 law enforcement jurisdictions in the state reported any alleged hate crimes in 2014. Only 13 jurisdictions reported hate crimes based on sexual orientation. He said he doubts that’s because there weren’t hate crimes in the remaining 483 jurisdictions.
“We have to assume that what the FBI has,” he said, “is a pretty significant underestimate.”
Attacked in the night
One case reported to the FBI involved two salon owners from Charlotte who were attacked in Asheville in 2012.
Dustin Martin and Mark Little left a gay bar one night around 2 a.m. and were walking along Patton Avenue toward their hotel. Martin said they weren’t kissing. They weren’t holding hands. They weren’t even side-by-side – Martin trailed about 20 feet behind, complaining that his feet hurt.
From out of the dark, Martin said, a car crept up behind them and two women screamed out a string of obscenities.
Martin, 30, said he has been called “faggot” and other slurs too many times to count. He said he usually shrugs it off. That night, he said, he felt exhausted. Here he was in Asheville, considered one of the South’s most inclusive cities, being attacked because of who he is, not because of anything he did.
He said he yelled back: You’re a stupid bitch. I’ve done nothing to you. Leave me alone!
A man charged out from the back seat of the car, Martin said, and punched him in the chest.
Martin said Little screamed: Get off of him! The man then turned on Little and punched him in the face, Martin said. A photograph taken that night shows blood dripping down Little’s cheek.
“He just came in and started swinging,” Martin said. “Neither one of us hit back. We were just stunned.”
Asheville police reported the assault to the FBI as a hate crime. However, the perpetrators were never identified and no charges filed on either the state or federal level.
A recent report found that transgender individuals are especially vulnerable to attack – particularly transgender women of color who also face racism and sexism. There’s no clear data on the extent of the risk, but the Human Rights Campaign identified at least 19 transgender homicide victims in the United States so far this year and 21 last year.
One of the victims in 2015 was Elisha Walker of Salisbury. Her body was found in a crude grave in Smithfield, 150 miles from her home. An ex-boyfriend was charged.
A sheriff’s investigator called her death a domestic murder but told the Observer that her gender identity contributed. He said the ex-boyfriend belonged to a gang that disapproved of “those kinds of relationships.”
‘Are you a boy or a girl?’
With heightened visibility because of HB2, transgender residents said they feel as if they’re being watched.
Fletcher Page said three women accosted him when he walked out of the men’s restroom at the PNC Pavilion in Charlotte. Page, who is 24, was raised as a girl and said he began transitioning seven years ago. He still wears his hair long.
He had driven up from Greenville, S.C., on Sept. 16, for a concert featuring Heart, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts and Cheap Trick.
“These three older ladies surrounded me,” he said. “At first, I thought that they were flirting with me.”
Instead, he said, they asked: “ ‘Are you a boy or a girl?
“I said, ‘I’m a man.’
“They said, ‘What bathroom did you use?’
“I told them, ‘The men’s bathroom. It’s the bathroom I always use.’
“One of them reaches across my chest and pulls my shirt up,” he said. “They’re all staring at my crotch. And they say, ‘Clearly that’s a man....’ ”
Before the women left, he said they told him, “If you’re born a man you should stay a man. If you’re born a woman, you should stay a woman.”
Page works for Gender Benders, a grassroots advocacy and support group. His duties include educating people about issues affecting the LGBTQ community.
“I have a strong sense of self,” he said. “I can’t imagine what happened to me happening to someone who’s not ‘out,’ who doesn’t have a support system... It’s making us feel like our trans identity isn’t real. And these bathroom bills reinforce this.”
More bathroom vigilantes
The Observer spoke with two women – neither transgender – who also reported being harassed at a restroom.
Michelle Scott, 54, is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. She works as an assistant manager at a Walmart in Greensboro and was riding home to Charlotte on her motorcycle not long after HB2 became law. She said she stopped at a rest area on Interstate 85 near the N.C. Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Thomasville.
As she left the women’s room, Scott said an older white man demanded: Do you know you’re in the wrong bathroom?
I’m in the right bathroom, she remembers telling him. She said she suggested he take a closer look. Scott wears her hair short, in tight braids. She’s a woman. Her birth certificate says so.
A spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Transportation said no employee at that rest area is a white male. Based on what the Observer learned, he said, DOT has alerted attendants to be on the lookout for anyone harassing travelers.
A second Charlotte woman, a 61-year-old business executive, who is 6-foot-1 with short hair, described a similar encounter at the same rest stop on her way home from the Outer Banks in August. She said it involved an older white man she assumed was an attendant because he wore a uniform.
“I was in the stall. I hear this male voice saying, ‘This is the women’s bathroom.’ ” She said she washed her hands and walked out. “He’s standing there. ‘This is the women’s bathroom,’ he said. I told him, ‘I am a woman.... a female-born woman.”
She asked not be be identified by name because she fears losing business if clients discover she is a lesbian. “This is what we live with every day,” she said. “It is an environment of intolerance and misunderstanding.”
Voices of Authority
Some religious leaders have been especially vocal in their condemnation, referencing the Bible as their authority.
The Rev. Flip Benham of Concord-based Operation Save America exploded in rage at a meeting of Charlotte City Council in July. “It is a sin to be a practicing homosexual,” he shouted. “... You’ve opened up the doors of hell on our city.”
In 2014, a Fayetteville pastor publicly targeted a former N.C. Court of Appeals judge from Charlotte. It happened at a news conference in Raleigh, hosted by Republican Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam of Apex, after a federal court overturned the state’s ban on gay marriage.
Attorney John Arrowood, who served on the appellate court in 2007-2008, was running again, this time as an openly gay man.
“I understand there’s a judge out there that’s a flaming homosexual who’s going to be running,” Pastor Johnny Hunter told the gathering. “I hope he just steps out of the race, because he is already stepping in with bias.”
Another Fayetteville pastor attracted national attention for a sermon in 2012. Sean Harris of Berean Baptist Church told parents if they saw their 4-year-old sons “dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give him a good punch.”
Harris said he was using hyperbole to make a point. In a follow-up to his congregation, he said he doesn’t advocate child abuse under any circumstance and urged members not to be “hateful toward those whose behavior is an abomination to God.”
Pastor Charles Worley at Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, 35 miles northwest of Charlotte, is so outspoken that the Southern Poverty Law Center includes his church on its list of hate groups. Worley suggested in a sermon on Mother’s Day in 2012 that “lesbians and queers” be held inside electric fences until they die out.
Wounds from childhood
More often, condemnation comes in the smaller moments of everyday life.
In Rockingham, a female couple said a store owner asked them not to hold hands because she didn’t want her children seeing it. A Laurinburg company refused to print invitations for two women getting married.
In Burnsville, Johnny Dean McCurry said he forgot his rewards discount card at a grocery store and asked an older woman if he could borrow hers. “She looked me up and down, and it brought back so many memories,” he said. “She hesitated and then she just turned away.”
The snub made him feel ostracized, the way he felt growing up gay in an unaccepting community. When he got home from the store, McCurry, 52, said he wept. The depth of his feelings surprised him.
“I realized all the anger from childhood, I’d not outgrown any of that. I’d not healed any of that.”
As he meditated that afternoon in the quiet of his grandfather’s cabin, an image came to mind. It was a summer day in 1969. He was 5, attending Vacation Bible School, and all the kids got their pictures taken.
In the photograph, he is sitting on the church steps, his hands folded in his lap. He’s dressed in shorts, argyle socks and a T-shirt with stripes at the neck and sleeves. On his face is a big smile.
But what he remembers most about that day happened out of the camera’s view. He said the other boys at the church told him he couldn’t play with them. They called him a “pussy.”
It was the first time he was bullied for being gay.
Young lives at stake
A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that among high school students who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, more than a third surveyed reported being bullied at school – nearly twice the number of heterosexual students.
More than 40 percent, the study found, said they seriously considered suicide.
A study by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute found that 41 percent of transgender people try to kill themselves at some point in their lives, compared to 4.6 percent of the population as a whole.
In the Charlotte area, two transgender teenagers killed themselves last year by going into traffic. Sixteen-year-old Ash Haffner died a block from home in Indian Trail. Blake Brockington, 18, a graduate of East Mecklenburg High in Charlotte, died a month later.
Brockington attracted national attention in 2014 as the first openly transgender high school homecoming king in North Carolina. Two months before he died, he told the Observer: “We need support, not people looking down at us or degrading us or overlooking us. We are still human."
In Forsyth County, Ben Wood was bullied so much in middle school, his mother said, he refused to drink anything at breakfast for fear of of being beaten up in the bathroom.
“He was a little bit on the effeminate side,” Julie Wood said about her son. “He couldn’t catch a ball if he had to. He was a target for teasing and bullying because he did not fit into the stereotypical rough-and-tough boy image.”
Ben enjoyed books, music and nature, and was passionate about social justice.
Wood and her husband are both social workers. She said they did everything they could to protect and care for Ben. “But nothing we could do could protect him from the cruel judgment and rejection from others.”
On a Wednesday evening in the summer of 2008, when Ben was 16, she said he went to church to help plan a mission trip. He returned home unexpectedly, his cheeks flushed, his breathing rapid. He looked as if he was about to cry.
He told her the new youth leader had singled him out as gay in front of the others. He said the leader asked who felt comfortable being around him, and then said:
Do you understand that Ben is going to hell?
Julie and Bill Wood rushed to the church. She said the congregation had always been welcoming to Ben despite a United Methodist Church guideline that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
But when they confronted the youth leader, Wood said, he screamed:
Homosexuality is an abomination.
They quit the church. They sent Ben for counseling. But Wood believes her son never recovered.
“If you already have been ridiculed, and then your very being is deemed unworthy by your church and your God, it does change your soul, your psyche, your feeling of safety and belonging in the world,” she said. “That’s a huge mountain to climb.”
In May 2012, after voters approved Amendment 1 outlawing same-sex marriage in North Carolina, she said Ben came home from college for a visit. They went to a spring festival in Kernersville. As so many traditional families strolled by them – husbands and wives with little children – she said Ben turned to her and said:
Mom, I’ll never be accepted here.
The following year, when Ben was 21, he quit going to class. His grades plummeted. He would have to leave UNC Asheville and move back home to Forsyth County. He told friends he was horrified at the prospect.
On the last day of the semester, Ben killed himself.
It was May 8, 2013, the first anniversary of Amendment 1. Wood believes his timing was no coincidence.
The message he heard from the state, she said, mirrored the message from childhood bullies and his church youth leader: “You are not worthy. You do not belong. You do not matter to us.’ ”
A year after Ben died, Wood shared a video with the United Methodist Church about his experience, prompting one bishop to say he favored eliminating the language on homosexuality because of suicides such as Ben’s. Two years later, church leaders are still debating.
Wood said that as a family, they could not say enough, pray enough and love enough to undo the insidious harm of what Ben heard over and over and over.
It’s time, she said, to change the message.
Researcher Maria David contributed.