I paused to catch my breath at the large, weathered wooden doors leading into the church assembly hall. With my hand on the ornate brass handle, I could feel my heart racing. I was about to go in those doors alone.
I had decided to attend the Christian Citizenship in Action in Tampa Bay meeting entitled, "UNLESS WE ACT NOW OUR DAUGHTERS, GRANDDAUGHTERS, WIVES AND MOTHERS WILL HAVE TO SHARE THEIR RESTROOM WITH MEN!!" (Yes, with two exclamation marks.)
My gut told me I needed to go and hear for myself the false rhetoric aimed at my transgender community and at me. I wanted to see if they truly believed the hate speech and if they would say it to my face.
Driving for over an hour that morning gave me time to reconsider my actions over and over in my head. One moment I was certain I'd be treated, at worst, with restrained hostility, other moments I wondered if I'd be dragged off by self-righteous bigots never to be seen again. At a time when a "Christian" legal group behind these dehumanizing laws advocated bringing a Glock .45 handgun into the ladies room, it was hard to know what was silly paranoia and what was appropriate precaution. I made a note, that if I made it through the day, to be sure to put out a policy brief to our Equality Florida TransAction Council advising not to do what I was doing this morning. When walking into the "belly of the beast," don't go alone.
I arrived at the church a bit early and decided to circle the block assessing the landscape: Large open parking lot easy to be seen and easy to escape if needed. Check. After several laps around the block, I decided to back in so that my Equality Florida bumper stickers would be hidden from plain view, thus reducing the possibility of my car being keyed. Check. Email my public policy team to let them know where I was and when I would make contact again. Check. Palms sweating. Check.
I pulled hard on the heavy door and as my eyes adjusted to the hall, I was shocked to hear, "Well, Gina Duncan?" Damn. Busted. Apparently, my path had previously crossed with the "Minister" conducting the meeting. We had testified before a County Commission on opposite sides of a fight to pass a human rights ordinance. I was met with cordial disdain and found a seat next to a woman about my age. We chatted about the weather and about the traffic, typical small talk over our coffee.
After the opening prayer, surprisingly, Minister Terry started the meeting by introducing me as a guest and asked if I would like to make an opening statement. The nice woman sitting next to me scooted her chair as far away from me as she could.
I stood and told the hall full of evangelical conservatives who I was and why I was there. I told them that I used to be a father, a son, a brother and a husband. I told them I was the homecoming king and an all-state linebacker in high school when we won state in 1973. I told them I was in banking for 30 years and raised two amazing kids. I proudly told them I was transgender.
And I told them that they were wrong about us. I told them these bathroom horror stories were unfounded hate speech, the bathroom predator fear was a myth and that transgender people simply wanted to live our lives, free from hate, discrimination or harassment. And I told them how many trans people were committing suicide and being murdered each year because of misinformation and fear mongering.
As I took my seat, I noticed how Minister Terry's hands were shaking as he rose to speak. It was quiet except for an uneasy murmur across the hall and I noticed how no one would look me in the eye. Minister Terry asked if I was going to stay, and I said, "Yes, I came to hear what you had to say." There was another prolonged silence as I held my breath expecting to be escorted out of the "place of worship," but no one moved.
For the next hour, I endured the canned rhetoric being sold by the Liberty Counsel and hate groups across the country. Often, when people rose to speak, they looked directly at me. I heard a young mother speak of her concern for her 10-year-old daughter in public bathrooms and cried as she said she no longer feels comfortable going in any public restroom. They spoke of how their religious freedoms were under attack and how the LGBT agenda was sweeping the country.
And then they spoke of their next steps to discourage school boards across the Tampa Bay Area from passing LGBT non-discrimination policies that would protect our most vulnerable; Our young people.
At the end of the meeting, I had one more opportunity to set the record straight as Minister Terry asked if there were any closing remarks. He visibly grimaced as I began to, one-by-one, refute the fear and misinformation. I assured the young mother that we were no threat to her or her daughter and I tried to humanize my community to people who feared us as much as hated us for just trying to live an authentic life. As I concluded, Minister Terry felt the need, to once again, remind everyone how transgender people were, in fact, a threat to their "religious freedom."
I reluctantly shook Minister Terry's hand as I left, saying I was sure our paths would cross again. And, I made a point to loudly ask where the women's restroom was before leaving. And, once again with my heart in my throat, I strategically made my way back to my car. I glanced over my shoulder several times confirming no one was following me out of the hall. I circled my car looking for vandalism, and relieved that my car in tact, I set out for home.
I was glad that I had gone. I could tell that I was the first transgender person with whom many of those in attendance had ever come in contact. But, the stress of the morning hit me half way back to Orlando. My eyes filled with tears that ran down my face as I thought of how far apart our beliefs were and how far we still have to go.
Would I do that again? Probably. You can't win if you don't fight.
Equality Florida / TransAction Florida
Transgender Inclusion Director