After years of verbal attacks, disrespect, and misgendering, mechanic Jay Jones is nearly ready to quit the auto industry for good. 

“I’ve spent so many nights driving home after work, bawling my eyes out from stress, and feeling unheard,” says Jones, who is a transgender man. “It essentially came down to, ‘How much energy can I really spend on educating people who only see me as a negative?’”

Jones’s experience isn’t uncommon in North Carolina. Across the state, LGBTQ activists are still entrenched in a battle to win one of the oldest and most basic rights in the United States—the right to live one’s life without facing discrimination. But as advocates fight for equality and resist anti-LGBTQ laws passed by the state legislature, the world around them has become more tolerant, accepting, and loving of people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

The battle for equality

One of the biggest issues LGBTQ activists are tackling this year is the lack of a statewide nondiscrimination policy. North Carolina is one of 27 states in which discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is not prohibited. 

That means when it comes to buying a house, getting a bank loan, seeing a doctor, or playing on a high school sports team, there are no legal protections for LGBTQ people. While public employees have some legal options, private employees cannot sue for discrimination. 

For Jones, it means being a little more hesitant to report discrimination to Human Resources. Jones’ current company has a strict nondiscrimination policy, but in other places, “I’ve had instances of going to HR and getting a whole lotta nothing back, in terms of results,” he says. 

Jones is “non-passing,” he says, which means when people look at him, they might see him as a different gender. He started working as a mechanic in his current position about three months ago, and since then, the issues with his manager have been “non-stop,” he says. 

After months of being misgendered, Jones decided to take a transfer and start work at a different company location. But he isn’t hopeful about his next work environment being much better. If his next job doesn’t work out, he plans to quit his career for good.

“If it is different, that’d be amazing. But I’m already throwing in the towel that it will be the same,” Jones says. “My dad is a technician, so he does trade work too, and it came down to, ‘We want you to succeed, but if your mental health is suffering, leave.’”

An ongoing fight

North Carolina is slowly moving past its legacy of anti-LGBTQ legislation.

This year, in the wake of the expiration of a law banning local anti-discrimination policies for the LGBTQ community, nine North Carolina cities approved such ordinances. Durham, Greensboro, and Chapel Hill are among those that now prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

That’s a sign of progress for Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality NC, whose nonprofit was a major part of the campaign lobbying for such legislation. Simply having a law prompts agencies to start collecting data on instances of discrimination, giving everyone a better sense of the problem, she told the INDY.

Moreover, “it elevates the conversation about the realities that LGBTQ people live,” Johnson says, prompting a culture change. “It prompts all of these systems that LGBTQ people and other minorities have routinely been shut out of to evaluate how it is that they need to adapt in order to create welcoming and affirming environments.”

In the state legislature, two anti-trans bills were introduced this session. The difference this year is that they haven’t gone anywhere. 

Both bills—one that sought to limit medical treatments for transgender people under age 21, and another that would have prevented transgender people from playing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity—died in committee two months ago. Republican leaders have admitted that they don’t see paths forward for the bills, which Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper would likely veto if they landed on his desk. 

Another reason for the death of such bills may be the backlash the legislature faced after it passed the infamous House Bill 2 in 2016. Also known as the bathroom bill, H.B. 2 prohibited transgender people from using restrooms consistent with their gender identity. Five years ago, condemnation from North Carolinians and big companies forced a partial repeal of the law. Today, criticism is likely to be louder.

A changing world

If nothing else, one thing that has changed in five years is public opinion. Nationwide, public support for LGBTQ rights is at an all-time high. In the U.S., 76 percent of Americans support laws that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination, according to a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. Support for same-sex marriage also broke records this year, with 70 percent of Americans and a majority of Republicans in support, according to a Gallup poll. 

One reason for the increased support may be an increase in the number of people willing to speak openly about their sexuality and gender identity. Since 2012, the number of Americans identifying as LGBTQ almost doubled, going from 3.5 percent to 5.6 percent, according to the Gallup poll. One in six adult members of Generation Z identify as something other than heterosexual, the Gallup report stated. 

Numbers may be even higher among people under age 18, who were not included in the poll. One such North Carolinian is 14-year-old Blaine Hedge, who is transgender. Blaine grew up in a conservative Christian household where being gay was not okay, he says. Since he came out, however, his parents have grown more open-minded. 

“I kind of changed their perspective,” Blaine says. “My dad used to be really transphobic, because he’s into psychology and neuroscience and that (being transgender) doesn’t fit.”

When Blaine came out, his dad and mom were willing to learn, he says. They don’t always understand, but they’re supportive. 

“Coming out, they were just kind of like, ‘OK, you’re still our child.’ I’ve told them about my experiences,” Blaine says. “My dad says we’re all going on a journey and (with me) transitioning, we’ll see what happens.” 

Avery Burnette, 15, identifies as pansexual and nonbinary. Avery realized their orientation during quarantine and came out to their parents a few months ago, they said. 

Avery’s mother, Joy Burnette, wasn’t familiar with the words “pansexual” or “nonbinary,” she says, “but it made sense when they (Avery) explained it.” 

“It’s something we’re still working through,” says Avery’s dad, Daniel. 

For Johnson, who has been fighting to make LGBTQ voices heard for decades, seeing the next generation speak so openly about their gender and sexual orientation is encouraging. 

“The more people who come out, and the more people who you know are LGBTQ, (that) begins to change public opinion,” she says. “It’s harder to discriminate against your parent, your sibling, your aunt, your coworker that you love. You want them to enjoy equal rights.” 

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