Lara Americo is 32. She’s an activist and a musician. She’s lived most of her life in North Carolina.
But she says she’s afraid for people like her in her state – people who are transgender. And even though House Bill 2 was replaced, she said the new law hasn’t made anything better.
Americo’s story appeared in a national progressive magazine, Mother Jones, on Sunday. The piece, titled “I’m a trans woman of color, and I’ve never been more scared to live in North Carolina” is written in first person and details how House Bill 2 has affected Americo and those who share her struggle.
“I used to tell everyone I wasn’t going to make it past 30 because I was convinced that I wasn’t,” said in the piece. “I was suicidal and pretty much a hermit – everything was wrong but I didn’t know why.”
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That, Americo said, is because she had been living a lie since she was 4 years old.
Born in California but raised in North Carolina – mostly in Pitt County and Charlotte – Americo said she grew up liking GI Joe and toy guns and swords. But she preferred feminine toys and being feminine.
When she hit puberty, Americo said, she overcompensated.
“I was the most masculine person you could imagine,” Americo told The News & Observer on Tuesday. “I had a giant beard. I was an MMA fighter ... I struggled very hard to become as masculine as possible, and I was rewarded for that, especially in a conservative area like North Carolina.”
But that person who tried to fit the traditional male stereotype never really existed. He was a mask. And living that lie hurt Americo and nearly drove her to take her own life, she said.
“I spent most of my life pretending I was a guy because I felt it was the right thing to do,” she said. “I felt like living a life that was authentic would hurt the people around me and alienate my family.”
But eventually Americo made the decision. When she was 29 she began her transition. At 32, she says the truth she lives out in the open now “is very polarizing” in a state she said is unfriendly toward trans people, and even her family still struggles to accept it.
“The person I saw didn’t match the person inside at all,” she said. “It broke me. I didn’t want to go forward with life.”
Americo said she never imagined that her state would turn against her.
When Charlotte decided to create a bathroom ordinance that would allow transgender people to use the restroom of the gender they identify with, she was happy to see her city side with a marginalized group.
“I felt hopeful we were moving forward and hoped other cities would do the same. We’re citizens of this state; we benefit this state more than we hurt it as well as the entire country,” she said. “We’re an important part of the fabric of this society, and to constantly marginalize us and beat us down until we have nothing left ... it just hurts everyone.”
But those hopes were dashed with the passage of House Bill 2, Americo said. The N.C. General Assembly not only stepped in to nullify Charlotte’s ordinance, it imposed a statewide cis-gendered bathroom law that required Americo to use the men’s restroom. HB2 also took the power to pass nondiscrimination ordinances away from municipalities – solidifying that power at the state level.
Americo and other transgender people like her have been using the restroom of the gender they identify with for years, she said, and she has continued to use the women’s restroom.
“If I were to go into the men’s bathroom, there was the potential of outing myself as a transgender woman,” she said. “While I don’t really keep it a secret anymore ... it can be dangerous for me, especially in the climate we’re in now ... They don’t value you as much as a human being.”
Transgender people face a disproportionate level of violence, discrimination and harassment.
When Gov. Roy Cooper and N.C. General Assembly Republican leadership came together on an HB2 compromise in March after pressure from organizations such as the NCAA and NBA, things didn’t improve, Americo said.
“I don’t think it was a repeal – I think transgender people are in even more danger now,” she said. “When you don’t allow cities to give people protections, you put people in danger. Our state government made it clear that they put profit and sports ahead of our safety, and that mentality trickles down.”
Transgender people in North Carolina still don’t have the protections they need, Americo said. But now they have a spotlight cast on them, potentially making them targets.
Americo said she feels less safe now than she did a few weeks ago, and so do others in the trans community. She works at Trans Lifeline, a suicide hotline. After the HB2 repeal and replacement, she said, there was a spike in calls.
Every few weeks, Americo said she sees people making plans to leave North Carolina. But she wrestles with that decision.
“I love North Carolina, and I don’t want to leave,” she said. “It’s a beautiful state. And I would hate it if I gave in to fear tactics and discrimination.”
But Americo said she tries to stay optimistic and hopes the Tar Heel state will move toward change for the better.
“Next time ... I hope (legislators) won’t use trans people as the scapegoat,” Americo said. “Next time I hope they won’t use us as the villain.”
Abbie Bennett: 919-836-5768; @AbbieRBennett