I have a new son.
No, no. I have no biological children. But as a professor, I have had some students begin to treat me as a father figure. Humbly, I take on that mantle to be of whatever strength, challenge and comfort I can be to that young person. Today I have a new son, who was first one of my daughters.
I got this email:
“Hi Dr. Nacoste, it has been way too long!
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“I graduated from NC State almost three years ago and moved to New York City to attend Columbia school of social work. Now I am working as an adolescent counselor and school social worker in the Bronx. I am doing a lot of activism around LGBTQ justice and restorative justice.
“I have experienced a lot of transitions since we last talked. I identify as a trans-man now and have recently started my physical transition. I am telling you this because you knew me as Katie; I now go by Jay. I have been wondering what you think about the recent anti-LGBT law passed in NC and recent political events in NC.
“I am coming back to NC for a few days tomorrow. I wanted to see if you have any second to grab a cup of coffee at global village. That would be wonderful to see you and chat.
“Let me know and I hope you are well. Your work and social psychology classes transformed my life and I have always carried what I learned from you with me.”
At CupAJoes, Jay and I reconnected. He brought his partner, Sarah, along, and for two hours the three of us had great conversations about life, the universe and everything.
Jay told me he had the thought that while he was here in N.C. he would get his birth certificate changed to reflect his transition to being a male; he did grow up here after all. But Jay decided against trying that because he just wasn’t sure the N.C. office was prepared, would be welcoming of this simple request. Sarah was equally concerned about how they would be treated as a couple. Both made it clear that all their anxious uncertainty was being pushed by HB2.
North Carolina’s HB2 law tells transgender people to use the bathroom that “we, the government” say you must use. That bathroom is the one that goes with the biological sex you were born to, not to the gender-identity you are living. A state law designed to designate which bathrooms members of a certain group have to use tells members of that group (and all citizens) how the state as institution evaluates and wants to control that group.
We have seen this before – bathrooms for “colored” and “white.” Jim Crow laws of legal racial segregation that I grew up surrounded by were not about water fountains, lunch counters or bathrooms. Jim Crow laws that as a black person I had to follow were about keeping us “colored” people in our place. If any of us “colored people” tried to behave in a way not fitting “our place” then the law was used to “put them in their place.”
Why were bathrooms so important? Well, if you use the same bathrooms, then at the most basic level you cannot say you are a better, more important or a more authentic citizen or human. That’s why it was so critical in the civil rights battle that African-Americans (and others) waged and won to gain “equal protection under the law” by removing the laws that allowed white citizens to “show them their place.” HB2 is about resisting social changes that extend that equal protection under the law to transgender people.
What a tremendous joy it was to see Jay. He told me that although he is still in his transition, he is happier and freer than he has ever been. He said, “I breathe differently now that I am not hiding my true self.”
At the end of our time together, I pulled him into my arms for one of my bear hugs. He told me he loved me. I told him, “I love you.”
I have a new son. I want my son to be able to visit me at N.C. State without uncertainty and fear.
Rupert W. Nacoste, Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor of Psychology at NCSU, is author of “Taking on Diversity: How we can move from anxiety to respect.”