Roberta Dunn says she knew who she really was when she was 14 years old.
But for 45 years, the Charlotte, North Carolina, resident told me, she was a “prisoner” in her own mind because of society’s intolerance of transgender people.
“I withdrew,” Dunn, now in her early 70s, said. “I didn’t let anyone know.”
Dunn finally came out when she was 50, and eleven years ago decided to move to Charlotte from suburban Washington D.C. “I really didn’t know what it would be like,” she said. “I was just looking for a comfortable home so I could be who I really am.”
She found it, she said, even at her church, which she described as “very conservative.” “They don’t say they’re LGBT-friendly, they just welcome all people,” she said.
So Dunn was shocked when, in March, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed the anti-LGBT and transphobic HB2 bill into law.
“It felt terrible,” she said. “I was crushed that anyone could be so hateful, to use false expressions, lies, talking about men dressing up and going into bathrooms…to make up a story about who I am, to say I represent bad people was painful. It tore me apart.”
Having followed the legal battle over gay marriage, she had faith the federal government would step in in some way. Still, she said, hearing Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s speech Monday announcing that the government was suing over the law was a watershed moment, both personally and for America’s trans community.
“It was the most touching and inspirational thing I can remember hearing in my life for an LGBT person,” she said. “I could relate it to hearing a black person hearing, ‘I’m free at last,’ in the civil rights movement I grew up through. Saying the government of the United States wants to protect and support us, it was just heartwarming, it brought tears to my eyes.”
Lynch saying “We see you,” was particularly cathartic, she said.
“It made me feel alive,” Dunn said. “Someone is actually reaching out to me from the top of the country—the attorney general, who enforces our laws, said ‘I see you and I will protect you.’ I’m a parent to four children and five grandchildren, and it was like me telling my children when they were born, ‘I will protect you.’ That’s what it felt like, someone putting their arms around me.”
Dunn said she was heartened to hear Lynch dispel the claims being made about trans individuals stalking children in bathrooms, when in fact it has the trans community that she said, is “the most physically, and mentally abused, and the most murdered, people in the U.S.”
Despite calling herself a political conservative in favor of small government, Dunn believes the government has a duty to protect LGBT Americans.
“It’s about the Constitution, which says everyone is equal,” she said. “The 14th Amendment says everyone has to be treated equally and fairly, so when someone passes a law that’s just like the Jim Crow laws, then it’s the federal government’s job to step in and protect every American…You can’t say everyone’s equal, but these people are more equal.”
Dunn now believes Gov. Pat McCrory is committing political suicide by defending HB2.
“I did not think he would go this far,” she said, noting that McCrory actually vetoed last summer a bill allowing magistrates to opt-out of performing same-sex marriages. “I thought he might also do that [for HB2], but it’s an election year, and I think he made a terrible mistake. To me, his political career is over. I’m sorry for anyone who does something very foolish and stupid, but his career is over, and his stance is just idiotic.”
Despite not having experienced any explicit discrimination herself, as the head of the Carolina Transgender Society, she hears of many in the trans community there who do. But she said she is confident that the courts will eventually rule HB2 as unconstitutional. Doing so would reflect the will of North Carolinians, she said, pointing to a poll showing 51% of state residents support overturning HB2.
“That tells you all you need to know,” she said.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.