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LGBT advocates look ahead to new year of trans, LGBT awareness 

Not dropping the ball on trans rights

LGBT advocates in Charlotte and across the state agree 2015 was a year full of challenges and opportunities, and they're looking forward to a new year of progress and advancement, especially in regards to transgender people and the issues they face.

"It's been a roller coaster of a year," says Parker Smith, the youth outreach worker for Charlotte's Time Out Youth Center, an LGBT youth support and services agency. "We've gotten a double-edged sword of increased publicity for trans folks; at the same time that we're getting this big spotlight shining on trans folks, we're getting more pressure within the community."

Smith, who identifies as trans and non-binary, says the increased attention, especially during Charlotte's raucous debate on a package of LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances, put trans rights on center stage. New public dialogue allowed trans people to begin sharing their stories and brought more positive representations of trans people and life to the forefront.

Some of those stories weren't always so positive. At least four local trans youth died as the result of suicide in 2015. Two trans adults, Smith reports, lost their lives to murder. Homelessness for trans youth and adults also remains a critical pressure point for the city.

"As usual, I think these are still the overarching issues," Smith says. "I think these issues we've been seeing for a long time and I think they're being brought now to the forefront of the community. It's all the same — murder, homelessness, suicide — but maybe, honestly, I am more hopeful that we're starting to address them."

The new year will bring increased opportunities for more education, outreach, dialogue and discussion, Smith says. At Time Out Youth, they will continue their "Trans 101" trainings, broadening them to the greater public. Smith also sees hopeful signs from other local non-profits, who they say are beginning to bring more focus to trans inclusion and trans issues.

And with Charlotte's non-discrimination ordinances coming back up for debate – a city council vote is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 8 – Smith sees even more opportunities for advancement.

"What I'm hoping to see most is a coming together for the ordinance again," they said. "I think things will get worse before they get better, but this ordinance will be the first step in, especially, getting safe restroom use for all my youth. That's important to me and all trans adolescents locally."

Chris Sgro, executive director of the statewide Equality North Carolina, is similarly hopeful that Charlotte will finally pass the long-debated non-discrimination ordinances.

But it won't come without a fight. Late in 2015, Republican legislators attempted to pre-empt local governments' authority to pass such laws. Republican state Rep. Dan Bishop, who represents a portion of Mecklenburg County, and an unnamed Republican strategist recently told the Charlotte Business Journal that state lawmakers would oppose any advancement in local non-discrimination protections. Such opposition, Sgro says, endangers the rights of not only LGBT people but a slew of minorities and calls into question the role of state government and its limitations on local authority.

"It would affect every city in the state and go above and beyond the LGBT community," Sgro says. "This is really an issue of municipal authority to pass common-sense ordinances in any arena, whether it's fair housing or LGBT protections. Certainly a state takeover of city authority does not represent small government."

Sgro is hopeful that such a restriction wouldn't come before state lawmakers during their short legislative session this spring. If it does, Sgro says Equality North Carolina and other groups would work to stop it. Meanwhile, the statewide lobbying and education group will be working to strengthen opportunities in local organizing across the state. Sgro says several other local governments could discuss and pass similar non-discrimination measures in the coming year; Greensboro already has.

"I don't think Charlotte will be the only municipality in the state where we see protections passed for LGBT people," he says. "These conversations will require a group of local LGBT and ally working on behalf of those ordinances and that's why Equality North Carolina continues to be focused on capacity building in key areas across the state."

Back in Charlotte, and beyond discussion of local non-discrimination ordinances, Smith hopes to see more attention given to trans youth. Gov. Pat McCrory recently signed on to a brief opposing one Virginia trans student's quest for protections at their high school. But Smith says local trans students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools can expect positive advancements.

"We have a good relationship with CMS," they say. "They care about trans students and their rights. We're working with them. Good things are happening."

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