PFLAG Gaston has grown from a handful of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays to a dynamic group of activists engaging their community. Founded in 2009 by Amy Sifford and Robert Kellogg, the group is now a visible participant in community events, such as the Downtown Gastonia Zombie Walk and Food Drive, Run for the Money and Taste of Gaston. A recent summer picnic sponsored by the group at Stowe Park in Belmont drew over 40 attendees, perhaps due to the appearance of Fortune Feimster. Feimster is a Belmont native who now lives in L.A. doing comedy and regularly appearing on Chelsea Lately. Feimster's mom Ginger is the current PFLAG Gaston president.
To fulfill its mission to spread education, support and understanding, PFLAG Gaston has been intentional about reaching out to local churches, the media and the health department. It has also supported the development of gay-straight alliances at area schools; there are GSA's at Highland School of Technology, Forest View High School, South Point High School and Gaston College. Creating and maintaining a safe learning environment for LGBT youth is just one of the issues that members are passionate about.
In an effort to inform and educate on trans issues, PFLAG Gaston invited Janice Covington to speak at their next meeting, which is Nov. 21 at 7 p.m. at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, 258 W. Franklin Blvd., Gastonia. Janice is a well-respected activist in the Charlotte area. She was honored with this year's Harvey Milk Award at Charlotte Pride for her work raising awareness of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and her election as North Carolina's first openly transgender person to represent the state at the Democratic National Convention.
Some people quietly complain about injustices and wait for someone else to make things right. Not Janice. She makes people pay attention to what's wrong in the world. I recently spoke with this self-described "radical." (This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
What is the current state of trans issues in North Carolina? Are we progressing or moving backward?
Covington: I feel that trans issues are now moving ahead faster than ever before in our society, mostly because of education efforts by multiple transgender support groups across our state. Recently, the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners voted to add "gender identity" to the Mecklenburg County Employment Non Discrimination legislation, giving transgender employees the right to work without fear of job discrimination.
What is one political or social issue of particular importance to transgender persons?
Right now the most important piece of political legislation to the transgender community is the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act [ENDA]. It would give transgender people the right to work and earn a living like any other American without the fear of harassment, bigotry and discrimination in the work place. Transgender people have the same desires as anyone else: they want to own a home and a car and to be able to support themselves. To penalize a person because of their gender identity is wrong by any standard.
What is a misconception that people have about you as a trans person?
Many people that I encounter through my travels accept me for who I am. But on occasion, I do run into some who just don't understand me because of their lack of socializing with LGBT people. They are ignorant to the fact that we are no different than they are. Many times I sit down with people who have never seen a transgender other than on the 6 o'clock news. We talk, and I give them permission to ask me anything. Some of the questions are valid and some are comical. I believe as a transgender, education is the key to eradicate hate and discrimination. I sit and talk about fishing, playing ball and the past weekend's football game. Then like magic, they realize I am no different from them. Sometimes after our talk, when we depart, they thank me, shake my hand or hug me. To me that is a wonderful feeling because I have changed a mind and soul for the better. Jesus said no man shall judge another - only God can judge. If I am doing wrong for being me, then I and no one else will pay the price on judgment day.
How can allies support their LGBT friends?
Being able to find acceptance among each other is important. The LGBT community doesn't ask for anything special other than to be treated with the same respect you would expect to give anyone else. We are members of the human race, and to survive with each other, all we have to do is come together as one community. People who support our community are coming out in support more and more every day; look at the polls about marriage equality and equality in the workplace. Citizens across this country are realizing that we are neighbors, co-workers, soldiers, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters. They are realizing we are family. Do I need to say anything more?
PFLAG Gaston meets on the third Thursday of every month at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Gastonia at 7:00 pm. All those who support LGBT members, are LGBT or are questioning their sexuality or the sexuality of a loved one are welcome to attend. Meetings are confidential. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.