Creative Loafing's 'Pride Power Couple' walked into Kitchen Malaya in south Charlotte on a hot August day in the midst of a disagreement on the ethics of making good mac-and-cheese.
"Who eats crunchy macaroni and cheese?" said Joanne Spataro, describing the argument she was just having with girlfriend Lara Nazario on the way to the restaurant.
Spataro lobbied for the use of butter, which Nazario doesn't eat. She had more solid plans for her dish.
"I wanted to put potato chips in the mac," Nazario said, shrugging it off.
The two put off the potential dinner debate to discuss a year of major changes, not only for the LGBT community, but also for each of their personal lives.
Spataro has enjoyed life as an out lesbian; she came out early in 2014 and hosted Charlotte Pride festivities that summer. She has since left her job at a local law firm and become a regular writing contributor for local publications as well as a panelist on WCCB's popular news show The Edge, where she shows the sass and humor well known to fans of her web series "Pillow Talk."
Nazario is a musician and artist, playing solo acoustic sets when not plucking bass for local band Dilarian. She authored a web comic titled "One Body for a Lifetime," which helped her express to loved ones her intention to transition before beginning that transition about two years ago. She said her life has changed drastically in the last year.
"Before I transitioned, I was an empty shell. I had never really experienced anything," Nazario said. "I would do things and go places but it was almost like I was a puppet controlling my own body. Now I actually care about things and I can actually feel my emotions and see things as they are. Sometimes it works both ways; things that hurt really hurt and I feel things a lot more strongly now. But things that are great, I feel them all the more now, too."
While acceptance of lesbian and gay couples has grown in recent years, Spataro and Nazario say they still face judgment and confusion from others about their relationship. Spataro said she had a loved one throw a condom at her during an argument about her relationship with Nazario. She said some within the LGBT community are most judgmental about her decision to date a transgender woman.
"I have found some lesbians to be the worst, most binary, most intolerant of them all," Spataro said. "Some of them have no concept of another identity. They have this lesbian code of never having sex with another man and they have no idea of what pansexuality is or anything like that."
Nazario identifies as pansexual, meaning her sexual attractions are not limited by biological sex, gender or gender identity. She said she has dealt with people who think she wasted her time transitioning.
"When people found out that I was still attracted to women, there was a lot of confusion with that," she said. "They wondered why I transitioned to be with women; why would I want to do all these things and why I couldn't just still be a guy and be with women. It took a lot to educate people about the difference between sexuality and gender identity."
While Spataro said it makes her "furious" to deal with things like being told by fellow lesbians that she no longer qualifies as one, she's taken naturally to speaking out for the LGBT community when topics like Caitlyn Jenner's transition come up on The Edge.
"It's what I've been wanting to do for a long time, to be out and be able to be my sassy, sarcastic self and yell at people about things I'm passionate about," she said. "I have a very devoted audience. I feel like I'm giving a voice to a lot of people in the community who otherwise wouldn't have that platform and I take that very seriously. I don't let sexist, transphobic, homophobic things go by on the show. I talk about them."
Spataro said The Edge co-host Morgan Fogarty "championed" the cause of getting her on the show regularly once it turned into a panel show earlier this year.
Fogarty said Spataro showed up on her radar following then-Mayor Patrick Cannon's arrest in March 2014. Spataro released a spoof that went viral of Cannon's feminine hygiene product HERS, which he pitched to FBI agents posing as investors but doesn't seem to ever have actually existed.
Fogarty thought the video was hilarious and when the show reformatted earlier this year, she brought Spataro in to see if she would be comfortable as a regular panelist.
"In my experience, in Charlotte and on The Edge, it's been difficult to find strong female voices. It's just been easier to find guys who are comfortable talking about a variety of different topics like we do," Fogarty said. "Joanne fits that. She provides a quirky, irreverent approach to a lot of political and social topics on the show and, of course, she's well read on those issues whether you agree with her or not."
For Nazario, becoming who she is now did not involve only a gender transition, but an artistic one as well. Before transitioning, Nazario trained and competed in mixed martial arts. Leaving the sport was a last step for her, and served as an opening to make a bigger transition.
"When I gave up fighting, that was the last thing I considered masculine that I enjoyed doing. So once that was gone, it was even harder to pretend to be a guy," Nazario said. "Leaving (MMA) was almost like saying goodbye to the false identity that I was carrying my whole life."
Nazario said she heard a voice tell her to find a new way to express herself that wouldn't hurt anybody. That's when she began dabbling in art.
"Whenever I see (MMA) on television, I feel the adrenaline again. I miss it. I don't miss breaking people's noses but I still can feel the passion for it, even though I walked away from it."
As the two continue to progress in their careers and identities, the artist and the humorist act as a sort of odd couple, offsetting each other's tendencies from one extreme to the other.
"We have a really strong connection and we really love each other. We make each other very happy," Spataro said. "She is very artistic and free-spirited. I am, too, but I have that software package where I worked in a law firm and was so worried about my IRA all the time. Now, with Lara, I feel like I can be more of myself."
Nazario said Spataro works in the same way to contrast her own reclusiveness.
"It's nice to have someone that keeps you grounded as well, for someone like me who wouldn't mind living in a school bus in the woods."
In the future, Nazario said she hopes trans people can be accepted on the world stage, and not be seen as a taboo culture they have been a part of for some time.
"As a trans person I just want to be normal. I don't really like all the attention that trans people get. I just want us to be normal people, using the bathroom and buying clothes, whether we pass or not," Nazario said, sighing heavily and pausing awhile to contemplate the future. "I hope one day in my lifetime I can experience that, even if I'm old and gray."