Sitting in an east Charlotte barber shop, I realized I'd come at the completely wrong time. Six gentleman — all at least 60, white hair and all — were patiently waiting their turn before me. I sat back and perused Facebook and the news on my iPhone. They, of course, were reading newspapers. A sign of the times, perhaps.
While they chatted about — what else — the weather, sports, family and grandkids, I had time to pause and reflect on the situation. I realized I was by far the youngest person there. Unmarried. No kids. Certainly, no grandkids. And, though I couldn't really know, I had an eery feeling of loneliness that I might very well be the only gay man in the room.
It's a feeling I hadn't felt in a long time — one I'm no longer accustomed to feeling in my daily life. I've openly discussed my sexual orientation in newspapers, on radio and TV across the country. But, here, in this small, traditional, Southern barber shop, there was no way I'd feel comfortable admitting I am gay, which I could have revealed simply by being honest about where I work, the city's only LGBT community newspaper.
For a whole host of reasons I've since pondered, what would normally be a daily act of honesty for me turned into real questions of comfort and safety. I wondered, were there other "out" LGBT people who experience similar emotions in certain spaces in Charlotte? Even as mainstream acceptance of LGBT equality seems to be growing at a lightning pace, are there still times and places where openly LGBT Charlotteans feel pressure to remain silent, careful and closeted?
Devon, 25, says he's equally as quiet about his sexual orientation when he heads out for his usual haircut.
"It's totally male-dominated," he says. "They talk about women a lot and basketball and other sports. I just try to switch gears and talk about the politics or news that's happening and say, 'Hey, did you hear about what happened on the news the other day?'"
But for Devon (whose name we've changed because he isn't out at work), it's his job where he feels the most pressure to conform. Devon works for a local school, teaching kindergarten through fifth grade.
"It's very difficult to come out when working in a school with kids," he says. "If parents find out, they get up in arms because of these scandals that come out in the news a lot. That sort of thing has me on edge and has me watching myself a little more closely and has me questioning even if I should come out."
A general social stigma around male teachers, Devon says, is only compounded if a male teacher is also gay. Decades of media and social prejudice have painted gay men, in particular, as sexual predators. That stigma keeps Devon tight-lipped about his life, even among his colleagues.
When Devon is sitting with other teachers, he doesn't feel he'd be able to share seemingly innocent stories or experiences from the weekend or the previous evening.
"They talk about their kids, their husbands a lot," Devon says. "If I had a husband, I'd want to talk about my husband, too."
Problems and discomfort arise even for those who are relatively out at work and comfortable there. Ian Werner, 29, says he and his partner of four years often find themselves checking their behavior and intimacy when going out to restaurants, bars, movie theaters or shopping malls.
"I may not kiss him goodbye out in the open, or I'll just kiss him while we're still in the car," Werner says. "I might not hold his hand at the brighter parts of the movie and definitely not while exiting the theater in the middle of a crowd. Even something as simple as trying to get his attention — I might call for him instead of tapping on his shoulder."
Bars with primarily straight patrons are the worst, Werner says. "You can just tell there are a bunch of drunk frat boys there looking for a fight, so we tend to tone down acting gay."
For others, "acting gay" and "toning down" isn't always a choice. In particular, transgender and other gender-variant people, if outed or if openly perceived as crossing traditional gender boundaries, can face significantly higher risks of discrimination, harassment and violence. A 2011 report from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force showed that 53 percent of transgender survey respondents reported verbal harassment or discrimination in public accommodations such as hotels, restaurants, buses, airports and government agencies. Eight percent reported physical violence.
Bree Catlin, 55, works as a Unix security engineer at Wells Fargo. There, she's out to co-workers and comfortable as a transgender woman, but that's only because of the company's inclusive non-discrimination policies. Such regulations don't exist at all employers or businesses, and neither Charlotte nor North Carolina forbid anti-LGBT discrimination in public accommodations. So, outside of work, Catlin says she's frequently experienced harassment, even recently at a restaurant in the University area.
"You do get kind of conscious about that kind of thing — the strange looks, from staff and patrons alike," she says.
While Catlin has mostly carved out a comfortable niche at home and work, she says she rarely goes to south Charlotte.
"I just don't feel safe there," she says. "It's more emotional, but there is a factor of physical safety, too. Transgender people have a much rougher road. Unlike lesbians, gays and bisexuals, we can't always hide when we are in transition."
Like Catlin, Werner says violence is a personal fear. From time to time, reports of anti-LGBT violence tick upward, even in places like New York City and usually in the aftermath of news like Russia's anti-LGBT propaganda laws or continued discussions on marriage equality. According to the latest statistics from the FBI, hate crimes motivated by bias against sexual orientation now account for the highest-reported incidents of hate crime in the country.
Werner knows the statistics and takes them to heart.
"I don't know how people will react, but it definitely jumps to my mind immediately," he says. "I don't want to get the shit beat out of me."
This article is provided in partnership with QNotes, Charlotte's LGBT community newspaper. Learn and read more at goqnotes.com.