I. Hell Breaks Loose
Last year, when the Reverend Mykal Slack was preparing to move south to Durham, nearer to his and his wife's families, some of his closest friends questioned his judgment. Slack had left rural Georgia twenty years earlier, and it was up north that he had built a career and an identity. He earned a law degree, clerked for a judge, and spent his early thirties attending New York's Union Theological Seminary.
"I was getting clear about my faith," he says. "Part of that clarity was understanding that, for me anyway, I must honor God by honoring the truth of myself."
Slack had long understood that he was male, even though his birth certificate said otherwise. "But I knew enough about the way the world works that I couldn't share the truth with anybody," he says. Within the welcoming confines of the seminary, he found the path to authenticity, and in 2006 he came out as a man.
"That's when a lot of my life began," he says.
Slack, now forty-two, worked for several Northern congregations. He got together with his wife, psychologist LeLaina Romero, while he was living in Pennsylvania and she in Massachusetts. In August 2015, the couple moved to North Carolina in the hope that living closer to relatives would also carry them into territory where their work could make a big impact. Durham, with no majority race, seemed simpatico for an African-American transgender man and a Puerto Rican-French Canadian-Jewish woman. Still, not everyone was convinced of the wisdom of moving south.
"I'm so scared for you," friends told him.
"I appreciate that," he'd respond, before noting that he'd seen plenty of bigotry above the Mason-Dixon line. In his new hometown, he'd say, "I'm going to be surrounded by queer and trans people of color. This is going to be like heaven."
The Triangle lived up to its billing. The people Slack and Romero met were "resilient, joy-filled, willing and ready to support one another," he says. He found work as director of congregational life for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh. She became pregnant. They prepared for parenthood while also taking care of Romero's ailing father.
"Little did we know," he says, "that once we moved to North Carolina, all hell would break loose."
The hell, of course, was House Bill 2, the hastily passed legislation that flung North Carolina into the center of the nation's culture wars—triggering lawsuits, demonstrations, copycat bills, boycotts, federal directives, corporate pullouts, and an interminable stream of rhetoric. The law's most debated section assigns bathroom access in public buildings according to the "biological sex" listed on the user's birth certificate. Other provisions strip city and county officials of the right to protect their LGBTQ constituents and others, and prevent local governments from imposing wage and other employment rules on their contractors. (Another section, prohibiting job-discrimination victims from suing in state courts, was repealed two weeks ago, but the time limit for filing a discrimination lawsuit was shortened by two-thirds.)
HB 2 became law March 23, the same day it landed on legislators' desks—just in time to overturn a Charlotte nondiscrimination ordinance scheduled to take effect the following week. That morning, Slack attended a House committee hearing where supporters claimed that both safety and religious freedom were in peril unless the state dictated his bathroom access. He had not planned to speak, but the absence of testimony from trans people of color moved him to address a Senate committee that afternoon. At the microphone he was a commanding figure, his clerical collar resting on broad shoulders, his chin sprouting a soul patch.
"As a preacher, it's my job to speak as plainly as I can, in all the places I'm called to, with as much love in my heart as I can muster," he said. "So let me be plain and clear today. Telling a lie over and over and over again does not make it true. I am a transgender male, and I am not a threat to you. ... I get up in the morning. I go to work every day. I go to church every Sunday. I kiss my wife's belly every night before we go to sleep."
By forcing him into women's restrooms, lawmakers were putting his safety at risk—perhaps, Slack generously suggested, because their knowledge of the subject was lacking. "The issue here is to have deeper conversations," he said. "You should not vote on legislation or amendments that you do not fully understand."
Slack left the legislature still wearing a black suit and clerical collar. Usually fearless, he looked over his shoulder repeatedly as he walked away. Only after he'd reached his car and locked the doors did he allow himself a relieved sigh.
"Thank God," he thought, "nothing happened to me."
House Bill 2 seemed like a bolt from nowhere. One day transgender North Carolinians were living low-profile lives; the next day their most private moments were being bandied about without a modicum of understanding.
But the new law was not a bolt from nowhere. It can be understood by examining the decades preceding its passage. If history is a river, then at least three distinct tributaries converged in Raleigh on March 23.
The first is the growing practice by state lawmakers—one that took root during the Reagan era—of slapping back local governments that get too proactive. The second is the successful national Republican effort to seize control of North Carolina's government. And the third is the recent visibility of transgender Americans, their push for legal equality, and the utterly predictable backlash.
It's hardly a stretch to say that those three currents made House Bill 2 not just possible, but virtually preordained.