Finding the T

A trans woman comes into her identity through local activism.

by Julia Haskins

Seven years ago, Roberta Dunn, 68, left her job as a sales director to the federal government and moved to rural Mecklenburg County, N.C., for a fresh start—as an openly transgender woman.

“I had to really learn who I was because this was the first time I could really not worry about anything,” says Dunn. “I learned I didn’t have to be that anymore.”

Dunn has established herself as an LGBT activist and friend in the community; she’s the vice chair of the Charlotte LGBT Community Center and secretary of the Carolina Transgender Society. She has no plans to make changes to her booming laugh—or any other aspect of her speech—so her voice will sound higher in pitch. She wants people to know that she is a transgender woman; it’s as much a part of her identity as her propensity for baking locally famous chocolate chip cookies.

But her values will be tested this November. Dunn says she’s “very, very conservative,” and would, in theory, vote for Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney because of his fiscal and economic conservatism. But President Barack Obama has come out openly for LGBT rights, and marriage equality is even on the Democratic Party platform. Obama also supports equal rights for transgender people, including barring gender identity discrimination in health care and in positions in the federal government.

What’s a Christian conservative transgender woman to do? Dunn wants her vote to reflect what’s best for the country overall, and that means voting unselfishly, rather than simply on her own values. But Republican or Democratic, trans issues should be treated with the same respect as LGB issues—a message she has long tried to get across in North Carolina.

Everywhere she went throughout her new neighborhood, even in gay-friendly environments, she found no “T” representing a transgender community or awareness of trans issues. So she was forced go against her laid-back nature to become an activist.

“I’m not the person walking around with signs in my hands and demanding things,” she says. “I get to know people and talk to them and persuade them to be friendly.”

Scott Bishop, board chair of the Mecklenburg LGBT political action committee and a member of the board of directors for the Human Rights Campaign, met Roberta four or five years ago through HRC. In the past two years, they’ve worked closely on issues like gaining domestic benefits for city employees and trying to improve Charlotte’s inclusivity in the lead-up to the Democratic National Convention.

“What I noticed early on is that she didn’t shy away from trying to set up meetings with local elected officials,” he says. “She was always down at City Hall.”

Her commitment to deepening ties with people in the community helps get her message across, he says. “Here in Charlotte, people value the relationships that they have, and a relationship-building approach to getting the things that we need is a great approach.”

Through her activism, Dunn has explained not only to straight people, but also to lesbian, gay and bisexual people the issues that trans people deal with on a daily basis. One example: the ability to use public restrooms.

“You don’t go through life thinking that you have to have a right to go pee. But transgender people do,” Dunn says. “Because if you’re a male to a female, which bathroom do you use if you’re pre-op?”

But no issue compares to the event that would transform Dunn’s life and cement her role as a trans rights activist.

On April 3, 2010, a 44-year-old transgender woman named Toni Alston was murdered in Charlotte. Police reports on television added insult to injury by incorrectly reporting that the person murdered was a gay man who lived an “alternative lifestyle.”

Dunn was horrified. She went straight to Mayor Foxx to ask him to help schedule a meeting with the police chief, to discuss overlooked evidence and the likely connection to the murder of another trans woman, Marissa Scott, five years ago. Dunn later went to Alston’s sister to discuss the murder, and they cried over the suspicious police oversights and the loss of an innocent woman.

The crime has never been solved. Though talking about the event still brings tears to her eyes and a quiver to her voice, Dunn has convinced police and government officials to start sensitivity training programs. As a leader for trans rights in the Charlotte area, she’s become a go-to liaison for LGBT people seeking to voice their concerns to officials.

When explaining her own experience with trans activism and awareness, Dunn’s Christian values sum it up.

“Like it says in the Bible, when Jesus sends his apostles out to tell [people] the good news, he says, ‘Go to a town. Tell them the good news,’” she says. “The good news is that I’m Roberta. And if people don’t accept it, walk to the edge of the town, kick the dust off your sandals and go to another town.”

Shaunacy Ferro contributed reporting.

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© 2012 Medill Equal Media Project
Medill School of Journalism | Northwestern University
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