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The Trans Woman Who Opened an LGBTQ 'Safe Space' in North Carolina

Thanks to a legislative battle over anti-trans "bathroom bills," Charlotte, North Carolina, has become a symbol of the fight for trans rights—but until a few months ago, it lacked a physical space for LGBTQ people to gather.

by Kimberly Lawson
Jan 17 2018, 5:47pm

Lara Americo spent Christmas working in a coffee shop. That sentence may sound decidedly non-festive, but her experience was far from it: Americo, who identifies as an indigenous transfeminine person, first opened the shop, Comic Girl Coffee, in Charlotte, North Carolina, three months ago as a safe space for LBGTQ people. Knowing that holidays can be difficult for queer and trans people, she wanted to provide a refuge for others in her community.

She expected just a few people to show up, and was blown away by the response. “So many people came with food and games,” she says. “It was nice to spend time with so many other queer people, but it was also sad that so many people had nowhere to go for Christmas.”

Comic Girl Coffee is a small, DIY-ish shop that serves vegan drinks with names like Harry Potter Butter Beer and The Gay Pride Glitter Bomb, and offers a selection of comic books that feature marginalized characters. Ultimately, the goal is to be a widely inclusive space where queer people, people of color, immigrants, poor people, and others can hang out without worrying about being judged or confronted. From the inclusive restrooms and “Trans lives matter” love notes to a specialty latte named after Ms. Marvel, the first Muslim character in Marvel to headline her own comic book, the vibe here is equal parts geeky and welcoming.

The shop fills a huge gap in Charlotte, the 17th largest city in the country—and one that lacks an official space where LGBTQ adults can gather. (Charlotte used to have a dedicated LGBT community center, which was founded in 2003, but it closed its doors in 2014 to go virtual.) In many ways, the city has become a symbolic battleground over trans rights: In 2016, after Charlotte passed a nondiscrimination ordinance to protect its LGBT citizens, North Carolina responded by instituting HB2, its notorious anti-trans “bathroom bill” that forbade trans people from using public restrooms that correspond to their gender identity. Doing so essentially overturned the Charlotte ordinance.

HB2 was repealed and replaced last year after costing the state millions of dollars in canceled or relocated concerts, conferences, and sporting events. In October, Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order that would allow transgender North Carolinians to use the public restroom of their choosing. But Americo—who testified in front of the Charlotte City Council in favor of its nondiscrimination ordinance, and in front of the state Senate against HB2—says the executive order was “much too little, too late.”

“My idea of a safe space is a non-sexualized, sober space where you don't have to worry about being misgendered, and you don't have to worry about your income level.”

By now, Americo says, the damage is already done—in her view, HB2 put a dangerous spotlight on trans people in her home state and emboldened bigots by providing a legal justification for their views. “It makes it dangerous for all trans folks in North Carolina who are just living their lives,” she explains. “Personally, I still don’t like stopping in rural areas, and I still don’t like going to get gas in a place I’m not familiar with and things like that.”

According to a recent report from the New York Times, advocates who track the murders of transgender people say the rates of violence are increasing along with increased trans visibility in American culture. Trans people are also disproportionately at risk to be harassed and bullied: A report from the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 90 percent of those surveyed said they’d experienced mistreatment on the job or hid who they were to avoid being harassed. Thirty-five percent said they’d experienced physical assault while in grades K-12, and almost half (41 percent) reported attempting suicide (compared to 1.6 percent of the general population) at some point in their lives.

While most everyone in the community agrees that safe, welcoming spaces are necessary for queer, trans, and nonbinary people, there’s still some dissent over what that space should look like, which Americo acknowledges. “My idea of a safe space is a non-sexualized, sober space where you don't have to worry about being misgendered,” she says, “and you don't have to worry about your income level.” (The shop has a pay-it-forward system in place for people who want to help those who can’t afford to pay for coffee.)

As Janice Covington Allison, a transgender woman who was escorted from a women’s restroom during Charlotte’s first debate on passing a nondiscrimination ordinance in 2015, put it on Facebook: “[Comic Girl Coffee] might not be a fancy place, it is not a place to take the family for dinner, it’s not a place to go to get drunk, but it is a safe place for all genders to go for conversation and a cup of coffee.”