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Transgender in North Carolina: Snapshots from the front lines

Hear directly from some of the North Carolinians whose livelihoods, educations, and families are affected by the new 'bathroom law.'

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    Stephen Wiseman poses for a photo at his home in Asheville, N.C., Thursday, April 28, 2016. When North Carolina enacted a wide-ranging law limiting protections for LGBT people, the consequences were felt swiftly and directly by the state's transgender residents. When the General Assembly reconvened for its legislative session last month, Wiseman drove to Raleigh to join those protesting the law, chanting and holding signs outside Republican House Speaker Tim Moore's office.
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A student who's losing time in the classroom. A mother trying to show strength to her 8-year-old daughter. A reluctant protester led away in handcuffs.

These transgender residents of North Carolina were swiftly and directly affected by the new state law that limits protections for LGBT people and mandates that they use bathrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate in many public buildings.

This week, the federal government warned that the law violates federal civil rights laws, but the state's GOP leaders say they won't change it.

Some transgender people say they're suffering not only from the law's practical effects, but also from the emotional consequences of the state regulating deeply personal aspects of their identities.

Here are some of their stories.

A veteran

"I spent 7 and a half years defending everyone's freedom, just to come home and have my own revoked," said Veronica O'Kelly, a transgender woman living in Durham.

The infantry soldier served three tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq before leaving the Army in 2015, according to discharge documents she showed to The Associated Press.

Now, she's trying to decide whether to follow through on plans to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — where she wouldn't be allowed to use women's restrooms — to finish her bachelor's degree.

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She began transitioning in the early 2000s while attending college in Buffalo, New York, and living with her parents. They didn't agree with her gender identity, she said, so she moved out.

To support herself, she said, she joined the Army as a man, slipping into "a very alpha-male environment." She had yet to undergo any medical treatments and presented herself as male.

"I had a wardrobe full of [female] clothes, and I got rid of it all," she said. "No one had any idea." She resumed her transition after leaving the service.

She was accepted at UNC and planned to enroll this fall. Then the law passed: "It was like the legs were cut out from under me," she said.

A college student

After Payton McGarry enrolled at UNC-Greensboro, he joined campus bands and a music-oriented fraternity. He was in his sophomore year, working toward business and accounting degrees, when the law passed in March.

"I felt very shaken," he said. "I felt like everything I had built myself up on as a man had been called into question by the legislature: 'You're not man enough to use the men's bathroom.'"

McGarry, who wants to finish at UNC-Greensboro and go to law school, said he has complied with the provision that bars him from using multi-stall men's restrooms on campus, even though he previously used them without problems. He has had to leave campus in the middle of class because some buildings have no single-user restrooms.

"I'm missing out on instructional time I'm paying $20,000 a year to get," said McGarry, a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the law.

McGarry said he tried the alternative — using women's restrooms despite his masculine appearance — in high school while transitioning to life as a man.

"I would be screamed at. I would be shoved and pushed," he said. "You never knew when you'd go into a bathroom and be beaten up. No one should have to go through that."

A mother

Erica Lachowitz was leaving for work about two years ago when her daughter, then 6, helped convince her it was time to take a crucial step in living her identity.

"She said: 'Mommy, Mommy, why are you wearing a suit to work? ... You're not a boy,' " recalled Lachowitz, a 40-year-old transgender woman who was then wearing men's clothes by day at a Charlotte-area company.

Since then, Lachowitz's company has supported her as she transitioned to living full-time as a woman. Under the new law, private companies can still set their own policies.

Now, Lachowitz's focus is on raising her daughter to have good values, which sometimes means frank conversations about what's on the news: "All she sees on TV is ... 'No men in the women's room.' "

"She doesn't understand the hatred toward me," Lachowitz said. "She says: 'You're not a man. I don't get it. Why do they think you're a man? You don't want to lie anymore.'"

A protestor

Asheville social worker Stephen Wiseman's family has mountain roots that extend back nine generations. The transgender man wants to stay in western North Carolina, so that means advocating for change.

When the General Assembly reconvened for its legislative session last month, he drove to Raleigh to join those protesting the law, chanting and holding signs outside Republican House Speaker Tim Moore's office. He initially didn't plan to risk arrest — partly because he said jail can be dangerous for transgender people. But at Moore's doorway, he felt it was important to join those who entered the office and refused to leave.

They were led away in plastic handcuffs on misdemeanor charges and held for several hours.

Wiseman, 37, lives with his wife and dog in a neighborhood of ranch homes near the Blue Ridge Parkway where families ride bikes and have yard sales.

"I'm just a normal guy. I walk my dog and go to church," he said.

Hearing the rhetoric surrounding the new law was devastating: "It's real hard to hear every single day that you're a perversion. Because that's what this bill says."

A business owner

Angela Bridgman, 44, moved her small medical-billing and support business to North Carolina in 2014.

"It seemed to be becoming a more inclusive place," she said. "It's not like I just threw a dart at a map."

But because of the new law, she frequently carries around her Illinois birth certificate, which she changed to reflect her female gender after surgery a few years ago.

She was fired from a New Jersey company years ago after coming out to co-workers and starting to wear women's attire, she said, and she later dropped out of a private Kentucky university after a dean told her to use the men's restroom.

Those are experiences she wishes no one else would have to face, but the North Carolina law excludes gender identity from statewide workplace protections.

"I wound up so severely depressed, I could barely even get out of bed," she said. "I've built myself back a lot since then. It took a long time."

Those experiences helped drive her to become self-employed: "I was tired of being turned down for jobs."

She said she would like to add employees to her company, but she has misgivings about the business-related fees and taxes going to government officials who support the law.

"It's just one more insult," she said. "I pay world-class taxes, and for that I get to be a second-class citizen."

A state employee

Even before North Carolina's law was enacted, Joaquin Carcano took precautions when traveling to rural areas for work. His girlfriend had insisted that he call her and keep an open phone line when he stopped at gas stations after a clerk verbally accosted him.

Carcano, a 27-year-old transgender man, works for UNC-Chapel Hill overseeing a project that provides health education and HIV testing. After the law passed, he was in a difficult position — there are no single-use restrooms on his floor.

Carcano said he joined the legal challenge to help counteract the message from the law's supporters, who have suggested criminals might try to use the wrong bathroom to target women and children.

"What about our safety and protection?" he said of transgender people. "We deserve that right."

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