trans friendly

This small town in the South has a surprisingly large trans community

A view of Asheville, North Carolina's downtown skyline with the buildings awash in color during dusk.
A view of Asheville, North Carolina’s downtown skyline.

It’s difficult to think of the South and not think of the recent anti-transgender and “Don’t Say Gay” laws popping up out of the grits and collard greens. Why would any queer person want to bother taking a trip there? Surely there are more trans-friendly places to visit?

I suggest the glowing blue pearl of the South, sitting at the crown of the Blue Ridge Mountains – Asheville, North Carolina. It’s a little different.

As a trans femme of color, my nervous system’s fight-or-flight reflexes start to flair up whenever someone talks about the South. I imagine beautiful farmlands and magnificent mountain ranges overlooking deep green forests. I think of drinking sweet tea and having someone say, “God bless you,” while holding the door open for me.

I know from living in the South years ago that many wonderful people live there. I also know that a deep underbelly of hatred exists. Some fearful people hate things they don’t understand and now lean on misinformation – as long as it fits their inner monologue of racism, transphobia, and paranoia. 

Asheville isn’t immune to this by any means, but there is something special about the city known as the “Land of Sky.” It has become a place of pilgrimage for people wanting something different from the usual gayborhood. And for queer people living in the more conservative parts of the South, Asheville is a sanctuary.

I was very happy to be part of this sanctuary, even briefly. Coming from a progressive place like New York City leaves the impression that I wouldn’t need a place to let my hair down. This isn’t true. Every day, I’m exposed to hundreds of strangers when I walk out of my apartment. Although most people in NYC seem to have inclusive values, not everyone does.

In the South, you’re in cars. You can ride through the minutia and the pockets of red without incident. You’d be surprised how much trouble you can avoid by hiding in a vehicle. Walking down a sidewalk is completely different.

I considered this when I wrote my itinerary, but it also left a lot of room for improvisation. My goal wasn’t to check off boxes on a list of places labeled “LGBTQ+ Friendly” on Google Maps. I admit that a lot of gay realness was skipped in the process.

I didn’t go to Scandals, the oldest gay bar in the city. I left out O’Henry’s, the time-honored hub of southern drag and heavily poured cocktails. I didn’t even visit The Odditorium, which has always been a queer haven. Instead, I wanted to ride the coattails of the people there. I wanted to experience the Asheville that they live in every day. 

One of my first stops was Firestorm Books & Coffee, a trans-led cooperative bookstore. Beck and Libertie, who help lead the Co-op, gave me a dose of realness through their intellect and jadedness. They listed several tours and places to go, including the Hoodhuggers Tour, which teaches the history of Black Asheville. I walked through their bookstore aisles and left thinking, “I want to read every one of these books but will never be able to.”

Beck, Libertie, and everyone else in Asheville seemed to point me to Riley, who leads Pansy Collective, The Tranzmission Prison Project, and fronts a band called Cloudgayzer

When I met Riley at Static Age Records, he was serving looks and beers while running the DJ booth. I had no idea where we’d end up next. I was half expecting to end up at a drag show or one of those queercore shows where I find myself shoving strangers into tables and wondering if we’re going to French kiss. Instead, we went to The Lazy Diamond, a rock bar where Appalachian Fernet is the drink of choice.

Surprisingly, Riley did the sensible thing and left to get a good night’s sleep. I turned to Chrissy and her friends, who took us to Shakey’s, a dive bar with pizza and pool tables. Whenever places like O’Henry’s and Scandals were brought up, no one dreaded or disliked those spaces. Instead, there was a feeling of, been there done that, I’m not trying to get cruised tonight.

I was both surprised and relieved by the experience. We were leaving the beaten path of gay tourism and seeing the real Asheville. Everyone, everywhere, knew Chrissy and was very happy to meet me – a plucky trans femme explorer with a camera. No one gave us those dirty side glances that I’ve grown to expect from straight bars. Everyone seemed genuinely happy to share space with us. 

If someone in the queer community asked me for recommendations, I might bring up O’Henry’s and Scandals. But I’d also bring up the Crow and Quill, which is a straight speakeasy since they regularly host LGBT-centered music events. I’d bring up Firestorm Books but I’d also mention Downtown Books & News, which hosts space for the Tranzmission Prison Project. In fact, it would be very hard to find a place in Asheville that isn’t inclusive of all identities–or at the very least learning to be more inclusive.

This makes Asheville a rare place. A blue anomaly hidden in a sea of red. In some ways, Asheville is more friendly towards trans and gay people than cities like NYC and San Fransisco. Maybe it’s because the people there know that North Carolina can be scary for people of color and queer people? The allyship there is informed by the violence that they have witnessed in their schools, in their work, and in their lives–towards their queer friends and family.

In some ways, Asheville is a living apology to the queer community. I, for one, accept this apology and can’t wait to go back. 

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