Upper Cumberland Pride Speech

My name is Carla Lewis.

Now if you live outside of the Knoxville and Maryville area, you probably don’t recognize my name. That’s where I lived from 2000-2014. During that time, I’ve tried my best to bring awareness to East Tennessee about transgender people. I would have called myself an advocate. However, it wasn’t until July 27th, 2008 that I became an activist.

That day happened to be my son’s 17th birthday, but it’s actually tragedy that makes that day memorable. Together with my wife, Jaime, we had arrived late for a Sunday service at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones that were late. An older man with a guitar case came in with us. It was only a few minutes later that he pulled a shotgun from that case and started firing. We lost a good friend that day.

The killer ad left behind a manifesto and he stated that one of the reasons he targeted our church was because it was welcoming to LGBT people.

Since that time, I’ve been as active as I can be to not only raise awareness about transgender people, but to push for equality for transgender people as well.

However, in 2014, life got in the way, and moved to Nashville to take a new job. I didn’t really know anyone in Middle Tennessee and the pressures of work and school prevented me from getting involved in my community.

Then, last November, my world got a little bit crazy.

I’ve had reoccurring kidney issues over the last two decades. I was in severe pain. My daughter drove me to a hospital in Franklin, TN. After describing my symptoms to the triage nurse, being shown to a room, and getting my IV, one nurse decided to mock me for being transgender. She went so far as to cut the hospital bracelet off my arm because it stated I was female. She took it upon herself to print a new one that stated I was male.

Long story short, I left the hospital without being treated and eventually underwent surgery at another facility. This one was staffed by an actual medical professionals.

I swear it was only a couple of days later, while still recovering from the medical ordeal that I had my wife drive me to the Davidson County Clerk’s office. I needed to renew the tags on one of my cars and get a new license plate for another.

It so happens that I am a veteran of the United States Air Force. As such, with the appropriate documents, I qualify for a specialty veterans license plate. On one vehicle, I already proudly display my “Operation Desert Storm Veteran” license plate. However, on this visit, I decided I wanted Tennessee’s new “Woman Veteran” license plate.

At the renewal window, I received my shiny new “Woman Veteran” plate. At the new registration window, I received another one as well, but before I could walk away…

“Miss, I need to you hand over both license plates please,” the clerk demanded.

I did as requested and asked what the issue was.

“We need you to step over here please.”

The supervisor and deputy clerk proceeded to tell me that I could not have the license plates because I was not really a woman. We had a heated yet professional exchange. I received no satisfaction from the county, from the clerk, or from the mayor’s office. This, despite the fact that I served in a federal military force, and the federal government recognizes me as female.

That Friday, which was casual Friday at my office, I wore a shirt that I had owned for nearly year, but had never once worn. I did this as an act of protest against the injustices I recently experienced. I took a selfie and posted it on my Facebook timeline.

The shirt read, “Transgender Veteran: I fought for your right to hate me.”

“There, it was over with,” I told myself. “I have spoken my peace. Now I’m going to move on.’

Before I go further, I must mention that life is kind of strange at times. It was just a week prior that I had posted a simple message on my Facebook wall:

“I’ve been fighting for equality for transgender people for the last decade. No matter what I do, I can see now that I’m not making a difference. It’s time to call it quits.”

Anyway, I was quickly reminded that we aren’t always in control of our own lives.

Within hours my t-shirt picture when viral. It was being shared all over the country. The weekend passed and I thought things would settle down but they snowballed even more. Soon I was doing interviews on television, newspapers, podcasts, and YouTube.

People from all over the WORLD contacted me to tell me they had seen my story in their country.

For the first time in 24, years, somebody actually cared that I volunteered my life for my country during a time of war and I was thrown out in disgrace because I was too honest to hide who I was.

Apparently, I’m in good company. It’s estimated there are over 134,000 transgender veterans. Currently, we have at least 15,000 active duty transgender soldiers. A few are even serving openly. Moreover, 30% of transwomen have served in the military while only 10% of non transgender people have.

As veterans, each one of us, at some point in our lives, decided that service to our country was important. When a soldier takes their oath of enlistment they have only three duties they swear to.

The second one is to obey all lawful orders of the President of the United States. The third one is to abide by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, basically, our rule book. However, the first duty, the one that is paramount to all others, is that we swear to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.

With that Oath, there is no expiration. There is no process or mechanism to relieve a soldier of that Oath.

For many of us, we find it disgraceful that our Constitution has long been ignored by Southern States. It pains me to see it tarnished having been used to justify atrocities over the decades. To that end, we push forward trying to achieve the freedom that was promised to the people of our country over 200 years ago.

Now, I don’t mean to make you angry or depressed. I want you to be hopeful. Things are looking up.

My wife couldn’t be here today. She currently busy being in Hawaii without me. She often tells me that my presentations are too depressing or angry. She says I need to make people feel good, that I should make them laugh.

Jaime is quite the comedian, but me…not so much,

“Carla,” she said. “You really need to..I don’t know…use some humor into your talks. You know, throw in a joke or two.”

I told her I don’t know any jokes and I’m not very good with the delivery. I’d probably mess up the punchline or something.

“It’s easy,” she said. “Just use some elevator jokes.”

I said, “Elevator jokes? What the hell is an elevator joke?”

She said,”Elevator jokes…you know…they’re jokes that are funny on every level.”

That was bad, wasn’t it?

So I asked my friends on Facebook. “Hey! Have I ever shared any funny stories about me?”

Jaime immediately reminded me of the time I pulled my hamstring three times in one week.I told her that wasn’t a funny story even though she laughed at me each time it happened.

Someone suggested I tell a funny story about my parrots. I have three parrots by the way, but trust me, there are no funny stories about my parrots except that they like chicken wings, pizza, hamburgers and teasing the dog.

I was thinking and one story did come to mind.

So apparently, when I was four or five, I went through a several month period where I refused to respond to anyone unless they called me by my preferred name. Now I’ve had many transwomen friends that have a similar story. They would insist their parents call them Sue instead of Mike or Christy instead of Bob or something like that. Well, my birth name is Justin, but that I wouldn’t respond to that name.

“Justin! It’s time for dinner.”

“Justin, it’s time for your bath.”

“Justin, go to your room.”

“Justin, quit picking your nose.”

I would just stand with my arms folded. Sometimes I would yell, “My name isn’t Justin!” and sometimes I would just ignore them completely. I think my parents found this very frustrating, but it was their own fault.

You know, I was watching Oprah one day and her guest was Maya Angelou. She said, “When somebody tells you who they are, believe them.”

Finally, my parents believed me and the world felt right. From that day on, my parents referred to me by my preferred name: “Howard”.

I have no idea where I came up with Howard and I’m glad it didn’t stick. When I finally changed my named to “Carla” in 2000, I asked my parents if they’d like to be involved in picking a new name. Without hesitation, they both said my new name should be “Howard”.

Sometimes, you just can’t win…unlike this past legislative session in Tennessee where, for the time being, we had one win as the sponsors pulled an anti-trans bathroom bill. However, the promised it would be back next year.

All over the country, this past legislative season has been a brutal assault on transgender people. Let’s not kid ourselves. Our enemies are coming after the trans community because they’re pissed that they lost the battle over marriage equality. They know they can’t beat the gay community, so instead have doubled down and have thrown everything they can at the most vulnerable community in this country: the trans community.

Don’t fool yourself, all the states, like Tennessee, that were pushing these bathroom nonsense bills, held back only for financial reasons. Here in the South, there is very little political cost to bullying the trans community, and much political gain.

We cried out for help, and this week, finally, our federal government has stepped in and has taken action against North Carolina. If the federal government had not stepped in, or if the Feds back down, these bathroom bills will be picked up again next legislative session.

For many of my transgender brothers and sisters, this is the first time in our life that we’ve felt our government, our country, is finally standing up for us. The words of Attorney General Loretta Lynch moved most of us to tears last Monday when she spoke these words:

“Let me also speak directly to the transgender community itself.  Some of you have lived freely for decades.  Others of you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives you were born to lead.  But no matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.  Please know that history is on your side.”

To be discarded and relegated to the bottom, to never have a kind word spoken of one’s community,to be shunned or demonized and accused of being monsters and freaks all of one’s life and finally have the highest executive office in the land tell you that you matter and that your struggle is recognized, well, that new found sentiment can be a bit overwhelming and surreal.

If that weren’t enough, yesterday the US Department of Education published its comprehensive guidelines on how to accommodate transgender students and that failure to do so is a violation of the law.

Additionally, the US Department of Health and Human Services published its new rules forbidding any doctor, medical facility, or insurance company from denying medical care to any transgender patient. More importantly, they now forbid insurance companies from excluding transition related health care and surgeries.

You cannot know what this week has meant to transgender people. At times, it is still overwhelming. At times, I cannot stop smiling. It seems we have an equal footing for the first time.

This reminds me of what our local Pride festivals are all about. You can hold the hand of the person that you love without intimidation, you can embrace a friend without being jeered or assaulted, you can feel safe and comfortable knowing that all those around you accept you for who you are and pass no judgement upon you. Know that for a short time, that sensation you feel is what most Americans get to feel everyday: that sensation is equality.

Here, we are all equal.

Out there…well, we still have a lot of work to do.

You have organizations like the Tennessee Equality Project and the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition. However, they can only do so much. They don’t have a big team of lobbyists and a fat bank account. They need you.

Even more, we need each other. At your job, your church, your home, with your friends and with your family, if it is reasonably safe for you to be out, please, be out. It’s very hard for people that know you to go to a ballot box and vote to take away your rights, so make sure that people know the REAL you.

You are the people that are going to change this country for the better. You are the people that are going to make the difference. It will be because of your efforts that my three grandchildren will grow up in a world where people like me no longer have to live in shame.