Janice Covington Allison has been a soldier, volunteer fire chief, construction business owner, delegate to the Democratic National Convention, and even a hotel waiter who once served cocktails to Ronald Reagan and actor Gene Autry.
But the 67-year-old Charlottean may now be better-known for getting a police escort from a women’s restroom at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center on March 2.
It had to do with Allison being transgender – as in, born a male, but transitioned to a female – and her women’s room visit came amid a contentious Charlotte City Council debate over whether Charlotte should extend nondiscrimination laws to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
An opponent of that idea summoned police. She captured a video of Allison in the restroom and posted it online. (The video has since been removed.)
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In the debate that night, the proposed ordinance was amended to exclude restroom, locker room and shower access for transgender people, and then was still voted down. Among America’s 20 biggest cities, only three – Charlotte; Memphis, Tenn.; and Jacksonville, Fla. – are without the kind of nondiscrimination ordinance the City Council voted down.
Allison now finds herself a controversial symbol for both sides of the issue.
Many LGBT advocates liken her restroom visit to African-Americans sitting at all-white lunch counters in the 1960s.
But opponents view Allison as a lawbreaker who struck “fear and terror” in the hearts of little girls in the bathroom. “A man in a dress,” as one called her.
Allison says she’s tired of hearing about her bathroom visit in the media, but she is not apologetic; nor is she backing down from those who challenge her right to live as a woman.
She expects to make both sides on the issue angry before the dust settles, including a segment of the lesbian and gay community that has chided her on social media for generating “negative” publicity for their cause.
“I’ve never lost a fight,” Allison says. “And standing 6-foot-2 and wearing 4-inch heels is not trying to blend in.”
Intense public debate
Precise numbers on the nation’s transgender population are not available. However, a 2011 report issued by the UCLA-based Williams Institute estimated transgender people make up 0.3 percent of the U.S. population, or about 700,000 people. That translates to about 2,378 in Charlotte.
They are defined as children and adults whose gender behavior or expression contradicts the sex recorded on their birth certificate.
Charlotte’s failed change to its nondiscrimination ordinance would have granted LGBT people protections against being refused service by businesses such as grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, shops and bars. And it also would have given transgender people permission to use the restroom, locker room and shower for the gender they identified with. However, the latter provision was removed after protesters complained it could be used to give sexual predators access to the women’s restroom.
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Allison was among the 120 people who addressed the council at the March 2 meeting on the ordinance, and she reminded the largely Democratic body that the North Carolina Democratic Party had recently amended its bylaws to include equality for transgender people.
In the end, only Democratic council members LaWana Mayfield and John Autry stuck by the transgender community, voting against the proposed city ordinance because of the amendment to remove transgender restroom access.
The state’s Democratic Party weighed in two days later, criticizing council members Michael Barnes, Greg Phipps, Ed Driggs and Kenny Smith for allowing themselves to be “bamboozled by outsiders importing hate and fear.”
More than one-third of the people who addressed the City Council prior to the vote were not Charlotteans, including people from Jacksonville on the coast and South Carolina.
Among the attendees was Lisa Metzger, a wife and mother from Matthews, who recorded Allison as well as a transgender teen in the women’s restroom to show police that night.
“It was scary,” Metzger told the Observer. “He (Allison) is quite tall, taller than the average man, and it’s intimidating. He intimidated me.”
The harshest of speakers at the council meeting likened transgender people to “perverts,” “child molesters” and “rapists,” and a few critics vowed God’s judgment on Charlotte if the ordinance passed. Several threatened to oust council members at election time.
“There was a lot of hate, a lot of fear and a lot of passion in that room,” said O’Neale Atkinson, of the LGBT youth support agency Time Out Youth. “I can’t imagine what it was like for transgender people to sit there and listen to it all, but Janice did.”
The report issued by the Williams Institute noted gender nonconforming people attempt suicide at a rate of 41 percent compared with 4.6 percent for the overall U.S. population.
An example in the Charlotte area occurred Feb. 26 in Union County, when a 16-year-old transgender high school student named Ash Haffner committed suicide by stepping in front of a car. Haffner’s mother blamed the suicide on extensive bullying in school.
Allison says she has considered suicide. “But I can’t give in and give them what they want,” she says, referring to critics of the transgender community.
Realizing she’s different
A native of Wilmington, Del., Allison was born to the upper middle-class family of Muffy and James Allison, who had had served in World War II.
The youngest of the five kids is John Allison, who says their late father “was not a monster” but possibly had post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I do remember him taking Janice to the basement when she was 15, and beating her with a rubber hose,” said John Allison, 60, a husband and father still living in Delaware.
“Janice was the only one of us kids he would do that to. I guess he was trying to beat the girl out of her.”
It was at age 11 that Janice Covington Allison first realized she was different. A nurse conducting an exam for children interested in playing sports noticed Allison was “not physically developing exactly as a boy should.”
A doctor suggested weekly testosterone injections for two years, she recalls. However, after the first month, Allison says she noticed a change in her father.
“He began to verbally and physically abuse me. When he would come home from work, he would order me to the basement. There, he would beat me with a thick black rubber hose, because I was evolving as a girl and not as the boy he wanted,” she says.
“The pain was unbearable, both physically and mentally. … After several trips to the basement, my mother could not stand my screams anymore. She came down to the basement with a butcher knife and told him that if he touched me one more time, she would kill him.”
By age 16, Allison says she was keeping a padlocked box of women’s clothes in her bedroom, which she wore while visiting another transgender person who lived nearby.
Her father broke into the box one day and looked inside. But by then, Allison says, she was too big to beat.
In 1964, at age 17, Janice Allison says she enlisted as a male in the Army, and was sent to Vietnam and Korea to serve as a combat engineer. “I did it for patriotism but also because I was pretty much alone in the world.”
Allison stayed in for three years, and then a leg injury resulted in extended medical treatment and a discharge in 1967.
Living two lives
Allison quickly admits to the embarrassing parts of her life.
This includes being arrested more than once when police in San Francisco raided gay nightclubs, rounded up all males dressed as women and hauled them to jail.
The worst part, Allison says, was always “the walk of shame” the next morning.
“You spent all night in jail, and when they cut you loose, your hair and makeup were a wreck. We didn’t have cars, so we had to walk home, and everybody looked at us,” she says, following up with a booming laugh.
San Francisco may be perceived as a bastion of liberals in the 1970s, but Allison said it didn’t take her long to learn that, even there, a male dressed as a female couldn’t get hired. “Finally, I had to start dressing as a boy to find a job,” she said. “It was either that or starve.”
Her first job was as a room-service waiter at San Francisco’s historic St. Francis Hotel, where Allison says she waited on Ronald and Nancy Reagan, actor Gene Autry and the 1960s singing group The Supremes.
The years that followed were an odd mix of living privately as a female but dressing as a male when she headed out the door for work.
It was as a male in 1971 that Allison met her future wife, a North Carolina native from a well-to-do family. They married within six months and had the first of two children not long after. Allison says her wife was accepting but asked that she keep “Janice” hidden from their two daughters, which she did. (His wife and oldest daughter are dead now, Allison says.)
“My wife knew I was transgender on our second date,” Allison says. “She came to my apartment and saw all the girl’s clothes. When she asked who they belonged to, I said: ‘Me.’”
The family moved to the Charlotte area in the 1970s, and Allison began to find success both professionally and politically.
Dressed as a male, she was a volunteer fire chief in Cabarrus County, which had her working with Charlotte Motor Speedway on planning emergency services and fire protection. She also served as a third vice chair of the Cabarrus County Democratic Party and ran for a seat on the Cabarrus County Board of Commissioners.
“I was living two lives, yelling at men to get on a ladder and put out a fire by day, and going to clubs at night as Janice ... wearing a miniskirt and heels,” Allison says.
“Hiding my fingernails and eyebrows was the hard part. At one point, I also started developing breasts, so I had to slow down on the hormones.”
In 2005, Allison finally got tired of pretending to be male and came out of the closet for good. Nothing traumatic prompted the change, she says. “It was just time.”
Faye Cobble, 58, has been a close friend of Allison’s for 30 years, and she says the shift from male to female took some adjustment. The two served together as firefighters, which taught her that Allison thrived under pressure.
“The change was kind of spooky,” says Cobble, noting that Allison’s height and deep voice didn’t change. “You’ve known somebody for all these years as one way, and all of a sudden they are totally something else. It takes you back at first. But she’s always had my back. I accept it now as who she is.”
Not everyone in her family accepted the news well, but younger brother John Allison offered his unconditional support, which Janice Allison says made her cry.
“I told her that it just meant that I had a big sister, rather than a big brother,” recalls John Allison. “The only thing that bothered me was that she came out as a Democrat and not as a Republican.”
In 2012, Janice Allison made headlines when the 8th Congressional District elected her to be the first transgender woman ever to represent North Carolina at the Democratic National Convention, held in Charlotte that year.
Then, in 2013, she was elected the first transgender member of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Women’s Association and a voting member of the North Carolina Democratic Women’s Association.
She made an unsuccessful run for chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party a few months later, but remains the party’s chair of Diversity and Outreach.
Most Charlotteans don’t know all that, however.
They just know a “man in a dress” got kicked out of a women’s restroom at the Government Center last week.
Allison says she got a call from city officials a few days later telling her that there was no specific policy banning her from using the women’s restroom. In fact, it turned out the city has an ordinance that allows transgender city staff and job applicants to use the restroom for the gender they identify with.
Time Out Youth’s O’Neale Atkinson says that what Allison did that night makes her a part of civil rights history.
“She crossed a line, which society had set based on her identity. Society did the same thing when it wouldn’t allow African-Americans to sit at certain tables, based on their racial identity,” O’Neale said. “It’s the same concept now. Society is trying to keep people away from the restroom based on their identity.”
As far as he’s concerned, Janice Covington Allison is the bravest person he’s ever known.