This spring, millions of Americans became acquainted with Zeke Christopoulos, a transgender man living with his wife in Asheville, NC, through a new TV ad that puts a personal face to the harms of HB2, the discriminatory anti-LGBT law that has plagued the state of North Carolina for nearly two months. Governor Pat McCrory signed the bill into law in less than nine hours, and since then, there has been an outcry of national pushback and opposition to the law from businesses, the entertainment industry, the federal government, and more. Most recently, Gov. McCrory has chosen to engage a bitter battle with the Department of Justice, suing the DOJ on the day that North Carolina officials were expected to respond to an inquiry over whether they intended to implement HB2.
The ad featuring Zeke, produced by Freedom for All Americans, Equality North Carolina, and the American Unity Fund, is the first of its kind, confronting head-on HB2’s explicit policy prohibiting transgender people from using public restrooms that align with their gender identity – a policy that, in effect, leaves transgender people with no restroom to use. The ad features Zeke and his business associates discussing HB2, and what it was like when he first told them he is transgender. It also illustrates the absurd consequences that HB2 imposes when a transgender man like Zeke uses a men’s restroom in the state. It is currently on air in markets in Raleigh and Charlotte.
But Zeke’s personal story goes much further than what the one-minute video portrays.
Zeke transitioned many years ago, when conversations about transgender people were incredibly rare. He found the words to tell his family that he was a boy when he was as young as two years old, but he says that the pressures of socialization forced him to suppress who he is for a long time.
“It’s difficult to identify as a different gender as a kid, or to even have the words to explain it,” he said. “It’s great to see kids coming out at all ages now because that didn’t happen in the 1970s and 1980s.”
It was in his late teenage years that his gender identity started resurfacing in a significant way, and at age 25, he finally gained the courage to come out as transgender for the first time. “It felt like I had a lot to lose,” he said. “I held back emotionally with my family for a number of years.” It took years of conversations and education, but his family became fully supportive, knowing how unhappy and withdrawn he’d been before.
Even after all this time, Zeke vividly recalls the challenges and difficulties of that part of his life. “There were an alarming lack of resources,” he said. As an advocate and volunteer today, he provides guidance and services to other transgender people in his community who are going through the same legal roadblocks and challenges. “Everything – from navigating a different name and pronoun to accessing medical care, and finding it in the first place – is incredibly difficult. The sheer work of changing everything from your diploma to your credit cards to your bank account, social security card, passport, and anything else that is an identity document was hard for me, and there were many legal blocks.”
“It’s difficult to identify as a different gender as a kid, or to even have the words to explain it. It’s great to see kids coming out at all ages now because that didn’t happen in the 1970s and 1980s.” – Zeke Christopoulos
The unique challenges of accessing medical care – and finding sufficient care in the first place – are especially important for Zeke to share with people who don’t know much about what it means to be transgender. “It’s a challenge for transgender people to find competent, experienced therapists and doctors,” he said. “For people who transition, there is an awkward time where you are undergoing a lot of changes. Physically, things either change faster than you can keep up with, or sometimes they don’t change quickly enough, and other people have the difficulty of not interpreting your gender identity the right way. It’s hard to live your life when, everywhere you go, the focus of everyone’s attention is on you.”
Zeke has called Asheville, North Carolina home for about 15 years and has spent the past five years building a life with his wife, Caroline. As a banker, he runs a financial center and works daily to manage a team of people and is responsible for his clients financial wellbeing. On the weekends, he enjoys spending time exploring North Carolina’s beautiful outdoors. He regularly goes to synagogue with his family and hopes to start a family with his wife soon. In many ways, he’s like most other North Carolinians building a life for themselves. But because of HB2, he could be arrested or put in jail for using the men’s restroom.
Zeke originally made the decision to move to Asheville when he first began to transition in his late twenties – because there were so few resources accessible anywhere else, and because he’d heard there was another transgender man there. Zeke pointed out that Asheville had some local nondiscrimination protections before HB2 passed, and advocates were excited to see Charlotte move in the same direction. “HB 2 was a huge blow to the hard work we had done on local levels. It was also incredibly scary that someone could reverse those protections and take them away. It gives you pause,” he said.
Prior to Gov. McCrory’s unprecedented passage of HB 2, Zeke hadn’t told anyone at his job that he is transgender. But when it became law, he felt compelled to tell his story.
“I have the privilege of having transitioned years ago,” he said. “No one questions what my gender identity is, and I don’t regularly introduce that in the conversation. There really wasn’t any reason for me to bring it up. It never occurs to anybody that I was anything but a cisgender, heterosexual man. I made a specific choice to tell my employers because the legislation of HB2 is so overreaching and so invasive, I couldn’t keep quiet about it.”
Many of his coworkers had no idea and were surprised. But they are all supportive, and several of them have now become more vocal advocates against HB2 because of Zeke.
“No one questions what my gender identity is, and I don’t regularly introduce that in the conversation. I made a specific choice to tell my employers because the legislation of HB2 is so overreaching and so invasive, I couldn’t keep quiet about it.” – Zeke Christopoulos
Zeke admits he is in a much better place in his life than many other transgender people in his community – he has a supportive employer, a supportive family, and a supportive community surrounding him. But still, understandably, he has fears about how HB2 can affect him.
“I live my life in North Carolina, and I’m in and out of state buildings all the time. Even as someone whose gender is not often questioned, this legislation makes me feel like I’m doing something bad or wrong for being who I am,” he said. “I don’t want to feel like I am breaking the law.”