Like so many trans people, Courtney Sharp’s journey to self-realization was a long one. Growing up, she knew she was different but couldn’t quite put her finger on it. All she knew for sure was that she had better keep that difference secret. Her family was religious, and this was North Louisiana, after all. When her “difference” began to manifest, her family, which was Roman Catholic, steered her into traditional gender roles.
Sharp was born in New Orleans but had moved away as a child when her father took a job near Vidalia, Louisiana. While attending college at Louisiana Tech in Ruston (near the Arkansas border), she attended a talk on campus given by Christine Jorgensen—the first widely recognized trans woman in the U.S. (she transitioned in the early 1950s). Most of the attendees came out of curiosity but it was more than that for Sharp. Sharp was looking for answers, a reference point, hope.
Sharp had dealt with her internal struggle by turning to academics as a coping mechanism. Incredibly bright, in 1976 she earned two degrees in Chemical and Biomedical Engineering. She then landed a job with a chemical company in Lake Charles, where she worked for seven years before being hired by the Ethel Corporation.
When she anonymously asked the Human Resources Department what the company policy on being transsexual was, she received no response. She then asked a lawyer to assist her in obtaining information but still no response was forthcoming. Sharp kept working because she really enjoyed her job, but after a few years the struggle had become too intense to deny. When Sharp personally approached the HR Department, she was told that she would be fired if she began transitioning. The excuse the company gave her was that it would create a “hostile work environment.”
She then began seeing a psychiatrist at a Gender Clinic in Galveston in 1985. She kept working but gradually became depressed to the point of being hospitalized in 1992. Sharp eventually sued her employer in Federal Court, but her case was dismissed. She was eventually terminated from Ethel for long-term disability. Unemployed and on disability, she then began spending countless hours researching and educating herself on trans legal issues. She regularly attended transgender conferences in Houston.
In 1993, Sharp moved to New Orleans. She had lost her career as well as her family, who rejected her when she began transitioning. She was lost, lonely, broke, and depressed. She considered suicide. But a nagging thought kept her from ending it all. She had learned of a statistic that haunted her. In her own words, Sharp recalls “40% of the kids in my community are killing themselves and I know exactly why. What am I going to do about it?”
The answer was to get involved with PFLAG and the community. She volunteered at the LGBT Community Center, which was then located on N. Rampart Street, and also worked with LAGPAC (Louisiana Lesbian and Gay Political Action Caucus).
She became close friends with Stewart Butler, who had been a charter member of LAGPAC since 1980 and was now heavily involved in PFLAG. Butler had been instrumental in the passage of the 1991 non-discrimination ordinance in New Orleans and was the veteran of numerous political campaigns. Both Butler and Sharp recognized the need for transgender rights, protections, and inclusion. At that time, the idea of gay and lesbian rights was so radical that trans rights was “beyond the pale,” which is to say inconceivable to most people, even those within the LGBT+ community. Sharp and Butler were ahead of their time.
One of the flaws of the 1991 non-discrimination ordinance was that it did not include protections for transgender persons. Sharp and Butler led a quiet campaign to correct that injustice by including transgender language in the 1995 Home Rule Charter. Because the charter was so grand in scope, no one was really paying attention to Sharp and Butler’s efforts and they were ultimately successful in slipping in the phrase “gender identification.” People were so focused on the big picture they didn’t notice the details.
At the time, Sharp was serving as the first transgender person on the Mayor’s Advisory Committee (MAC) and the following year joined the Board of Directors of LAGPAC. In 1998, Sharp and LAGPAC turned their attention to the state legislature. MAC and LAGPAC worked together to file a non-discrimination bill that included transgender protections. Simultaneously, the Forum for Equality, another political action group based in New Orleans, had a similar bill filed that did not include transgender language.
The two bills confused the New Orleans delegation to the state House of Representatives. The delegation was generally sympathetic to LGBT+ causes but the two bills revealed a frustrating lack of communication and coordination. The delegation called a meeting of both LAGPAC and Forum for Equality officials and chastised them for “not having their shit together.”
During the meeting, Tony Clesi, an attorney for the Forum, angrily asked, “Why in the hell are we talking about including transsexual people when we need to protect gays and lesbians?” He did not know that Sharp, who was in the room, was transgender. Sharp was shocked at the remark and left the room to calm down and collect her thoughts. Upon returning to the meeting, she referenced Clesi’s question and said, “This is why . . .” and then, after coming out as trans, excoriated the Forum for Equality for its hypocrisy.
The aforementioned episode foreshadowed the national controversy in 2007 when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Barney Frank removed transgender language from ENDA (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act).
In 2000, when a Louisiana Winn-Dixie grocery store fired Peter Oiler for cross-dressing when he wasn’t working, Sharp helped organize a protest campaign. While a lawsuit was working its way through the federal court system, Sharp said, “The transgender community had demanded that Winn-Dixie institute a non-discrimination policy for gender identity & expression and sexual orientation. We also asked them to institute sensitivity training. Those demands have not been withdrawn and were not dependent upon the legal case.”
In addition to battling politicians and corporations, Sharp also waged a subtler campaign within the LGBT+ community to foster greater understanding and inclusion of transgender people. When she joined PFLAG, she asked why the group did not include transgender young people in its mission. The question caught the attention of the local chapter’s leadership (Sandra Pailet, Julie Thompson, and Randy Trahan), and they took Sharp to dinner to discuss the matter further. They were receptive.
Sharp had put transgender youth on the local PFLAG chapter’s radar but there was still much to do, namely convincing the local PFLAG’s Board of Directors that the trans issue was something the national organization needed to address. Her strongest ally was, again, Stewart Butler. Together they gradually persuaded the local chapter to lead the fight for transgender inclusion in the national PFLAG Mission Statement.
The New Orleans chapter of PFLAG formally proposed that the national organization vote to include the word transgender in its mission statement. The resolution would be voted on by the national board at the national conference in San Francisco in 1998. The board required written arguments both for and against the resolution before they voted. Sharp wrote the argument for trans inclusion. The resolution passed and PFLAG became the first national LGBT+ organization to include trans people in its mission statement.
In 2000, Courtney Sharp became the first transgender member of the national PFLAG Board of Directors.