Courtney Sharp and Stewart Butler met in 1995 at the LGBT Community Center, which was then located on N. Rampart Street. One afternoon, as Stewart was sitting on the Center’s stoop smoking a cigarette, Courtney approached the entrance to meet with Crystal Little, with whom she volunteered at the Center. Stewart greeted her and then gruffly asked, “Who are you?” Her answer was followed up with, “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?”
The gruff introduction was the beginning of a long and warm friendship. Years later, reflecting on the early years of their relationship, Sharp remembered how amazed she was that this gay man, a man that had “no skin in the game” regarding trans issues, would champion the trans cause, especially at a time when no one else was.
Not long after their chance meeting, Stewart summoned Sharp and Little (both of whom are trans) to “The Faerie Playhouse”, his home on Esplanade Avenue. As they sat at the kitchen table, Stewart had a notepad filled with questions and, as Sharp recalls, “he sized me up.” The purpose of the meeting had to do with getting transgender protections included in the upcoming New Orleans Home Rule Charter. Stewart was in recruiting mode; this would be his next fight in a long line of civil rights crusades, and he needed soldiers.
Sharp was no stranger to the struggle. Her resume of activism would eventually boast stints as a Board Member of the Gulf Gender Alliance, the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in New Orleans, LAGPAC, and PFLAG (both locally and nationally). Sharp had also served on the Mayor’s Advisory Committee.
Transgender protections had not been included in the 1991 non-discrimination ordinance passed by the New Orleans City Council. Efforts at transgender organizing in the New Orleans area date to the 1980s, but those efforts focused more on offering support and dispensing information rather than political activism. As Chloe Raub, Head of Archives and Special Collections at Newcomb College Institute, has observed, “All too often, trans history has been minimized or erased from the historical record.”
Little had been involved with a group called the Gulf Gender Alliance, founded in 1987, serving as its President for four years before working with the Lesbian and Gay Community Center of New Orleans. Attorney Jim Kellogg had offered legal assistance to trans people in New Orleans before relocating to San Francisco. These efforts were important, if not highly visible, and foreshadowed the advent of groups like BreakOUT! and Louisiana Trans Advocates in the 2000s.
After his meeting with Sharp and Little, Stewart enlisted the help of Ambush publisher Rip Naquin. Butler and Naquin then contacted two allies on the City Council to discuss strategy—Troy Carter and Roy Glapion. Carter had been elected in 1994 and succeeded Jackie Clarkson, who incidentally succeeded Carter when he was elected to the State House of Representatives in 1992 before winning a State senate seat in 2015. Also elected in 1994, Glapion had served as President of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club from 1973 to 1988, during which time he led the effort to racially integrate the popular Mardi Gras parading club. At the time of his death on December 28, 1999, Glapion had been named King Zulu for 2000. According to Stewart, both Carter and Glapion “were on board immediately.”
After conferring with a number of people, it was decided to adopt an “under the radar strategy.” Although not an exact comparison, “Home Rule Charter” may be thought of roughly as a municipality’s “constitution.” In 1995, an overhaul of the charter adopted in 1954 was proposed. One of the more controversial amendments was the authorization of charter schools in Orleans Parish. The public debate over this issue was so great that trans advocates correctly calculated that they could quietly “slip into” the charter the term “gender identification” to be added to the non-discrimination statute. Sharp remembers, “Everyone was so focused on the big picture, they didn’t notice the details.”
It was a quiet victory, but a victory, nonetheless.