LGBTQ advocate Janice Covington Allison, who passed away from a long-term illness last week at the age of 74, is remembered in the hearts of local Charlotte residents. In the collective grief over her death, vivid memories of Janice elicit a mixture of laughter, tears and new revelations about how she lived and what she stood for. Many of us can paint florid scenes of her give ‘em hell-brand of activism, all while she wore her six-inch heels and sported jet black hair that rose up higher than heaven’s ceiling. You only had to hear a kind, “Hey, honey,” in her unmistakable voice from the corner of any room, and you knew it was her. In her final months, Janice regularly called my wife Lara Americo and me. As we’d done for years, she called me “Joanie,” and I saltily called her “Janet”. Hey Joanie. Hi, Janet. Then we’d laugh.
Two remembrance events will be held for Janice in the coming days. The first is a memorial at Chasers on Sunday, October 10. Doors open at 5 p.m. and the memorial runs from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Light refreshments will be provided. A special showcase starts at 7 p.m. The graveside service for Janice, which is open to the public, will be held on Friday, October 15 at 2 p.m. in the Salisbury National Cemetery at VA Salisbury Health Care. There will be a presentation of the flag to her wife, Rita Cobble, to commemorate Janice’s service in the Army. Carolina Mortuary Service & Cremation is handling the cremation and interment.
For those planning on attending the graveside service, Janice’s marker will show the name she was given at birth rather than the name we most often associated with her in life. Fred Handsel, owner of Carolina Mortuary Service & Cremation and longtime friend, received several calls from those asking why the marker will not bear Janice’s name. He explained Janice never changed her gender marker through the court system and then with the Veterans Administration. Therefore, the mortuary service must use the name in the system. Handsel himself recently learned Janice and the person he worked with were actually the same person.
“I knew her [as her previous name] when she was firechief out at the racetrack,” he said. “I knew Janice as a political activist. But I never knew it was the same person until they died.”
In one of her final interviews with archivist Tina Wright of the J. Murray Atkins Library at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Janice talked about identifying as gender fluid. As a child she felt this way, but putting words to how she identified didn’t come until a few years ago.
“Gender fluid means you’re comfortable every way,” she told Tina this past June. “You don’t have to choose. You already are…If I went to a store as a male, I’m comfortable. No matter how I’m dressed, they say ‘Hey Janice, hello Janice.’”
Whether you agreed with her politics or not, Janice was a steadfast presence in local LGBTQ activism. Former mayor Jennifer Roberts vividly remembers seeing her at numerous meetings, witnessing firsthand how she was never afraid to back down from fighting for equal rights. Roberts points to Janice’s fierce advocacy during the fight against House Bill 2. The state law overturned a local non-discrimination ordinance that Charlotte City Council passed to expand protections to the LGBTQ community. House Bill 2 prohibited transgender and gender non-conforming people from using bathrooms in locker rooms, schools and government buildings based solely on their gender identity. Janice’s regular attendance at city council meetings helped spur people in power to action. Many people remember when anti-LGBTQ activists asked a police officer to remove Janice from the women’s restroom in the Charlotte Government Center during the city council hearing on House Bill 2.
“Although the city council was supportive, it was Janice’s advocacy that made it happen and changed the bathrooms in the government center,” says Roberts, referring to the conversion of two single-sex restrooms into all gender restrooms. “She would come to so many meetings and say ‘I don’t know what bathroom to use, I have to hold it.’Janice was very firm and made it very personal. She was there about policy issues and didn’t feel accommodated to do a really human thing. This helped people understand why facilities were an important part of discrimination.”
In 2013, Janice became the first recipient of the Charlotte Pride Harvey Milk Award at The Charlotte Pride festival. The Charlotte Pride Parade and festivities had returned that year to Uptown Charlotte after 19 years. Perched on the backseat of a silver VW Beetle and clad in an all black outfit topped with a rainbow sash, Allison waved at the crowd lining South Tryon Street. She beamed. A month after receiving the award, she reflected on her achievement in QNotes. While she was always larger than life, she was also humbled by the visibility. “I was honored to have received the Harvey Milk Award during the Charlotte Pride Festival,” she said. “You, my friends, made me feel it is all worthwhile by hearing your cheers and hugs while I was riding in the Parade.”
Janice became the first transgender woman elected to represent North Carolina at the Democratic National Convention in 2012. In addition to her business as a delegate, she was a fixture at the multi-day event. On the first night of the convention, she even did a full-on drag show at Wet Willie’s in the NC Music Factory. She also stole the show when she arrived at the N.C. delegates welcome party the next day. I’ll never forget Janice swanning into the NASCAR Hall of Fame wearing a long black dress with little silver embellishments around the neckline. At the time, I was reporting at the DNC for a local publication and asked if she was looking forward to seeing anybody that night. “I carried an overnight bag,” she said, and then with a laugh said, “No, I didn’t.” Then she asked, “How bad’s my hair?” She had come in from the rain. The duality she brought to her role made her unique and North Carolina stand out.
“Janice was a much-beloved, active Democrat and friend who served as a delegate to multiple Democratic national and state conventions,” said Wayne Goodwin, former chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party. “She served dutifully and with great dedication on various committees and in multiple leadership roles within the NC Democratic Party and its auxiliaries.”
While many people appreciated Janice for her kind heart, she also elicited controversy with her often fiery views and methods of activism. She was both an outspoken advocate and a complicated figure on the local political and LGBTQ scene.
“You need people on the outside and people on the inside,” says O’Neale Atkinson IV, deputy director for Time Out Youth. “I inject myself into systems. She challenged the system so loudly. I always knew in her heart where she was coming from…I don’t think her work was ego-driven. It was about the community.”
Former Director of Advocacy for Equality North Carolina Crystal Richardson, an attorney in North Carolina, attended candidate forums and ENC events where she struck up a friendship with Janice. She admired Janice for her tenacity and boldness, and her ability to raise hell in a room often filled with anti-LGBTQ cisgender white men. The duality of Janice’s presence meant she took up space at times when Black and brown people could personally advocate for equality.
“Sometimes if there were Black and Brown people in the room, she didn’t step back,” says Richardson. “At the same time, though, certain rooms we were trying to advocate for in regards to gender identity and gender expression needed to show gender non-conforming people. It was important for her to be there so [other] identities in that way could have space. With some people, maybe they had some ill experiences with her, but I really saw the human in her. I would take time to say hello and in return she would do the same. I think a lot of people kind of missed that. People were more focused on the trigger and what they were experiencing based on [her approach to activism], but really Janice had a big heart.”
Lara Americo, a vocal trans rights advocate and musician who fought against HB2 alongside Janice, echoes Crystal’s sentiment about her place in the world of local activism.
“It was hard to talk politics with Janice because progressive politics change so much and so fast,” she says. “We would get to a point where I’d say, ‘It’s complicated, Janice,’ and after a while she would say, ‘Oh, it’s complicated’ and laugh. I knew if I got really strict about what our political differences were then we just wouldn’t have a relationship. We lose a lot of our elders [in general] now because we cancel them. We think we’re so progressive, but we’re no better than the people in the 70s who threw away their elders. It doesn’t mean we have to excuse the problematic things elders say. We’re too rough on them, especially our queer elders [based on their] terminology and lingo. We lose a wealth of knowledge.”
In the end, Janice’s greatest legacy is her unwavering commitment to the LGBTQ community as an advocate, a friend and a family member. She threw a Thanksgiving party at Petra’s for years, complete with the turkey and fixings for those who couldn’t go home to their families for the holiday. She was passionate about protecting queer youth and looking toward their future.
“Janice was a warrior, a pioneer, a protector of queer youth,” says Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride and muti-Miss National Entertainer of the Year award-winning drag superstar Buff Faye. “I recall her saying on more than one occasion to me – ‘its for the kids, we got to take care of these kids.’ Janice lived life without boundaries and I will never forget her bravery and fearlessness…There are not many ‘true activists’ left around these days – and nobody will ever compare to Janice.”
In her final interview, Janice may have given the last lesson on how we will continue to fight for equality with love and boldness.
“The whole thing that I try to relate, if anybody ever listens to this thing in the future: always just be who you are,” she said. “That’s all you got to be. You ain’t got to put on the show. You ain’t got to wear loud lipstick. You ain’t gotta wear six inch high heels. You ain’t got to be the king of the road. Just be yourself and people accept you. That’s it. That’s my word of advice.”
More information: The service for Allison will be held on Friday, October 15 at 2 p.m. EST at Salisbury National Cemetery, located at the VA Salisbury Healthcare. Carolina Mortuary Service is handling the arrangements. A memorial will be held at Chasers on Sunday, October 10. Doors open at 5 p.m. and the memorial runs from 6:00 p.m. to 8 p.m. Light refreshments will be provided. A special showcase starts at 7 p.m. More details about the memorial at Chasers can be found here.
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Transgender activist Janice Covington Allison passed away October 1 at Charlotte’s Mercy Hospital after battling a long-term illness. Covington, 74, had been an active participant in the city’s LGBTQ community dating back to the 1980s, where she had, upon occasion, performed as a drag artist at clubs like Oleens and Scorpio. However, she was best…