CHARLOTTE — The LGBT community was nearly ripped apart in 2007 during the months-long debate that ultimately stripped transgender protections out of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Versions of the bill since then have included gender-identity along with sexual orientation, but deep and unhealed wounds still exist between some transgender leaders and the larger LGB community.

Charlotte’s Bishop Tonyia Rawls says a divisive 2007 vote on a non-trans inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) helped her see there needed to be more outreach and inclusion of the transgender community. Pictured: Then-Majority Whip Rp. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) speaks at a post-ENDA vote press conference on Nov. 7, 2007, attended by ENDA sponsors and HRC President Joe Solmonese. (File Photo)

Bishop Tonyia Rawls, founder of the Unity Fellowship Church of Charlotte, says it was that debate which first drove her to help solve some of the rifts that have developed between transgender people and wider communities of the LGB and faith movements. Her ordination as a bishop, when she and another woman became the first female bishops in her denomination, also opened her eyes.

“We just hadn’t thought about what impact gender would have in expanding what has predominantly been a male role — that of bishop,” she says. “We weren’t ready for what all this would men when you expand the door of welcome.”

Rawls says she was forced to deal with her own “blind spots.”

“What became obvious is that I have blind spots; we all have blind spots,” she says. “I started looking for mine and I readily landed on the transgender community.”

She shared her thoughts with her denomination’s board, which decided it would be worth the effort to increase outreach and inclusion to transgender people. In 2009, the denomination held a small convening of 20 transgender people of color from across the country. They discussed the needs of their community and what the Unity Fellowship Church Movement could do to support them.

“That led to the formation of a summit we held last year in Los Angeles during the Unity Fellowship Church Movement’s convocation that year,” Rawls says. “We had 200 people show up at the gathering — trans people of color and allies from around the country.”

The ideas and issues discussed in 2010 laid the ground work for this year’s TransFaith In Color, presented by Rawls’ Freedom Center for Social Justice. (For more on the new center, see our May 28 story, “Creating change in East Charlotte,” at The conference will be held July 29-31 at Charlotte’s Hilton University Place.

The conference seeks to bridge the problematic gaps between the broader LGBT and faith communities and transgender people. To do that, Rawls says conference organizers wanted the event to be planned from the perspectives of the transgender community.

“So often, people of color and other marginalized groups are added on to work already being done,” she says. “We wanted to know what would happen if you took the ‘least of these’ — trans people of color — and let this bigger work have a genesis point from that seat. They did the original thinking and processing and reflecting and then from that we expanded the platform with them at the center point. What we got was something really wonderful from people who don’t normally have the opportunity afforded to them to be the ones who are the initial shepherds.”

The conference will include workshops, panel discussions and lessons meant to both educate and empower. Organizers say it’s critically important for transgender men and women to utilize new strategies and networking opportunities to engage with larger segments of the LGBT movement and others.

The original 2010 summit, which led to the conference’s creation, was a success, Rawls says. Of the hundreds who attended, a cross-section of the nation was represented.

“It was black and white and Christian and Jewish and Muslim,” she says. “Now, with the conference as it is committed to be in Charlotte will be even bigger than that.” : :

info: For more information on the conference, hotel reservations, registration and schedule, visit

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.