Tune in to the upcoming Republican and Democratic conventions and you’re likely to see an NC State alumna deliver a message targeted to viewers across the political spectrum.
Alaina Kupec won’t appear on stage at either event. But millions of television viewers watching the GOP convention coverage on Fox News and the Democratic Party convention coverage on MSNBC will see the 1992 political science alum star in a 60-second public service spot advocating transgender rights.
“Like most transgender people, I never envisioned being publicly visible,” she said in an interview this week. “As my wife says, I’m the accidental activist.”
In the reality-style ad, sponsored by a coalition of civil rights groups, Kupec is confronted by a restaurant owner who blocks her from entering the women’s restroom. In a voice-over narration, Kupec says laws that prevent transgender people from using gender-appropriate restrooms put them at risk for harassment and violence.
Among those laws is a North Carolina measure enacted in March that requires transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to their biological sex — the gender assigned at birth — in schools and state-owned buildings. That law, known as HB2, was the catalyst for Kupec’s decision to go public.
“It’s heartbreaking to see the impact that this law has had on the transgender community,” she said. “For so many of us, it’s been hard to deal with the stress, the emotions, the depression and anxiety that go with being publicly shamed and marginalized.”
Kupec, who has worked at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer for over 20 years, was one of four LGBT business executives honored by Out Leadership last month during the televised Logo Trailblazer Awards in New York. Kupec is quickly becoming one of the nation’s most visible transgender activists. She is co-chair of the board of directors of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, and she’s spoken on and off camera with numerous news outlets, including the News & Observer, Salon and Rolling Stone. She was a featured speaker at a public rally against HB2 the day after the law was passed and since then has spoken at press conferences alongside other national LGBT leaders.
“It’s all kind of surreal to me because I’m naturally a very introverted person,” she said. “But at the same time, I’m not going to stand by and watch our community be victimized.”
A Lifelong Struggle
Kupec came out as transgender just four years ago when she was in her early forties. But her struggle with gender identity began decades earlier.
“I felt inside that I was female my entire life but didn’t know why I felt that way. I felt like I was broken,” she explained. “I had shame, I had guilt, I had all of those things and I couldn’t understand it. And I remember just like it was yesterday, going to the card catalogue at the D.H. Hill Library when I was a freshman, searching for research that could help me. But I couldn’t find anything in that entire library with over a million books. There was nothing there to help me understand who I was.”
In a bid to help the next generation of transgender students, Kupec recently donated the seed money to begin a collection of books on transgender issues in the NCSU Libraries. Donations to enhance the collection are welcome, she said.
Changing the Narrative
Kupec, who has three teenagers from a previous marriage, lives with her wife in Chapel Hill. She hopes her work on the forefront of the transgender rights movement, including the public service ad airing this month, will help reframe the narrative about gender nonconforming people.
“Coming out as transgender midlife, with my oldest son then starting high school, was incredibly difficult to do,” she said. “In many ways you only do it when you can’t survive any longer. You risk losing everything to transition: your family, your friends, your job, everything about your life. It’s not done lightly.”
Despite the difficulties she faced coming to terms with her gender identity, she takes pride and comfort in the support of family, friends and colleagues.
“Pfizer has been very, very supportive of me. They never blinked when I transitioned. My manager said: I hired you to do a great job and I know you’ll continue to do a great job, regardless of gender.”
Kupec’s relationship with her children is based on honesty and respect.
“I’ve been very transparent with my children about my involvement with the nonprofit, my involvement with being visible, my standing up for the community,” she said. “One of the most gratifying outcomes of my visibility this past week was my oldest son telling me he was proud of me, telling me he loved me. A 17-year-old often looks at the world in terms of how it affects them personally. I’m so grateful that he can see that doing this is a way of trying to help others who may not have a voice.”