Beyond boardrooms and basketball courts: HB2 still casts a destructive shadow for many North Carolinians

By: - March 9, 2017 1:45 pm
Candis Cox

Nearly a year after HB2 was signed into law, Candis Cox is still fighting for its repeal.

But a year in, the fight has become exhausting and infuriating.

“We’re now weeks away from the one year anniversary of this law being signed,” Cox said in an interview this week. “And up until recently we’ve really been talking about the human impact – the damage it could have on the people it’s trying to control. Now, suddenly, it seems like all we’re talking about is basketball tournaments and the money we could lose.”

As a North Carolinian, Cox is hurt and embarrassed by the law, which prevents local anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people and requires those in government-owned buildings to use bathrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates.

As a transgender woman of color, she is statistically most vulnerable to the violence that so often results from the sort of anti-transgender sentiment the HB2 controversy has encouraged.

Living with that reality is difficult enough, Cox said – but hearing her life and the lives of other LGBT people discussed primarily in terms of dollars and cents adds insult to injury.

“I really feel like the only movement we’ve seen on repeal has been because of fear of losing the NCAA championships,” Cox said. “And this isn’t a law about college sports. This is a law about real peoples’ real lives.”

“I understand they’re using it because it’s something we can quantify, it’s a political tool that you can use to make people see something,” Cox said. “But it hurts me because I feel that by not talking about me – and by me I mean the people who are affected by this – they’re taking our fight, our voice, the shame and the humiliation we’re going through, from us.”

“It just feels like we’re moving backwards,” Cox said.

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When HB2 was signed into law nearly a year ago, the international headlines and major boycotts of the state seemed to signal a societal change.

The bathroom provision was the most discussed piece of the legislation – and it thrust transgender people onto the national political stage.

Used to feeling like outsiders even among the lesbian, gay and bisexual people with whom they found community, transgender people were afraid they’d be thrown under the bus in the coming political fight, their experiences ignored and their rights used as bargaining chips. Instead, major American corporations, world-famous rock musicians, TV and movie stars were all stood with them. So did groups like the ACLU, NAACP, Equality North Carolina and even – under the Obama administration – the federal government.

A year later the ground has shifted – but HB2 still stands.

Gov. Pat McCrory was voted out of office after signing and defending the law, which became a major political albatross. But with Donald Trump’s presidential victory, federal support has evaporated as it becomes the official policy of the U.S. government that discrimination protections like those at the heart of HB2 should be state matters.

For Cox, that’s eerily reminiscent of earlier civil rights struggles.

“My grandmother was born outside of Birmingham, Alabama in 1930,” Cox said. She’s still alive – she’s independent, still lives on her own. She really understands and remembers things and is really eloquent and articulate about them.”

“She talked with me about how my grandfather served in the Navy in San Diego and she had to travel by bus in the early 1950s – before the civil rights bill, before desegregation. Jim Crow was alive and well. She talks about blacks not being allowed in restrooms with the whites and the bus stopping in Mississippi and in Texas. And they had one for whites, colored, and Chicanos.”

Sometimes the “colored” bathrooms were out of service, Cox said. Her grandmother would occasionally be allowed to use a white bathroom in that case, she said – a sort of show of mercy. But her grandfather, a black man, was considered too much of a threat.

“Here was a man who served aboard a U.S. Naval ship in war for his country, but they looked at him and saw a potential sexual predator,” Cox said. “Thought there was something inherently wrong inside a black man’s brain – that they would expose themselves or attack white women and children.”

“And now, I’m hearing the exact same things about why I should not be allowed into a women’s restroom,” Cox aid. “The Lt. Governor of this state said last month it’s basic logic, to protect women and children from people like me.”

The latest suggested compromise – House Bill 186, which would put local non-discrimination ordinances to a referendum – is similarly insulting, Cox said.

“This is the ‘compromise’ they’re talking about,” Cox said. “They’re talking about my value as a person, as a North Carolinian, and the lives of my fellow LGBT and especially trans brothers and sisters – and they’re talking about putting it to a vote.”

Ames Simmons, director of transgender policy for Equality North Carolina, said he too feels the frustration.

Ames Simmons

“There’s a lot of HB2 fatigue in general, I think,” Simmons said this week.

Simmons, a transgender man, said he’s had a number of personally painful moments in working on behalf of LGBT people in the current environment.

“I was having a discussion with a staff member at the North Carolina General Assembly recently who asked me, ‘We’re not talking about very many people, right? This is only less than 1 percent of the population, right?’” Simmons said. “It was very difficult in that moment. To be asked that question when that person knows I’m a trans person…it’s like they’re looking me in the eye and saying, ‘There aren’t that many of you. Why should we care about this? Why should we care about you?’”

As much as it sometimes hurts, Simmons said, he has to admit that from a practical perspective, the economic argument does seem to be having an impact that the moral argument hasn’t on some legislators and the public.

“People who are most affected by those policy proposals do have a hard time hearing people talk about policy in terms of dollars and cents,” Simmons said. “But I also think that many people who have been active in LGBT policy for any length of time have a pragmatic approach to just making sure bad policy gets defeated, however that happens. And economic concerns are an important part of that.”

LGBT advocates – including Democrats in the legislature – do continue to make the moral argument that these sorts of civil rights can’t be put to an up-or-down vote in towns and cities across the state, Simmons said.

But it’s also been effective for people who are not moved by those arguments to see major sporting events, conventions and shows bypassing North Carolina over the issue, he said. A statement from Duke University that the law was preventing them from recruiting the best faculty and students struck home for some people in a way that ethical pleas hadn’t, he said.

“I think those things need to constantly be put in front of legislators,” Simmons said.

As for being transgender in this sort of political environment? It’s not easy, Simmons said – but it helps to look beyond the capital.

“Most of the time what I really try to do is to widen or broaden my perspective outside of the North Carolina General Assembly,” Simmons said. “I spend so much time within the building that it’s easy to let the parameters of my existence be defined by what goes on at the NCGA,” Simmons said.

“It is an important place for LGBT people in North Carolina right now,” Simmons said. “But there are all sorts of things that go on in the outside world. There are positive things happening. There are people being reached, people understanding. There is progress and that’s important.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.