As a ban on new LGBTQ protections is lifted, advocates and local officials push for progress

By: - December 2, 2020 1:58 pm

Opposition to HB2 sparked large and vocal demonstrations at the General Assembly in 2016. With the sunsetting of a bill that blocked LGBTQ protections, advocates see the starting point for new and important work in expanding those rights. (Photo: Phil Fonville)

Local governments can now offer new safeguards against LGBTQ discrimination, after a three-year state ban blocking those protections expired Tuesday. Now, say advocates and elected officials from across the state, it’s time to make progress on those protections.

But the memory of 2016’s brutal fight over HB 2, the controversial law that excluded lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from statewide nondiscrimination protections, might give local officials and state lawmakers pause.

Though House Bill 142 partially repealed HB 2, it locked in place a ban on new LGBTQ protections — including nondiscrimination ordinances for employment and housing — until this month. “We have an opportunity to move forward as one key prong of HB 142 sunsets today and cities and counties across our state can begin to pass much needed nondiscrimination measures to protect constituents like myself, regular folks who want to experience their lives free of discrimination or have legal mechanisms to protect themselves,” said Kendra Johnson, Executive Director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality NC.

In the years since HB 142 was passed, legal rulings and settlements have weakened it while public opinion has increasingly favored the sort of LGBTQ legal protections it sought to prevent.

“There’s really an opportunity for municipalities to make non-discrimination as broad as they want it to be,” said Ames Simmons, policy director for Equality NC, in a virtual town hall on the issue Tuesday night.

Kendra Johnson, Equality NC

In June the U.S. Supreme Court held that a section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees against discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But that doesn’t cover those working for small businesses, in gig economy positions like ride-share drivers and independent contractors. Municipalities still have an important role in making sure those workers are covered, Simmons said, as the North Carolina General Assembly doesn’t appear likely to extend those nondiscrimination protections statewide.

Democrats had hoped to gain a majority in the General Assembly in the recent election, making full repeal of HB 2, HB 142 and the extension of statewide nondiscrimination protections more likely. Instead, Democrats lost seats in the legislature. But Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, was easily reelected and the party maintained enough seats to sustain his vetoes.

That might be necessary, said State Rep. Susan Fisher (D-Buncombe). As the ban is lifted and municipalities pass new protections, Republicans may move to offer new laws blocking them. “I want to think optimistically that we can work across the aisle and keep those kinds of prohibitions from happening to our cities,” Fisher said at Tuesday’s town hall event. “But the truth of the matter is I think there are folks who were watching for this day and making plans for what they might do to reverse it or reestablish a bill like 142.”

Democrats in the legislature will be watching for any such movement, she said. “It can be vetoed and fortunately we still have an opportunity to sustain vetoes for this governor,” Fisher said. We have enough members, that can happen.”

Mayors and city council members across the state have largely been keeping quiet their plans for any new protections. But in mid-October the Metro Mayors Coalition held a call to hear a presentation from Equality NC and discuss new nondiscrimination ordinances.

Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan

Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan told Policy Watch this week that her city, which previously passed housing and employment protections, is looking at what it should do now that the ban has expired, to ensure those protections and more will be in place for city residents — and can be expanded as needed.

“We need to make sure those are enforceable now,” Vaughan said. “We want to reaffirm what we already have on the books. Nondiscrimination in housing and employment and facilities — who could be against those things?”

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition, however, has already contacted municipalities across the state, urging them not to pass new nondiscrimination ordinances. In letters to elected officials and an opinion column in the conservative-leaning North State Journal, she called new protections “a Trojan horse to weaponize hate and hostility toward small business owners and private citizens with sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Those sentiments carry a lot of weight with the Republican majority in the General Assembly, whose leaders continue to defend HB 2 and HB 142 and have characterized transgender people as mentally ill.

Durham Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said many elected officials in the state have come to expect the General Assembly to preempt progress by local governments. “One of the hardest parts about being an elected official is when you can’t do when you know really needs to be done and should be done to improve the lives of the residents of your community,” Johnson said at Tuesday’s town hall event. “And we face preemption on so many important issues in North Carolina. We’re often forced to explain to our residents who come to us really looking for action and looking for change that we are hamstrung by these backward agendas at the state level and at the General Assembly.”

The actions of the General Assembly can also have negative economic impacts on cities whose leaders don’t endorse the direction in which lawmakers take the state. Greensboro, the state’s third-largest city, was hit hard by boycotts of the state stemming from HB 2. The city lost major events, including a Bruce Springsteen concert, conventions, NCAA tournaments and a major ice skating competition.

“I think proportionally, we may have lost the most,” Vaughan said. “And that wasn’t our ordinance.”

The economic pressure of boycotts did help lead to a partial repeal of HB 2. That was illuminating in ways that were good and bad, Johnson said.

Durham Mayor Pro Team and City Councilperson Jillian Johnson (Photo: City of Durham)

Allison Scott, Campaign for Southern Equality

“We saw on a local and state level the power of organizing and the power of boycott as a political tool,” Johnson said. “When HB 2 first passed there was very little attention being paid to it in the community. But after we saw states, huge organizations, sports organizations calling for boycotts of North Carolina, that’s when we saw people spring into action. That’s what really lit the fire under people in the broader community, that we really need to pay attention.”

“It’s fortunate that it happened,” Johnson said. “It’s unfortunate that it had to be an economic motivation rather than motivated by wanting to preserve and protect LGBTQ folks, trans people in particular.”

Though they will continue to face opposition from the General Assembly, advocates say they will continue to push for a full repeal of HB 2 and HB 142, even as the municipalities can pass their own local ordinances.

Allison Scott, director of policy and programs at the Campaign for Southern Equality, told Tuesday’s town hall that as a transgender woman she personally experienced people pushing to fire her from the job she held when they thought HB 2 would remove employment protections for her. Her job was only saved because employer was a government contractor and the administration of then President Barack Obama had extended federal protections to contractors by executive order, she said.

Transgender people have the right to live their lives openly in their own communities, Scott said.

“We can’t do that without employment, we can’t do that without housing and we can’t do that without public spaces,” she said. “And these bills effectively try to erase us from those public spaces.”

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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.