For Democrat lawmakers like Rep. Susi Hamilton, House Bill 2 is a far-reaching, unnecessary measure that is a veiled discrimination at its most transparent.
For Republican counterparts like state senator Michael Lee, it’s clearly a practical check on municipalities’ power rather than some conservative social commentary.
For Wilmington resident Rachael Gieschen, who was born male, it’s nothing more than “good ol’ boy nonsense.”
And for a growing list of corporations and industry leaders across the country, the new law – now commonly referred to as the “bathroom bill” – is just bad for business.
House Bill 2 – a response to non-discrimination actions adopted by Charlotte leaders – was swiftly signed into law by Governor Pat McCrory on March 23, the same night it was cleared by the Senate 32-0 during a special session (every Democrat left the General Assembly floor during the vote). It had previously gotten through the House with unanimous Republican support, backed by favorable votes from 11 Democrats.
As it took effect Friday, local residents took to the streets to call for a swift repeal. UNC-Wilmington students staged an on-campus gathering against the law Friday afternoon, followed by the “Repeal HB2 Rally” along the intersection of College Road and Oleander Drive near Trader Joe’s.
A group of about 50 people of all sexual identities and ages, from infants to the 75-year-old Gieschen who fully transitioned in 2007, occupied the four corners of the intersection armed with signs and gay pride flags, soliciting a chorus of honks in support and a few choice words from the counter side.
“I am just flummoxed by why Republicans did this,” Page Rutledge, who attended the rally with several of her Cape Fear Humanists friends, said.
It’s a confusion fellow humanist group member Fred Bingham shares.
“What I want to know is, what was the need for this? What was the problem?” he asked.
After news spread that Charlotte had granted, among other inclusive initiatives, the right for transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify, state lawmakers drafted and approved legislation that supersedes the city’s policy. Now, statewide, a person can only use public bathrooms – including those in schools and UNC-system colleges – that match the gender listed on his or her birth certificate.
“Cities like Charlotte enact non-discrimination policies because they are protecting the people in their community, and that’s really neat. That’s what is making our country great,” Ed Adams, one of the rally organizers, said. “But this has sent us back to the 1800s.”
The law also strips local governments of the ability to raise minimum wage and limits options for employees filing claims of discrimination by requiring they be made only at the federal level, a move that Rep. Hamilton believes will only make claims more difficult to raise or be heard.
“The Supreme Court has ruled on this: You cannot openly discriminate. So is this discrimination by omission? I think that it is,” she said.
Senator Lee disagrees.
The District 9 legislator said his “aye” on House Bill 2 was, at base, a vow to keep North Carolina residents safe.
“My vote was not a judgment or broad statement of what I think about any community of individuals: gay, straight, transgender or otherwise,” he said. “My vote was about practical concerns raised by constituents about the public bathrooms and locker rooms portion of the Charlotte ordinance.”
Further, Lee added, it was a matter of addressing “a municipality passing an ordinance that was beyond their authority under the law and our NC Constitution.” It’s an argument McCrory has also made in public statements, saying a city did not have the authority to enact such an ordinance that could put both its residents and visitors at risk.
But what appears to be most at risk in the swirling debate is the state’s economic development.
In response to McCrory’s ratification, industry leaders nationwide have responded with disappointment, demands for repeal and, in the case of director and producer Rob Reiner, boycotts of the state. Reiner publicly declared on March 24 that he would not make any films in the state unless the measure was repealed, and encouraged his peers to join him in the ban.
Thursday, two advocacy groups working together against the legislation – the Human Rights Campaign and Equality NC – announced that Starbucks, TDBank, Hilton and Kellogg’s had recently joined a growing list of corporations standing against the law.
In a joint letter addressed to McCrory, executives representing more than 100 companies, including Levi Strauss & Co., Barnes and Noble, Microsoft, Airbnb, Twitter and YouTube, said “such laws are bad for our employees and bad for business.” The letter warned that House Bill 2 will make it “far more challenging” for North Carolina businesses to recruit and retain top-performing employees.
“It will also diminish the state’s draw as a destination for tourism, new business and economic activity,” according to the letter.
That’s a statement Hamilton would certainly stand behind.
“It is unquestionable, with the national outcry we’ve seen and more importantly, the businesses in North Carolina and those that are currently considering North Carolina,” she said of a looming economic backlash. “They have spoken loud and clear that this bill goes way too far and is not a responsible conversation when we’re trying to improve our economy.”
The District 18 representative is currently drafting proposed legislation to repeal House Bill 2 with House Democrats Darren Jackson of Wake County and Graig Meyer, who represents Durham and Orange counties. She said they hope to introduce their bill during the next legislative session, which begins April 25.
Unless the law is taken off the books, Hamilton said, the state will see a significant dip not only in new industry eyeing the area but in two of its mainstay drivers: film and tourism. With rallying cries from big-name execs – Reiner, for example – and a grant fund program that still can’t quite compete with Georgia’s tax incentives, she said more productions could find their way to the nearby southern state. So, too, will Georgia and other destination states take advantage of North Carolina’s tarnished image, she added.
“I remain hopeful that there is no negative impact to our film industry resulting from HB2,” said Lee, who was integral in the successful fight last year to beef up film spending.
So far, Lee’s optimism is on the mark, according to Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Commission. But Griffin said it may be too soon to speculate on what the reaction to House Bill 2 could be, since the statewide grant fund won’t be up for grabs again until July 1.
“We’re obviously watching the news like everyone else. It’s a complicated issue and I don’t know that we thoroughly understand it,” he said. “But we haven’t heard from our clients or anyone in our industry regarding it. We haven’t heard any backlash as of yet.”
Industry reaction or not, Adams and the loosely organized group of LGBT advocates and allies behind Friday night’s rally say House Bill 2 has to go.
“It’s just wrong, what they did. They didn’t study it,” said Gieschen, citing the availability of scientific data on gender identity. “This is the first protest I’ve ever gotten involved with but I had to do it because this is just wrong.”
And Adams, Gieschen and others say they plan to stay vocal until a repeal becomes a reality.
The group had already united before the bill’s passage in an effort to create a positive presence in Wilmington. Now, a booth they had reserved during next weekend’s Azalea Festival street fair for that purpose will instead be used to raise awareness of House Bill 2 and its various impacts. And Adams said he expects more rallies and meet-ups will be planned for the near future.
“I don’t think this rally or this one week of action is what we’re about. We’re in it for the long haul. I believe we’re going to be fighting for awhile for this,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we’re still just a bunch of people who care about each other and are trying to advance our community a little bit.”
Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.