Thursday marks one year since HB2 was signed into law, setting off a firestorm of controversy that led to statewide boycotts, mass protests and contributed to the downfall of the governor who supported it.
The bill, which excludes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from statewide nondiscrimination protections, has cost the state collegiate and professional sporting events and major corporate expansions.
Its most controversial provision, a requirement that transgender people must use restrooms and locker rooms matching the sex on their birth certificates rather than their gender identity, has generated international headlines and a federal lawsuit.
Part of an ongoing national debate on transgender issues, the law and the controversy surrounding it have been denounced by critics as contributing to the ongoing problem of harassment and violence toward LGBT people and an increased risk of suicide.
After a series of failed attempts at repeal, efforts have stalled with Democrats calling for a full and unequivocal repeal and Republicans insisting on a moratorium or referendums on new LGBT protections at the local level.
There are only two out LGBT members of the North Carolina General Assembly.
N.C. Representatives Cecil Brockman (D-Guilford) and Debra Butler (D-Brunswick) have experienced the battle over HB2 very differently than their peers. While other lawmakers discuss LGBT rights in the abstract, these conversations have been visceral and personal for those actually impacted by the law.
“We don’t want anything special – we just want to be treated like anybody else,” Brockman said this week. “And HB2, unfortunately, has brought out the worst in North Carolina. It’s made us willing to be prejudiced against people we don’t even understand, it’s really brought out that prejudice.”
“I wish I could say it hasn’t emboldened the worst in us, but it has,” Butler said. “The Trump presidency has been a big part of that and HB2 is an offshoot of that same thing – of the discrimination we’re seeing more against all sorts of people – not just LGBT people but immigrants, Muslims, anyone who isn’t a part of the majority.”
Still, Butler said, she believes most North Carolinians believe the law is unnecessary – a view supported by recent polling.
“I think most North Carolinians really don’t care about peoples’ sexual orientation or gender identity,” Butler said. “They just want people who are hardworking, tax paying, kind people.”
Butler said she remains positive about progress on LGBT rights in general, citing the victory of marriage equality that allowed her to marry her wife a year and a half ago.
“These other protections are coming more slowly – especially in the south,” Butler said. “But I’m convinced that the majority of North Carolinians believe this is a generational issue whose time has passed. We are going to go in the right direction on it.”
Despite partisan struggles over the issue in the Legislative Building Brockman said he believes the cause of full LGBT equality – and its legal protection – will prevail.
“Honestly, it takes some education for everyone,” Brockman said. “Unfortunately, Democrats can be just as discriminatory at times as Republicans – there are Democrats who voted for HB2 as well. And I’ve spoken to Democrats in my district who say they just can’t understand someone identifying as another gender.”
“These aren’t bad people,” Brockman said. “They just don’t have any personal experience, they don’t know anyone or they don’t know that they know anyone who is transgender. It just takes getting to know LGBT people and realizing they’re just like you to, at the end of the day, realize that all they’re asking for is equality.”
Both Brockman and Butler said proposals for repeal that include a moratorium or referendums on LGBT rights won’t achieve that equality.
Brockman declined to comment on the bill filed this week by N.C. Sen. Joel Ford (D-Charlotte), which includes a moratorium on new protections. Butler said Ford’s approach, which is basically the same solution offered by N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) back in December, is the wrong direction.
“I just think it’s kicking the can down the road,” Butler said. “If we do that, we’re not solving anything. We just need to deal with this darned thing and stop putting it off.”
Ford is running against Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, a fellow Democrat who is seeking re-election. He has a history of conflict with the LGBT community and just last week had to apologize for offensive tweets in an argument with LGBT advocates.
There are plenty of ways to accomplish a repeal without compromising LGBT rights, Butler said – and some bills that would do that have been filed.
“Unfortunately none of them have passed muster with the Republican majority,” Butler said. “Honestly, they’re in the majority and they could pass anything they want to tomorrow. But we haven’t seen a repeal, indicating to me there’s a huge fracture within their own party.”
Brockman said he believes his Republican colleagues are getting closer to understanding HB2 must be repealed – and repealed in the right way. He only wishes that understanding were faster in coming, he said.
“The bottom line is HB2 is state mandated discrimination,” Brockman said. “It’s absolutely been a tragedy for the LGBT community and it’s a tragedy for our state.”