A divided North Carolina draws national attention in fight over transgender law

National and local reactions to a controversial new law dictating where transgender people can use the bathroom has been immediate and powerful

The world’s gaze has come to rest on North Carolina in the past week, thanks to a controversial new law dictating, ostensibly, where transgender people can use the bathroom. The reaction has been immediate and powerful: activists and large companies like Apple and Bank of America have pushed lawmakers to consider at least minor changes to the law.

North Carolina is a complex and divided place, a state ready to go to war with itself over barbecue sauce – vinegar-based in the east, tomato in the west – so the question of protections for lesbian, gay and transgender people has torn the state’s very sense of self, and how it’s represented in the world.

North Carolina is, in short, having a crisis of identity.

The schism in the state’s character is apparent not just in the opposing views of residents, but how the opponents express themselves. In the central plateau, home of the state’s political and financial power, reaction in recent days has been largely measured, staid, serious. In the mountainous west, things have gotten wilder.

In Charlotte on Wednesday, activists in business attire spoke before a bank of television cameras at the city government building, an imposing tower of granite and polished marble. The effect was purposeful. Charlotte is the state’s wallet, home to the Bank of America, Duke Energy and Nascar. So in the lobby of the government building Chad Griffin, a political strategist and president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT advocacy group in the country, made a specific request of Governor Pat McCrory.

“The governor actually mentioned he had heard from business leaders who support his signing the legislation,” Griffin said into a cluster of microphones. “We call on him to release that list, just as we have released the list of business leaders and CEOs who oppose the legislation.”

The roster on Griffin’s side is significant. Google, Apple, American Airlines, Marriott and Bank of America, which employs 15,000 people in North Carolina, have come out against the law.

PayPal, whose executives recently appeared with McCrory to announce a new operation center, plans to hire 400 people in Charlotte. But PayPal was also named by the Human Rights Campaign as one of the best places to work for LGBT equality.

“PayPal’s commitment to upholding inclusion and the equality of members of the LGBT community is part of our company’s core values,” a PayPal representative told the Guardian. “We are disappointed by the bill that was passed into law in North Carolina. We strongly believe in protecting the rights of LGBT individuals within their communities.”

Zach Allbritton, SB and Bernard Stephens stand in the workspace of Lightning Bolt Ink in Asheville, North Carolina, on Thursday.
Zach Allbritton, SB and Bernard Stephens stand in the workspace of Lightning Bolt Ink in Asheville, North Carolina, on Thursday. Photograph: Katie Bailey/The Guardian

The company would not comment on whether it had communicated its concerns to McCrory or whether the new legislation would affect its plans for the center in Charlotte.

McCrory has changed his tone slightly. On Monday, he was calling the opposition to the law “political theater”.

“This political correctness has gone amok,” he said.

But the following day, he said in a video statement that he would be open to “new ideas” for the law, although he maintains that criticism of North Carolina is hypocritical because other places have similar laws. Other lawmakers have also expressed some willingness to make slight tweaks to the law this week.

Erica Lachowitz, a 40-year-old transgender woman, works in Charlotte overseeing business acquisitions. “If they do not repeal this law, people will just leave,” she said. “I will leave, and I won’t look back.”

Charlotte’s mayor, Jennifer Roberts, struck an almost plaintive tone. She won the mayor’s race last year with a campaign based on equality. “We are still that same community,” she said. “It is my hope that people will take a symbolic stand that doesn’t have an economic impact.”

If the law is not overturned, she said, “It’s going to make my job a lot harder.”

Jonathan D Lovitz, vice-president of external affairs at the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, isn’t optimistic. “North Carolina is about to get hit really hard with companies either losing out or business leaving in protest,” he said. “Some of the largest corporations in America, if not the world, see that this bill is destructive to the local economy because the state gets branded as endorsing discrimination. It makes it unattractive for LGBT people to stay and live, which in turn, limits the opportunity for the corporations to attract and retain great talent.”

State governments around the country – in New York, Connecticut, Vermont, Washington – have banned official travel to North Carolina. Likewise for Seattle, San Francisco, New York City.

Lovitz said North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature is acting against its own interests. “They went out of their way to implement a law that is a job killer and a business killer and a goodwill killer that will result in a lot of people and a lot of money leaving North Carolina,” he said.

The law’s passage was a contortion of negatives and double-negatives. Previously, throughout the state there was no law beyond common sense about who could use which bathrooms. In Charlotte, though, part of a decades-old ordinance specifically noted that discrimination should be allowed in the case of bathrooms. In February the city’s officials moved to take that provision off the books, touching off a flurry of activity from the state legislature; North Carolina is a “home rule” state, which means the state controls ordinances down to the municipal level. It is, as one mayor told the Guardian, “a mother-may-I state”.

People look at free T-shirts protesting the statewide LGBT law at Lightning Bolt Ink in Asheville, North Carolina, on Thursday.
People look at free T-shirts protesting the statewide LGBT law at Lightning Bolt Ink in Asheville, North Carolina, on Thursday. Photograph: Katie Bailey/The Guardian

On 23 March the legislature gathered in an emergency session to squash Charlotte’s ordinance change. The state law went beyond local bathrooms, though: it barred cities from passing anti-discrimination ordinances that protect gay and transgender people in general.

That set off protests across the state, well beyond Charlotte.

Just west of Charlotte the landscape shifts, rising from the central plateau into the Appalachians. Moving west the pitch – of the topography, and the discourse – grows more acute. In Asheville, a freewheeling mountain town known for its inclusive spirit, the state’s new law made people “bonkers,” , according to one local official. Protests began immediately.

Lightning Bolt Ink, a screen-printer run by a trans-queer couple, began a run of T-shirts with the slogan, “Don’t Legislate Hate” and gave them away for free. The owner, who goes by SB, said they expected a few friends to drop by and pick up a shirt. Instead people streamed in, and called with orders from around the country. By Thursday they were on their fourth printing, and stock was quickly dwindling.

When Tina Ford-Cox, a local hairdresser with rainbow locks, heard about the shirts she came straight from her salon, still wearing her apron. “Hey now! I’m ready for some e-qual-i-ty!” she sang, dancing a jig on the shop floor.

Asheville’s mayor, Esther Manheimer, said reaction in Asheville was almost universal. “We’re a very progressive city,” she said.

Mannheim exudes her city’s principal characteristic; a mountain-town independence and forthrightness. “Look,” she said. “Any politician who starts talking about ‘bathrooms’ has already lost.”

Protesters stand outside Forever Tattoo in Asheville, North Carolina, on Thursday,.
Protesters stand outside Forever Tattoo in Asheville, North Carolina, on Thursday. Photograph: Katie Bailey/The Guardian

The bathroom aspect is a strategic maneuver by state legislators, she said, because it’s a public place where people naturally feel vulnerable and afraid. So it’s a shrewd place to pick a political fight. “It’s icky,” she said.

“This is really about equality and safety for everyone,” she said. “We can’t lose sight of that.”

Lightning Bolt Ink sits on Lexington Avenue, which runs through the center of Asheville’s vibrant downtown and features many businesses either owned by or serving LGBT residents. Next door to Lightning Bolt, though, there’s a tattoo parlor called Forever Tattoos. This week its owner, Rob Hunt, made a social media post that put him at odds with his neighbors:

Don’t come in my bathroom!”

Many people across North Carolina, including Asheville, aren’t sure if they’re comfortable – or know they’re uncomfortable – with unisex bathrooms. But Manheimer, the mayor, said that in some percentage of the population that discomfort has hardened into hate, even in lefty Asheville. Hunt’s subsequent online comment brought accusations of malice: transgender people, he wrote, are “fucking retarded”.

Protesters assembled on the sidewalk outside Forever Tattoo within hours, and by the end of the week Hunt had closed his doors. Mohawked, pierced, leathered and tattooed protesters still stood outside in the rain, holding handmade signs: “Bigotry does not last Forever.”

Through the glass storefront passersby could see Forever Tattoo’s bathroom, looming like a totem of absurdity: it only has one door. It’s been unisex all along.


Matthew Teague in North Carolina and Jana Kasperkevic in New York

The GuardianTramp

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