What Emily Dawson wants in life is a workplace where she doesn’t feel threatened. At least that would be a good start. Instead, she feels more threatened since the passage of House Bill 2, which she says relegates her to a restroom full of men, who likely will be hostile at the thought of seeing her there.
Dawson was born male, but is making the transition to the body in which she said she belongs.
Despite being shy, she says she is beyond intimidation by House Bill 2, known derisively as the Transgender Bathroom Bill, which mandates she use the bathroom of the gender she was assigned at birth, not the gender with which she identifies.
“I wait until I know there’s no one in the bathroom before I go,” she said after a public meeting held at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville Thursday night. “I just want to feel safe.”
At the meeting, a panel of attorneys and civil rights activists explained the law’s ramifications for North Carolinians. The event was sponsored by a coalition of groups including the Campaign for Southern Equality, Equality NC, the Human Rights Coalition, the NAACP of Asheville-Buncombe County, Tranzmission and the N.C. American Civil Liberties Union, which is fighting the law in court.
About 200 people turned out to hear more about the law and how to work for its repeal or defeat in court.
ACLU attorney Chris Brook explained that his organization is seeking a court injunction to prevent provisions of North Carolina’s law from going into effect until it has worked its way through the courts, especially since part of a similar Virginia law was struck down last week by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
That case involved a transgender youth who would be forced to use a female rest room at school. Because schools are covered by the federal education antidiscrimination law known as Title 9, the court ruled that states can lose federal education funding if they discriminate against transgendered students by forcing them to use a bathroom where they might be harmed.
But the portions of the law that deal with bathrooms are not the only thing wrong with it, Brook argued. “We’re challenging all parts of the law that affect LGBTQ people, including workplace rights,” he said.
Two people who joined the suit on Thursday are a married lesbian couple who were denied service by a fertility clinic in Charlotte. Before HB2, they could have filed a discrimination suit in state court, but the law eliminated that option.
“One problem with only being able to sue in a federal court is that you have only a 180-day statute of limitations,” Brook said. “How many people can get it together in 180 days? Sometimes it takes longer than that to realize you were the victim of discrimination.”
Meghann Burke, an attorney who takes cases of people who have been marginalized, said it’s clear this law was driven by animus. “That’s legal terminology for being mean-spirited,” she explained.
Since the law is pretty much unenforceable, she argued, it is clear that it was written and passed to marginalize transgender people.
Tara Darby asked whether the law might be expanded to deny other rights to her and others who are transgender.
“It’s good that Title 9 might make school bathrooms safe,” Darby said. “But if they have permission to hurt people in one bathroom, don’t you think we can be hurt in any bathroom?”
Yvonne Cook-Riley, executive director of Blue Ridge Pride, said she is worried about the message the law sends, and its effects, even if it is repealed or struck down. “How do you deal with those lasting effects?” she asked. “And how do you prevent more of this?”
Burke said nondiscrimination laws need to be passed at the federal level, especially since the law forbids North Carolina municipalities and counties from passing their own nondiscrimination ordinances. In spite of this, several members of Asheville City Council are currently considering a nondiscrimination ordinance for the city.
Panelist Allison Scott, an organizer for the advocacy group Tranzmission, said transgender suicide hotlines across the country have seen huge spikes in the number of calls since HB2 was passed and signed into law. “Up to 41 percent of all trans people have attempted suicide,” said panelist Zeek Christopoulos, director of Tranzmission. “That number is about 3 percent in the general population.”
Panelist Carmen Ramos-Kennedy, president of the Asheville-Buncombe chapter of the NAACP, said her organization exists to fight discrimination and marginalization wherever it exists. “We will accept nothing less than repeal,” she said. “That’s where we are. Nothing less than repeal.”
The North Carolina NAACP is working on get-out-the-vote efforts this year to try and send the lawmakers who wrote and passed this law home in November, she said.
Tina White moved to Asheville from Hoboken, N.J., arriving at her new home the day HB2 became law.
“I have cis friends who are starting to use the ‘wrong’ bathroom in protest,” she told the panel. “I am a trans grandmother of five. I’m sure the folks at UNCA don’t really want me showering with a group of young men.”
White said after the meeting that she sees the law as an attempt to shame and humiliate people who are different, and she plans to fight it, beginning with a trip to Raleigh as part of a sit-in to protest the law.
“If anybody needs a ride, I’m going,” she announced.