As a rain cloud darkened the sky above Asheville and the wind assaulted unfurled rainbow flags, a storm of anger from the LGBT and allied communities erupted as a crowd of about 300 protesters convened at the Vance Monument in downtown Asheville late Thursday Afternoon. The outpouring of frustration and dissatisfaction stemmed directly from the passage of House Bill 2, also called the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act.
The state law overturns a recent nondiscrimination ordinance put in place by the city of Charlotte that included an explicit allowance for transgender men and women to use bathrooms and changing-room facilities they identify with. The law goes even further: It forbids other local governments from passing ordinances of a similar nature. It also seemingly guts a state law providing protection for employees who are fired because of their race, religion, color, national origin, age, sex or disability, according to the N.C. News Service.
Among the rushing wind, the honks of supportive passing drivers and the buzz of excited protesters, the featured speakers were sometimes hard to hear, but the general message was clear enough: All stated their desire to see the freshly passed law struck down.
Bringing all present to attention, singer Kat Williams belted out, “I’m gonna keep on walking…gonna build a better world.” Southern Equality Executive Director, the Rev. Jasmine Beach Ferrara then took the megaphone with a rallying cry, “I’m angry, I’m mad as hell, and I’m heartbroken!” Beach Ferrara said she felt betrayed by lawmakers. “We are here because the Republican legislature made a law to do one thing: to target people.” She assured the crowd that, “We will do everything in our power to fight for you.” She said no law can supersede the basic human and constitutional rights everyone is entitled to, and vowed to help people fight the law through the courts.
— Able Allen (@AbleLAllen) March 24, 2016
Ivy Hill, a transgender rights activist with the South Carolina based group TransAction, spoke next, asking the transgender people present to “live your truth out loud.” Hill’s message was that it is important to honor the fact that transgender people, whether we know it or not, are our family, friends, neighbors and colleagues. “We know that we are already equal,” Hill said. TransAction is offering all-gender bathroom signs free of charge to public businesses.
Transgender activist Brynn Estelle with Tranzmission, a social support group, said, “[The state legislature] called the emergency session to send a message, and that message was: ‘If you are transgender … or nongender binary, you are not welcome.'” The WNC native yelled,I can only speak for myself. I have no intensions of leaving!”
The leader of the Asheville chapter of the N.A.A.C.P, Carmen Ramos-Kennedy, called HB2 “the worst anti-gay discrimination bill in the country,” and said it is important for people to stand together against oppression. “Anything that undermines the constitutional rights of one person,” she said, “undermines and hurts us all.”
Sen. Terry Van Duyn, just back from the special session in Raleigh, told the crowd, “What we did yesterday in the North Carolina legislature was wrong and it will not stand.”
Beach-Ferrara closed the event, calling for all present to take the energy of the the day back to their communities, to ask their elected leaders, “Who you are and what you believe in?” and to keep supporting one another because, “We are stronger together and there is no turning back.”
Despite the general mood of anger over the new law, there was also love and humor in evidence. Many in the group hugged one another and expressed support. There were also plenty of freshly minted protest signs taking advantage of the unavoidable humor of having this struggle revolve around bathrooms, such as: “Let me pee in peace,” “I shouldn’t have to be afraid to pee,” and “We poo just like u.” There was also a port-a-potty onsite that some planned to deliver to Raleigh; and there were rumors circulating of “shit-in” protests.
Last month, the city of Charlotte passed a controversial law forbidding discrimination based on sexual preference and gender identity. Opponents of the measure spoke out with concern about the safety of women and girls sharing a public bathroom with people born male. Supporters maintained that statistically the transgender people are at much higher risk of violence in a bathroom.
March 22nd, Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest (R), in his capacity as president of the state senate, joined House Speaker Tim Moore in calling the NC legislature to a special session beginning at 10 a.m. the following morning. The unusual procedure was called to stop the Charlotte law from going into effect as scheduled on April 1.
Wednesday, the body convened and overwhelmingly voted to have state law on discrimination supersede any local ordinances.
The law passed the house with a vote of 82 to 26 (11 absent including Rep. Susan Fisher of Buncombe County and Rep. Chuck McGrady of Henderson County), mostly along party lines with one Republican breaking ranks to vote against the bill and 11 Democrats voting for the measure. The Senate was a more sensational story with all 32 present voting for the bill and all 11 Democrats who showed up for the special session walking out before the final vote in protest, thereby abstaining from even casting a vote on the measure. Sen. Terry Van Duyn of Buncombe County said the walk out was because “This law is not what North Carolina is about and tells the rest of the nation that we are open for discrimination.”
All in the same day, the bill was placed on the calendar of both houses of government, amended, passed, and signed into law by the governor.
Criticism and defense
Beyond the civil rights concerns as expressed by the speakers at the protest, the those opposed to the law have a myriad of additional concerns from the process, to the potentially broad sweeping ramifications on other local powers. State attorney general and Democratic candidate for governor Roy Cooper has characterized the law as anti-business interest based on statements from: Bank of America, American Airlines, Wells Fargo, Dow Chemical, IBM, PayPal, Lowe’s and others. All the statements emphasized the importance of diversity in their business values, and criticize any law that would dampen rights of people they consider valuable members of their companies. His campaign also released a statement of concern over potential loss of major sporting events such as the NCAA tournament, the NBA All Star game, and the X Games because of the law. Gov. Pat McCrory maintains that “much of the feedback we’ve gotten [from businesses]
The sweeping state law also specifically bans anyone from entering a bathroom or changing room assigned to a sex other than what is indicated on the person’s birth certificate. An unintended consequence of this may be that some will have to break the law to do their jobs or to assist individuals with physical or developmental disabilities such that they need help while going to the bathroom.
Opponents of the law also point to its costs, real and predicted. The special, one-day session is reported to have cost taxpayers $42,000 dollars. Opponents argue the law will be expensive to defend in court against suits challenging its constitutionality. North Carolina previously spent over $100,000 defending the N.C. constitutional amendment that defined marriage as being between one man and one woman, only to have the law nullified by the U.S Supreme Court.
Asheville attorney Phillip Roth says, “The bill effectively legalizes discrimination in North Carolina by gutting the ‘private cause of action’ that formerly existed.” According to his interpretation, the state law leaves a person with a discrimination case only one recourse: File in Federal Court, which he terms an “unappealing” prospect. “That this undoing of a critical safeguard against discrimination could occur in the span of a single day leaves me speechless,” he concludes.
Meanwhile Gov. Patrick McCrory defends the law as protecting privacy and comfort, calling the bill a common-sense, bi-partisan effort. After signing the bill Wednesday, he released a statement saying “The basic expectation of privacy in the most personal of settings, a restroom or locker room, for each gender was violated by government overreach and intrusion by the mayor and city council of Charlotte. This radical breach of trust and security under the false argument of equal access not only impacts the citizens of Charlotte but people who come to Charlotte to work, visit or play. This new government regulation defies common sense and basic community norms by allowing, for example, a man to use a woman’s bathroom, shower or locker room.”
In the same statement, McCrory acknowledged that the law goes further than just striking down the Charlotte ordinance. He explained that in his view it would not impose on prior granted rights. “While local municipalities have important priorities working to oversee police, fire, water and sewer, zoning, roads, and transit, the mayor and city council took action far out of its core responsibilities. As a result, I have signed legislation passed by a bipartisan majority to stop this breach of basic privacy and etiquette which was to go into effect April 1. Although other items included in this bill should have waited until regular session, this bill does not change existing rights under state or federal law.”
Conservative, faith-based organization Alliance Defending Freedom agrees with the governor and says that the action of Charlotte’s council and mayor represents a fringe and radical view that leaves women, children and businesses unsafe. The group’s legal counsel, Kellie Fiedorek, stated, “Sixty-nine percent of North Carolinians agreed that the ordinance was unreasonable and unsafe in forcing women and young girls to undress, shower or engage in other private activities in the presence of men. The privacy rights and safety of North Carolina citizens shouldn’t be cast aside or used as a political pawn for special interest groups that desire to impose their agenda to create a genderless society. The governor’s decision to sign the General Assembly’s bill repealing the ordinance was just common sense.”
A press release issued yesterday by the office of House Speaker Pro Tempore, Rep. Paul Stam (R) said the special session was to “confront a crisis precipitated by the Charlotte City Council.” And Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger on the Senate floor went so far as to blame Attorney General Roy Cooper for forcing the legislature to take emergency action, saying “What should have happened was the chief law enforcement officer of this state should have filed a court case to enjoin the adoption or the implementation of this ordinance. Somebody wasn’t doing their job.”