BY MILTON READY
First, let’s start with a theory that came from a medieval English friar named William of Occam. In Latin, it’s called lex parsimoniae, the law of parsimony, but you probably know it as “Keep it simple, stupid.” Once you shave away all the assumptions and diversionary arguments surrounding a hypothesis, you probably arrive at a larger underlying truth. Now let’s apply Occam’s razor, as this principle is known, to North Carolina’s HB2, the law about bathrooms and transgender people.
To begin with, don’t confuse HB2 with reality. You can troll websites like the state attorney general’s for crime statistics, and you won’t find any instances of transgender individuals entering public restrooms to assault anyone. None. Moreover, transgender people typically avoid public restrooms. Regardless of any set of circumstances, no actual events have occurred.
What you will find is data on hate crimes against transgender individuals in almost any kind of public space, whether it’s a bathroom, school, bar or street corner. You’ll also encounter instances of coaches, priests, ministers, teachers, family members, camp counselors and, yes, even elected representatives assaulting children in bathrooms and elsewhere. So you can shave away any assumptions about security, false virtue or hypocrisy implicit in HB2. Still, these red herrings provide a passionate basis for factual or righteous argument on any number of points — all entertaining but diversionary, part of the law’s fundamental deceitfulness.
You can also ignore all the dismay expressed in media such as The New York Times and by entertainers like Bruce Springsteen about how, with the passage of HB2, North Carolina has retreated into its dark past and blemished its progressive image. In fact, except for a few brief flirtations with the likes of the likes of Terry Sanford, Harvey Gantt and Jim Hunt, North Carolina has always been a reactionary Southern state. Always. Only outsiders think otherwise, and many of them probably live in Charlotte and Asheville.
Don’t forget that North Carolina bled more than any other Southern state in defending slavery in the Civil War, and it waited 50 years before ratifying the 19th Amendment — the one passed in 1920 that gave women the right to vote. In the 1960s, North Carolina was known as “Klansville, USA,” with more KKK members than all the other Southern states combined. Sam Ervin, our iconic senator, should probably be given personal credit for killing the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, and Jesse Helms, probably the most publicly homophobic senator of our time, was unfailingly returned to office for 30 years. Moreover, in 2012, North Carolina overwhelmingly approved Amendment 1, which prohibited gay marriage.
Now let’s turn to the Bible. North Carolinians always do when there’s a civil rights issue, LGBT being merely the latest. Biblical justifications dot civil rights issues. Ending slavery and segregation? Start with the curse of Ham and Jeremiah. The submissiveness of women? Think Paul here. Against homosexuality? You’ll find legitimization in both the Old and New Testaments. Religious freedom vs. apostasy? Don’t get me started. Yet don’t let religious wrappings, no matter your beliefs, gratify your desire to be “right” or “righteous” on HB2. They can be multiplied beyond necessary, unto frustration.
To discover the essence of HB2, take a close look at the parts that don’t mention bathrooms. North Carolina legislators fear words with trans in them, like transgender, transvestites, transsexual and, especially, transparent. Anticipating that the transgender part of HB2 would be ignored, ridiculed, unenforced and likely struck down by the courts, legislators simply stuck it in as an emotional, red meat issue for the rural voters who back them, all the while hoping that other parts of the bill would either be overlooked or quickly recast in a separate, transgender-free bill. Their weak defense, citing things like “common sense” and “security,” clearly demonstrated that. Afterward, state lawmakers could say they “never wanted to vote on HB2 in the first place” while moving to retain the most essential measures. An exhausted public would hardly notice.
The heart of HB2 lies in the provisions that prohibit local governments from approving anything above the federally mandated $7.25 minimum wage or any anti-discrimination measures, like the one Charlotte passed on behalf of LGBT individuals. Most importantly, the law bars North Carolinians from suing to protest workplace discrimination. But why?
Crafted by rural legislators like Phil Berger of Eden and Tim Moore of Kings Mountain, HB2 perfectly expresses a gerrymandered, artificial hatred for cities like Charlotte and Asheville. It’s the latest iteration of an eternal attempt to eviscerate existing civil rights laws and, yes, a death struggle between rural and urban North Carolina over the state’s future. How best to prevent children from small towns and communities rushing to cesspools of vice and corruption like Charlotte, which lure them with promises of high wages and good jobs? How best to “return” to an idyllic North Carolina that never existed — one dominated by white males, where everyone knew their place and only deferentially complained? Just conjure up a few hobgoblins like LGBTs, pass a new law that creates a false public concern — especially in a presidential election year — and you might be able to ward off the inevitability of demographics and modernity for a few more years. Otherwise, Mount Airy might become Asheville, and Andy Griffith might turn into Caitlyn Jenner.
HB2 stands as a legislative expropriation, for political purposes that embarrassed those it shouldn’t, of the perceived idiotism of rural life in North Carolina. Just as diversity, unlikeness and the multiformity of North Carolina cities like Asheville and Charlotte should be honored, so, too, should the traditional values and closely knit societies of smaller towns and communities like Mount Airy, Marshall and, yes, even Eden and Kings Mountain. Yet HB2 does neither. Moreover, it violates one of the greatest commandments of all, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” a core requirement for calling yourself a Christian. Sometimes I find that dictum particularly trying.
At its heart, HB2 has emerged as a battle for the very soul of North Carolina. It was never about bathrooms or trans-anything.
Retired UNC Asheville history professor Milton Ready lives in Tryon.