Fifty years from now when historians look back at this era in North Carolina, the current controversy over the sweeping anti-LGBT legislation signed by Gov. Pat McCrory will be seen as a watershed moment in this decade of Republican rule.
It’s significant not only for the discrimination the bill codifies and the rights it takes away from workers and local governments, but also for the way the legislation passed and the reaction of its supporters to the outrage it has prompted.
And it comes as the nation is at a crossroads in the culture wars, with marriage equality the law of the land while a handful of states resist equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.
Gov. McCrory and other supporters of the legislation say it was necessary because they claim an ordinance passed by the City of Charlotte would have created public safety issues by allowing transgender people to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity, a policy already in place in hundreds of cities and thousands of businesses across the country without causing any problems.
The argument is absurd of course and it’s worth noting that the word bathroom does not appear anywhere in the Charlotte ordinance that also banned discrimination against LGBT people in employment and public accommodations.
The fear outrageously created about transgender people by groups on the religious right in a last gasp desperate attempt to justify discrimination against LGBT people is apparently irresistible to cynical politicians like Gov. McCrory, always looking to shore up his far-right base in an election year.
McCrory jumped on the issue early and initially said he only wanted state lawmakers to address the “bathroom issue” in a special session and wait until the General Assembly convened in regular session April 25 to discuss the rest of the ordinance.
That would never do. The point was never about bathrooms for the religious right; it was about fear-mongering and preserving discrimination against LGBT people across the board.
And sure enough when legislative leaders unveiled their bill minutes before a committee meeting during the special session, it not only addressed the bathroom issue, it voided the entire resolution that protected LGBT people from discrimination in Charlotte and it banned any other city from protecting them either.
And if all that wasn’t enough, the legislation also eliminated the right of workers illegally fired because of their race or religion or gender from suing in state court. Mississippi is the only other state with such a provision. The bill also banned local governments from requiring contractors with cities from paying living wages.
It’s not clear what the general employment and wage provisions have to do with bathrooms, but there’s widespread speculation that they were included to win the support of the NC Chamber, the state’s largest business lobbying group.
And the Chamber was conspicuously silent during the session and after it, even as more than 100 of the nation’s largest corporations expressed their opposition, including North Carolina companies like Red Hat and Bank of America that called for a repeal of the legislation.
Then there is the legislative process itself, which bordered on the absurd. The sweeping anti-LGBT bill was written in secret and unveiled just before a House committee met to consider it.
When some lawmakers complained they were literally given five minutes to read the legislation— and then members of the public were given two minutes each to make comments on a bill they had just seen with only 45 minutes allowed overall for public input.
No experts were called before the committee. No law enforcement officials from cities with similar ordinances already in place, no reports from national groups about how they have worked. No testimony from attorneys who represent workers illegally fired who will lose their right to sue in state court.
The point wasn’t to have open and thorough debate before enacting one of the most sweeping anti-LGBT laws in the nation. The point was to pass it quickly to appease the religious right and create an issue supporters of the bill could demagogue in their campaigns.
Senators spoke of perverts and sexual predators in public bathrooms without ever explaining why that hasn’t happened in other cities with similar ordinances.
Amendments to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the nondiscrimination standard in the bill failed in a Senate committee and on the House floor, an explicit admission that the bill was about more than just bathrooms.
Gov. McCrory signed the bill a few hours after lawmakers passed it, giving opponents of the legislation no time to make their case. McCrory wasn’t interested in an open process either and has been all over national television since defending the legislation as a “common sense” measure to protect public safety.
McCrory never mentions the other parts of the legislation and never cites any evidence from other cities to justify the bathroom provisions. He’s simply happy to demean transgender people to energize his political base and calls opponents of the new law vicious and says they are conducting smear campaigns against North Carolina.
Former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl is one of those people speaking against the bill, probably the first time McColl has been considered vicious by his longtime ally McCrory.
But that’s what it has come to in North Carolina in 2016. The folks in charge are willing to ignore the facts, subvert the democratic process, buy off influential lobbying groups, and target and demean a group of people, all in a carefully orchestrated mix of fear, fundamentalist ideology and political expediency.
And in the process thousands of people are harmed and the state is rightfully held up as a disturbing example of intolerance and discrimination.
The historians will have a field day with this one.