When a U.S. Supreme Court stay on transgender-friendly school bathroom policies forced Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, perhaps the forerunner of such reforms in North Carolina, to reconsider its own groundbreaking policy last week, some bemoaned the news.
Not Bill James, a long-time Mecklenburg County commissioner with a reputation for fire-breathing conservatism and antagonistic comments.
“CMS puts tranny bathroom policy on hold – requires boys in drag to men’s room,” bragged James on his Twitter account late last week.
Predictably, Twitter users and LGBT activists lashed out at the Republican county commissioner’s use of what many deem a slur for the transgender community, even as other Charlotte-area political leaders remained mostly silent.
From a leader who once talked of police action to “de-infest” gay hangouts and boasted that he hoped a now-vacated 2012 state constitutional ban on gay marriage would send the state’s gay residents elsewhere, it was nothing new, some said.
But the scathing editorial that followed this weekend from The Charlotte Observer’s editorial board, which called James’ comments “shameful” and urged county leaders in North Carolina’s most publicly visible flashpoint for the LGBT debate to condemn James, suggested something more.
“Our best response is not to ignore it, but to expose it, parade it and say why it’s not ok,” the newspaper declared.
It would seem Trevor Fuller, a Charlotte attorney and sitting chair of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, agrees.
“I of course don’t support these comments that denigrate them, that separate people, that call people names, that are insensitive to folks,” Fuller, a Democrat, told Policy Watch this week.
“Particularly at a time now when the political discourse has become so coarse, that we would say to our LGBT community that essentially they don’t matter, to me that’s the wrong message. It’s absolutely untrue and it’s unacceptable.”
James’ comments, and the firestorm it’s created, come at a pivotal time in the North Carolina debate, with both sides still sizzling over the state’s mega-controversial House Bill 2 and its restrictions on transgender bathroom rights.
The fight comes with both symbolic and practical implications for North Carolina public schools.
Leaders with the ACLU of N.C. and the U.S. Department of Justice, both of whom are challenging HB2 in court, have indicated the law could imperil billions in annual federal funding for schools should North Carolina schools implement its anti-transgender policies.
Meanwhile, leaders from the left tell Policy Watch that James’ Twitter comments are emblematic of the oft-times bristling debate in North Carolina over transgender rights.
And, with mental health experts reporting elevated risk of depression and suicide for the transgender population, some say it’s time North Carolina politicians send a more positive message to the community.
“He’s really dealing a lot more damage to the transgender population than even he realizes,” says Patsy Keever, state chair of the N.C. Democratic Party.
For his part, James, normally a loquacious politician representing a conservative district in south Charlotte, declined an interview with Policy Watch, even as some called for an open condemnation of the 10-term county commissioner.
But Keever, a retired middle school teacher who assumed the reins of the state’s Democratic party last year, says she knows the daily struggle for transgender pupils in North Carolina schools.
For a population that’s particularly vulnerable, she said North Carolina leaders should be more accepting of the state’s transgender residents.
“It horrifies me, as a teacher, that a public official would say something like this,” says Keever. “To even think it is bad, but to say it out loud, it’s totally unacceptable.”
Keever called for open condemnation of the Mecklenburg commissioner. “It just makes me so angry,” she said. “Clearly, Mr. James does not understand what the issues are for the transgender population.”
Leaders on the right, while they have not defended James’ comments, are more circumspect.
Claire Mahoney, chair of the Mecklenburg County Republican Party, did not respond to Policy Watch interview requests this week.
And Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state GOP, said that while he does not know anything about the controversy over James’ Tweet, he supports “respectful debate” on the issue.
“The bathroom issues was started by Democrats, looking for a way to distract from Gov. (Pat) McCrory’s strong record on the economy, which is growing faster than any other state,” Woodhouse wrote in an email to Policy Watch.
“I would just say we all should strive for respectful debate and try to remember there are good people all around this issue trying to balance the rights of different people and groups that are coming in conflict.”
Any formal condemnation of the Mecklenburg commissioner would, of course, be mostly symbolic.
Although it’s rare, the Mecklenburg County board’s code of ethics allows for members to publicly censure, or reprimand, commissioners who violate that code, which, among its tenets, offers vague requirements that board members “act accordingly” and behave in a way that does not “reflect badly” on the office.
And while Fuller acknowledges James has a right to free speech, Fuller says he expects members of his board will likely hear calls at their next scheduled meeting in September to formally address James’ “tranny” slur.
“We represent a very diverse county,” said Fuller. “Comments like this have no place.”
Fuller says Republican lawmakers at the N.C. General Assembly who led the passage of the state’s anti-LGBT bathroom law share a portion of the blame.
“(James) followed the lead of the folks there in the General Assembly,” said Fuller. “It brings disrepute to our state and our county.”
Dumont Clark, a Democrat and vice chair of the Mecklenburg County board, says there are few options to his board. Similar controversies surrounding James in the past have failed to undermine James’ support in his conservative district.
“My personal view is some kind of resolution condemning him would draw more attention to his remarks,” said Clark. “He would probably revel in that. It’s probably almost irrelevant, to be perfectly honest with you, at this stage.”
Clark, meanwhile, says James is symptomatic of a particularly divisive national political climate amid North Carolina’s own culture war over transgender rights.
“He’s sort of like Donald Trump,” said Clark. “He does his best to make the abnormal seem normal.”
But officials with GLSEN, a national network that advises K-12 school leaders on LGBT policy, tell Policy Watch that open scorn from public officials such as James can be particularly damaging to a community that’s especially vulnerable.
GLSEN reports elevated risk of suicide and depression, as well as lowered academic performance, among LGBT youth in U.S. schools. GLSEN leaders say the problem is only reinforced by House Bill 2 and GOP leadership in the N.C. General Assembly.
Indeed, earlier this year, suicide hotlines specifically serving transgender individuals reported a surge in phone calls from North Carolina immediately following the passage of House Bill 2 in March.
“When you have public leaders using such hateful rhetoric, I worry about the psychological impact on students, 14- and 15-year-olds, who are already trying to be comfortable with themselves,” said Nathan Smith, director of public policy for GLSEN.
“They face bullying and harassment at school. Now they face bullying and harassment from public figures.”
Smith said public figures such as James should lead respectful discourse on the debate, particularly one that is relatively new to many North Carolina residents.
“This is a conversation most people in the general public haven’t had,” added Smith. “When you inject such ignorant rhetoric into the conversation, it’s really hard.”
Clark added that he does not believe the problem is James. It lies in a core of voters galvanized by such divisive language, he said.
“Mr. James and (Gov. Pat) McCrory are members of the same political party,” said Clark. “I’ll let Mr. McCrory decide whether he’s embarassed by a member of his party saying something like this.”
After all, on this issue, critics say, silence from James’ political adversaries may be just as damaging as his words.
“I think words matter,” says Fuller. “And they should matter from people who are elected representatives.”