The good news hidden in the debate over HB 2

The good news hidden in the debate over HB 2

WB-411Why Gov. McCrory and legislative leaders may be doing the state an inadvertent favor

There are a lot of reasons for caring and thinking North Carolinians to feel pretty discouraged these days about their home state and, in particular, its new, all-purpose discrimination law.

We are, for what seems like the umpteenth time in recent years, the butt of jokes on late night comedy shows and the object of scathing national editorials. What’s more, scores of large corporations have condemned the bigoted actions of state leaders, and numerous employers, convention planners and entertainers have already commenced a boycott. It’s gotten so bad in recent days that even dedicated hard right politicians from other states are shaking their heads in embarrassment. As was noted on The Progressive Pulse blog yesterday:

The news regarding his LGBT discrimination law didn’t get much better for Gov. Pat McCrory over the weekend. Just days after South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley rejected his decision to sign HB2, one of the nation’s highest profile Republicans followed suit. Here’s Ohio Governor and presidential candidate John Kasich on CBS News’ Face the Nation:

In our state, we’re not facing this, so everybody needs to take a deep breath, respect one another, and the minute we start trying to write laws, things become more polarized, things – they become more complicated. Obviously I don’t want to force people to violate their deeply held religious convictions, but we’d have to see what that’s all about. I wouldn’t have signed that law from everything I know, I haven’t studied it.’”

Not even three weeks after the General Assembly’s kangaroo session to enact House Bill 2, there is a growing sense that the law could soon have a real, negative and perhaps, lasting impact on the state’s already tepid economic recovery. At a minimum, it’s clear that the jobs of individuals seeking to recruit people and businesses to North Carolina have gotten a lot more complicated.

Perhaps that’s why even newly appointed UNC President Margaret Spellings has started to voice concerns about the law and allowed chancellors like UNC Chapel Hill’s Carol Folt to issue emails with statements like this:

“It is clear that the impacts to Carolina go well beyond the personal toll. There are implications to us, ranging from conferences that will no longer send delegates to North Carolina and our campus; concerns and a pause among some prospective students, faculty, researchers and staff; current and prospective donors who are signaling a reconsideration of their gifts; grants and relationships with businesses that are now in jeopardy; and more.”

Meanwhile, in an act that had to have gone over like a lead balloon in the boardrooms of the nation’s Fortune 500 corporations and leading tech outfits, Gov. McCrory and legislative leaders have lashed out at the boycotts and demands for repeal (and the companies behind them) as being part of an orchestrated “smear campaign” by leftist activists.

To which, all a real leftist activist could have thought in reply is: “Darn! Who knew? To think we could have been getting giant corporations like PayPal and establishment symbols like retired Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl to do our radical bidding for years!”

Did someone say “good news”?

Finding a silver lining in this five star mess that’s overtaken North Carolina in recent days might seem like a bit of a stretch but, truth be told, it’s not as outlandish an idea as it appears at first blush – especially in the medium-to-long run. Consider the following:

Forcing some issues out into the openThe issue of LGBT equality has received a lot of attention in the public square in recent years – especially with the way in which same-sex marriage ultimately went from impossible dream to the ho hum fodder of TV sitcoms in what seemed like about 20 minutes. But, let’s be honest: when most North Carolinians have talked about the issue during this period of awakening, they haven’t often said much about the “T” in “LGBT.”

Happily, this has changed dramatically in recent months as more and more courageous transgender people have stepped out of the shadows to express their desire for the simple human rights most Americans take for granted.

Last week, at a remarkably inspiring “revival” meeting led by Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP, a large and mixed audience of old and young, black and white, Christian, Jew, Muslim and irreligious, gay, straight and trans came together at Raleigh’s Temple Beth Or. Under just about any circumstances, this would have been an impressive and inspiring gathering of people.

But when a young transgender high school student mustered the courage to stand up and speak and was welcomed with open arms and loud applause by an audience that included scores of straight, silver-haired church, synagogue and mosque goers, one felt a palpable sense that real change and progress was afoot.

Simply put, such an event wouldn’t have happened even a year ago. Or, if it had, it would have been different. The hatred and bigotry embodied in HB 2 has clearly opened the eyes of hundreds of thousands of people to a reality that they only grasped in the most general sense not that long ago.

Painting conservatives into an ever more isolated corner of the landscape – It’s funny how this works: Sometimes in order to bring about social change, you need a blustering bully who will unwittingly symbolize what hanging onto the status quo would mean. A half century ago in the United States, it was George Wallace and Bull Connor who helped spur millions of moderate apolitical Americans to support civil rights. Three decades ago in South Africa, grumpy and frightening old defenders of apartheid did the trick. It’s the same now in North Carolina: When it comes to human rights for transgender people, thousands upon thousands are sizing up the opposition and saying “I don’t want to be with those guys.”

As one insightful political observer put it the other day with respect to the state’s conservative elected leaders:

They got caught and found out that the world changed while they weren’t looking. Companies do care about how their employees are treated by the larger society and they believe that progressive social policies are good for their bottom lines. All the excuses in the world won’t change that.”

Speeding up the pace of progress – And speaking of good news, check out who was appointed over the weekend to serve as a new state representative from Guilford County to replace the recently deceased Ralph Johnson. Chris Sgro is the executive Director of Equality North Carolina and his appointment to fill the unexpired portion of Johnson’s term stands as an important symbolic statement that clearly heralds a new era of openness and progress in a state in which even Democrats helped maintain laws criminalizing consensual homosexual behavior as recently as the 1990’s.

While Sgro’s presence in the General Assembly will clearly not change things overnight, anyone who thinks such an appointment would have happened without the blustering recent behavior of Gov. McCrory, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore isn’t paying attention.

In other words…

The HB 2 mess is unlikely to simply evaporate anytime real soon. The defenders of the law are determined to hang on to it for as long as possible (or as long as it serves their electoral designs) and their allies on the religious right are more than happy to play along.

(As an aside, the fact that conservative Christians feel obliged to hold public “prayer vigils” in support of the law sure would seem to indicate that it’s a lot more about keeping LGBT people in their place than it is about “bathroom safety.” Interesting isn’t it, that sexual assault and domestic violence advocates haven’t chimed in to support the law?)

Regardless of the intentions and motives of the law’s supporters, however, the overriding lesson of the last three weeks is that neither the law nor the attitudes that underlie it will last long. To paraphrase the late, great Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ famous observation, as with so many other dark and closeted secrets from North Carolina’s past, the sunlight of public debate is proving to be “the best disinfectant” for LGBT discrimination.