It’s Bigger Than Business, Boycotts, & Bathrooms: HB2, Right-wing Narratives, and “Public Safety”

This week we saw another series of attacks from the Trump administration launched on oppressed communities, including the withdrawal of support for non-discrimination protections for trans students that the White House gave in the Obama-era. This attack on the federal level comes on the heels of North Carolina’s governor and Democratic congresspeople working to pass a law repealing HB2, but with some compromises to the horrifyingly racist, transmisogynistic, and classist NC GOP, in addition to getting Charlotte City Council to repeal the non-discrimination protections it had passed. While Trump’s actions continue to harm people on a federal level, North Carolina’s HB2 is a testing ground for the framing and narrative of further attacks on oppressed communities.

This piece is not about why we deserve to go in the bathrooms of our choosing or trying to explain to people who hate us, want to harm us, or don’t care about the impact of harmful laws on our lives that our lives are important and why we should live with the dignity, respect, and self-determination that all people in this world deserve. Because those things are non-negotiable. Instead, this piece tries to look at the larger context of right-wing and NC GOP moves, the narrative strategies they’re employing, and the responses against HB2 that fail to protect the people most attacked while making compromises that cede to the right-wing’s narrative.

Let’s Back Up for a Second: The NC GOP/Right-Wing’s Moves since 2010

I’m not a historian by any means, but I do think that to understand HB2, we have to look back and try to understand a bit of the bigger picture. In 2010, the NC GOP took over the House and the Senate after the state went ‘blue’ in the 2008 presidential election. This election allowed them to control redistricting and gerrymandering maps for the next ten years and work to solidify right-wing power. In 2011, the NC GOP pushed forward Amendment One, or, as we called it, the family discrimination amendment. Despite the fact that gay marriage was already illegal in the state, Amendment One was a constitutional amendment to the North Carolina state constitution that said that the only relationship the state would legally recognize would be a marriage between a man and a woman. The Democrats didn’t want it on the November ballot as they worried it would impact Obama’s re-election, so it was put to a vote during the Republican primary in May of 2012.

There’s a lot to say and discuss around the fight against Amendment One that I’m not going to fully get into, but you can learn more here. The long story short is that we lost that fight and lost by a bigger margin than we thought and hoped. I think Amendment One’s passing helped bolster the right’s big wins that November and also served to dishearten progressives across the state. In 2014, Amendment One became invalid after the 4th Circuit Court decision naming gay marriage bans unconstitutional. The right wing knew the law wouldn’t last long, with one of the bill’s authors saying that he didn’t expect Amendment One to exist longer than twenty years. It was clear that it was done to attack LGBTQ people, drive wedges to pit oppressed people against each other, and mobilize right-wing bases of support for the primary and, by delivering a win, subsequently the November election.

That November, the right-wing took over further control of the state. In addition to staying in control of the NC legislature, Pat McCrory became governor. In the following years, much like we’re seeing on the federal level these days, the right wing pushed out attack after attack on oppressed and marginalized communities across the state: Voter ID/voter suppression laws, anti-abortion laws, anti-immigration laws, Islamophobic “anti-Sharia” laws, slashing budgets for public education and teachers, and much more.

In the wake of Amendment One, progressive/left/social justice movements continued to grow. Since 2012, NC has seen the rise of Moral Mondays marches and actions, the ever-growing annual Historic Thousands on Jones Street people’s assembly (commonly styled HK on J), fight for $15 actions taking place in cities across the state, #BlackLivesMatter organizing against police killings and violence, migrant justice organizing against deportations and detentions, environmental justice and right to clean water mobilization after Duke Energy’s coal ash spill, and LGBTQ and trans justice work. Given that it was pretty much impossible to move any progressive or social justice policies on the state level, organizers began to focus on the municipal level because that was where you could move work and have wins. Some state policies like Amendment One were struck down, but only through courts at a federal level.

HB2 was a response to a local organizing win in Charlotte, NC. After months (if not years) of organizing led by trans, cis LGBQ, and allied communities, the Charlotte City Council passed an ordinance ensuring people could not be discriminated against in public accommodations by sexual orientation and gender identity — allowing trans people the ability to self-determine which restrooms they would use, including binary trans people to go to gendered restrooms that match who we are.

In the wake of that win by trans & gender non-conforming leaders and allied organizers in Charlotte, and during a special session that costs thousands of tax payer dollars, the right wing passed HB2. Most people know and focus on the part of HB2 which mandates the use of gendered restrooms & public facilities/accommodations matching the sex one is assigned at birth. But HB2 does more than that. The two other major sections of HB2 deny North Carolinians the ability to file anti-discrimination cases in state court and deny the ability of local municipalities to pass laws raising the minimum wage. With the support of the governor, it ended up passing and becoming law.

After HB2 passed, businesses, musicians, and major sporting events pulled out of North Carolina and boycotted the state, costing it millions, if not billions, of dollars. The federal government and the DOJ under Obama considered HB2 a violation of Title IX — gender non-discrimination — and threatened to withhold millions of federal dollars for schools as a consequence for passing the discriminatory and harmful law. It was one of the core issues of the 2016 gubernatorial campaign that ousted Pat McCrory and pushed Democrat Roy Cooper to victory, who ran on the promise to repeal HB2.

The Right Doesn’t Care About Facts & Wants to Maintain Power

Let’s be clear on a few things: the NC GOP and anti-trans right wing leaders don’t care about facts or ending sexual violence. They do care about maintaining their own economic and political power, controlling the terms of the debate, and maintaining hierarchies of race, class, gender, (dis)ability, and sexuality. The NC GOP used two key narratives & stories to prop up and justify HB2:

“The NC GOP must pass HB2 to protect [cis] women and girls from men who want to go into their bathrooms and ensure public safety and privacy. This is common sense.”

There’s a lot going on in the first story. First, it’s a narrative that specifically misgenders and outright denies the existence of trans people by targeting trans women and literally ignoring the existence of trans men, non-binary people, and genderqueer people. Second, the first narrative isn’t just drenched in deep-seated homophobia and transphobia; it’s grounded in white supremacy and racism. It plays on the violent, racist, and patriarchal narrative of “white men protecting white women and girls.”

To justify this new law, they utilize a narrative that has been commonly pushed for years while specifically targeting trans women, or, as they see us, ‘dangerous men.’ It’s a narrative that seeks to define who makes up ‘the public,’ who the State is committed to keeping ‘safe,’ and from whom people must be kept safe. All of which adds up to a narrative that is deeply racialized, gendered, and classed.

“Charlotte’s ordinance was government overreach and the NC GOP had a responsibility to stop it.”

This second narrative they are pushing made my jaw drop the first time I heard it. It anticipates the pushback, directly communicates with sections of their base who are against more laws invading into people’s private lives (drawing on, for example, anti-Obamacare sentiments), and hooks into a broader existing message that was used following the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage. The ‘government overreach’ narrative lays the ground work for the state to control/respond to/deny the ability of people to make wins for racial, economic, gender, and LGBTQ justice on a local level, not just on a federal level.

It’s Bigger Than Business, Boycotts, & Bathrooms

In response, the state Democratic Party and other liberal forces decided to focus on the multi-million dollar business impacts from the anti-HB2 boycotts. If there’s discussion of trans people at all, it focuses on bathrooms — and frames bathrooms as the ‘trans issue,’ continuing to ignore the ongoing genocide and murders of Black trans women and trans women of color, as well as the fact that raising the minimum wage (again, another target of HB2) would benefit trans workers, too. The business narrative implicitly & explicitly says, ”We don’t really care about trans people; our priority is that we stop losing money.” This has been proved by the Democrats’ subsequent actions.

In the wake of Roy Cooper’s victory, after testing out using special sessions as another site of right wing attacks in the vein of HB2, the NC GOP held another session seeking to strip Cooper of most of his powers. After that move was struck down by the courts, Cooper negotiated a deal between the Charlotte City Council and NC GOP leaders: Charlotte would repeal their non-discrimination ordinance and the GOP would repeal HB2, which they subsequently refused to do despite Charlotte complying. After that failure, the new ‘compromise’ with the NC GOP for an HB2 repeal was a law that both increases the punishment on people who assault people in opposite sex restrooms (which plays straight into the first narrative and throws trans people under the bus) and that mandates elected officials on a more local level — in cities or counties — must notify the NC legislature of any law relating to sexual orientation or gender identity (which plays into the second narrative, solidifying statewide right wing power over local municipalities).

We have to be honest about what the ‘battle of the story’ is. Framing the narrative around and focusing on the impact of business boycotts, while important, derails the conversation — because it’s not what the right’s narrative is actually about. The battle of the story is instead over who gets to be counted as the public? who gets to be protected? who gets to be safe? what does safety look like? and who gets to have power and control over their lives? And who gets the authority to dictate these things?

It would not be that hard to have a large-scale narrative strategy that is unapologetically and uncompromisingly committed to protecting trans women and trans people, particularly trans women of color who are the most vulnerable to state & interpersonal violence in North Carolina and across the country. It would not be that hard to have a large scale narrative strategy that says we care about minimum wage workers & we should make sure that we can raise the wage — and that’s what safety and protection looks like, too. It would not be that hard to advance this strategy if folks with more privilege, more power, and more political sway flanked and stood by the Left, LGBTQ, and racial justice organizing led by trans women of color and trans people of color in North Carolina.

A strategy like that not only is more accountable and more intersectional, but gets to the heart of the narrative and refuses to concede to the Right’s framing. It would allows us to go on the offensive for what we actually want and not just fight defensive battles that, even if we won, don’t really move our large scale visions for trans justice and trans safety and only mean that our conditions — for the moment — aren’t getting worse.