by Chris Johnson, Washington Blade
A new test for the LGBT movement has emerged in the aftermath of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signing a deal to replace his state’s notoriously anti-LGBT House Bill 2 with a measure that critics say leaves discrimination in place.
In a rare occurrence, LGBT rights supporters will have to convince businesses the deal signed by a Democratic governor is bad enough to continue the boycott started after the anti-LGBT law was signed by the previous GOP governor that cost the state at least $650 million. That’ll be a tall order for a deal Cooper says alleviates discrimination in a state that has already suffered economic boycotts under HB2 and where companies are eager to grow after more than a year of business contraction.
The new law, House Bill 142, prohibits municipalities, state agencies and the University of North Carolina from the “regulation of access” to bathrooms, locker rooms and showers without the legislature’s permission. It also bans municipalities from enacting LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination measures that would apply to private employment or public accommodations until 2020.
The lynchpin for whether or not the boycott will go on and continue to create pressure for full repeal is the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which had given North Carolina until last week to repeal the law or else lose championship games through at least 2022. Along with the Atlantic Coast Conference, the NCAA last year nixed championship games from the state on the basis of discrimination against LGBT people under HB2.
NCAA President Mark Emmert said last week at a news conference during the “Final Four” in Phoenix, Ariz., the board will convene and make a decision this week on whether the games will return or are now lost with a different law in place governing bathroom access for transgender people.
“Everybody loves being in North Carolina for our games,” Emmert said. “It’s a state, obviously, that in many ways is synonymous with college sports. They are great hosts. Nobody made the decision to leave North Carolina casually. It was a very, very difficult decision for the board to make, and I’m sure the next decision will be very difficult as well.”
David McFarland, founder of the Los Angeles-based United for Equality in Sports & Entertainment, said the NCAA “must stand up against this thinly veiled repeal effort” for HB2 and predicted the league would continue to keep games out of North Carolina under the new deal.
“Based on recent conversations, I have no reason to believe that the NCAA Board of Governors won’t stand against discrimination and remain committed to their new anti-discrimination process for championships bids,” McFarland said. “The NCAA has recently reinforced their position that all North Carolina bids will be pulled from the review process and removed from consideration going forward. Given that the new repeal bill does not meet the NCAA anti-discrimination policies, the Board of Governors has little to consider.”
Already LGBT rights supporters are encouraging the NCAA to stay resolute and withhold games from North Carolina on the basis the new law doesn’t alleviate discrimination as the governor says, but keeps anti-LGBT discrimination in place.
The nation’s largest LGBT rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, has launched an online campaign calling on supporters to text the NCAA to urge the league to keep games out of North Carolina. According to the Human Rights Campaign, they’ve had nearly 20,000 emails and calls to the NCAA as of Monday morning.
On Saturday night, as the University of North Carolina faced off against Oregon, #RepealHB2 was trending nationwide on Twitter coordinated by the Human Rights Campaign and Equality North Carolina. Nearly 5 million people took part in the social action and 25 million people saw the push online, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Joining calls urging the NCAA to withhold games from North Carolina over the deal is the first openly gay player drafted in the NFL, Michael Sam, who raised concerns on Twitter about the implications of the deal for LGBT athletes forced to compete in the state.
Hudson Taylor, executive director of Athlete Ally, said the only option for the NCAA, if it wants to hold true to its values opposing discrimination, is to continue to withhold games from North Carolina.
“The NCAA’s decision comes just two weeks after they responded the Athlete Ally and other LGBT organizations reaffirming their commitment to LGBT protection and inclusion when deciding future site venues,” Taylor said. “If the NCAA continues to stand by the LGBT community in the same way they did last year when they initially removed contests from the state, they really only have one clear choice related to this ban, and that’s to keep it intact.”
U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.), the chair of the Congressional Transgender Equality Task Force, wrote a letter to the NCAA on Monday urging the league to continue the boycott of championship events in North Carolina.
“When it comes to civil rights there are not compromises, negotiations or trade-offs,” Kennedy said. “Either the laws of this country apply equally to all of us or they don’t. By barring local anti-discrimination laws, North Carolina is leaving their transgender community without the protections any other citizen enjoys. That is the definition of discrimination. In recent years, the NCAA has set the bar high for tolerance and equality both on the court and in the stands. I applaud their leadership and urge them to consider this compromise what it is: A sham.”
Despite the pressure, the tide may be turning away from boycotting the state. According to media reports, the board of the ACC Council of Presidents voted last week as a result of the HB2 deal to allow North Carolina to once again hold championship games. That could be a precursor for the NCAA’s action in North Carolina.
Beleaguered by cancelled business expansions, performers nixing events and convention boycotts, the chambers of commerce within the state — the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce and the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce — welcomed the new deal as a bipartisan effort to eliminate discrimination. Others applauding the deal are the North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association and the North Carolina Travel Industry Association.
University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings, who has an anti-gay history as an Education Department official under the Bush administration, was faced with a lawsuit under HB2 and predicted in a statement games would return to the state with the deal in place.
“This is a good day for the state and a positive step forward–specifically for the students, faculty and staff of the University of North Carolina and we applaud our elected officials for the bipartisan manner in which they brokered this compromise,” Spellings said. “With today’s action and our continuing commitment to equal access and opportunity for all, we have every expectation that, once again, the University will be able to host national athletic events and professional conferences as we have for years.”
But the views of those organizations may not represent the views of North Carolina residents and business leaders who want to rid their state of discrimination regardless of the cost of economic boycott.
Mitchell Gold, co-founder of the North Carolina-based furniture manufacturer Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, said despite operating a business in the state during the economic boycott, he would “honestly hope it continues” with the deal in place.
“I think it’s a bad deal and I’m really shocked that the governor caved in on this,” Gold said. “To agree to not allow non-discrimination policies in local communities until 2020, I think that’s really kind of unbelievable that the governor agreed to that.”
Co-chair of the LGBT group Faith in America, Gold said he’s not surprised, on the other hand, that Republican leaders in the legislature — House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Phil Berger — agreed to the deal because “they have deeply held religious beliefs that are very anti-LGBT.”
“The legislators who initiated this legislation, they have been virulently anti-LGBT…for years,” Gold said. “They have held up any LGBT legislation in the state and this was one more opportunity for them to poke their finger in our eye.”
Gold added he’s not surprised business groups in North Carolina are eager to accept the deal, but said he’s unsure whether their support will matter in terms of whether lost business will return to the state.
“The chambers in general have not been really supportive of LGBT rights,” Gold said. “To the best of my knowledge, the chambers have not been vocal advocates of equality for LGBT people.”
If the LGBT movement succeeds in convincing the NCAA to withhold games from North Carolina, which conceivably could lead to continued boycotts from other entities, it would mark a new achievement in the standard for holding states accountable for anti-LGBT discrimination. Never before has a deal been designed to alleviate discrimination in a state signed by a Democratic governor resulted in massive outcry leading to economic boycott. That victory would be more important still if it led to full repeal of anti-LGBT state statutes in North Carolina.
Logan Casey, who’s transgender and a research analyst for the Harvard Opinion Research Program, said persuading the NCAA to boycott the state would be a major victory for the LGBT movement because it would demonstrate the capacity to shatter legislative optics masking political expediency.
“Being able to keep the attention on North Carolina, even after a so-called ‘repeal’ bill and in the face of competing news items (particularly under the new administration), is a big task,” Casey said. “Convincing people that the ‘repeal’ bill is not good enough is an even harder one. If LGBT organizers can keep the NCAA from returning to North Carolina after this ‘deal,’ it suggests that they are succeeding at both these tasks, and particularly at explaining why a policy that sounds good (a repeal) is actually worse in some ways than the original HB2. That suggests that the NCAA, and likely other key players, are paying more attention to the substance of LGBT advocates’ messages, and not only the optics of a political situation.”