We are not this, but we’ve been here before.
The pushback to H.B. 2 is unsurprising in some ways (quick denunciations from Carrboro and Chapel Hill) and remarkable in others. From San Francisco to New York to Seattle, the boycotts are adding up. More than 80 Silicon Valley executives have called for the law’s repeal. The White House minced no words: “[W]e are concerned about the potential harmful impact of this law, especially on transgender youth, and believe it is mean-spirited and sends the wrong message.” Attorney General Roy Cooper has declined to defend the law, calling it “a national embarrassment.”
The case he is refusing to argue was initiated by the ACLU, Equality NC, and Lambda Legal Defense within five days of the law’s passage: the complaint is 45 pages long. Impressive as that legal sprint is, it pales compared to the reckless speed with which the law was pushed through. From the complaint:
“We don’t know what we’re discussing here,” Minority Leader Hall said. “We don’t know what we’re voting on. What we’re doing is a perversion of the process.”
Republican lawmakers seemed to know exactly what they were doing. Said Sen. David Curtis,
This liberal group is trying to redefine everything about our society. Gender and marriage–just the whole liberal agenda. We generally don’t get involved in local politics. We need to do what’s right.
Sen. David Brock commented that the $42,000 cost of the emergency session “is not going to cover the medical expenses when a pervert walks into a bathroom and my little girls are in there.”
There is no hard evidence of the hazards to straight women risked by an ordinance such as Charlotte’s. As the dean of UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health puts it, “Bathrooms were not on the list” of the state’s most urgent public health problems, “but they are now.”
When people can’t live out their gender identity, they suffer from being ostracized, from being marked as different from and lesser than others. They are subject to depression. They’re at risk of physical harm. They suffer in untold numbers of ways for being different. Testifying before the Town Council on Monday night, several transgender people gave powerful witness to their own realistic fears, while their thoughtful presence reinforced our common humanity.
And this is where we have been before. From Reconstruction forward, it has been the prerogative of conservative leaders to use stratagem and process, even force when necessary, to limit the rights and freedoms of the Other. To trace the roots of the state’s tendency to limit the power of local governments when, in their wisdom, they choose to conduct business with greater openness and tolerance, we can look, for example, to the Report of the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission, published by the state ten years ago.
There we learn that in response to the Reconstruction Constitution of 1868, which extended the voting franchise to all free men and called for local election by popular vote, the KKK made its first appearance in the state. Their purpose was to prevent blacks from voting or having a role in government. They succeeded.
Between 1873 and 1877, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly developed a mechanism for keeping control of as much of state and local government as possible in Raleigh. Indeed, “North Carolina became a model for southern oppositions to Reconstruction as it legislated resistance to Washington. Southern politicians felt that North Carolina’s lead would compel other states to follow suit and slowly overturn federal Reconstruction policies.” To blunt the power Republicans and Progressives in Wilmington, conservative legislators lopped off the northern two-thirds of New Hanover County to create Pender. And they redrafted Wilmington’s charter to secure a conservative majority. It was an era of hardball politics.
UNC School of Government professor David Owens notes that “the brief ascendancy of Populists and Fusionists in the 1890s brought the restoration of the popular vote for county officials in 1895 and the substantial revision of the charters of many of the state’s larger cities.” He adds that these changes raised the numbers of African Americans in city governments, and their presence in turn fueled “the distrust of local governments by some state-level politicians.”
“Distrust” is an understatement, as we know from the bloody coup d’etat of 1898, in which Democratic white supremacists overthrew the duly elected Wilmington city government with force and arms. From that point forward, an obscure doctrine called Dillon’s Rule served to limit the scope of local governmental powers. Though Dillon’s Rule was formally abolished in 1971, the limits of local authority remain nebulously defined and often in the hands of the courts to decide.
Is H.B. 2 “about bathrooms,” employment discrimination, and the dignity of our LBGT friends and neighbors, or is it “about local control”? It’s about both, for it’s two sides of a coin.