In the debate over House Bill 2, N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore has been one of the most vociferous critics of the Charlotte nondiscrimination ordinance.
Moore, who called for the special session that overturned the ordinance, has described it as “radical” and the “crown jewel of their far-left agenda.”
Across the country, corporations and state governments have blasted North Carolina state lawmakers. And last week, PayPal dropped plans for an expansion to Charlotte that would have created 400 jobs.
But many residents in Moore’s district in Cleveland County, population 97,000, share his concerns.
“People just don’t think men should go into women’s restrooms,” said Scott Ledford of Kings Mountain, when asked about the provision in Charlotte’s overturned ordinance that would have allowed transgender individuals to use the bathroom of their gender identity. “They can dress how they want, that’s fine. But there are kids in (bathrooms).”
Last month state lawmakers passed HB2 as a way to stop an expanded Charlotte nondiscrimination ordinance from taking effect this month. Critics said the city’s ordinance would have allowed men posing as transgender women to enter women’s restrooms or showers.
Ledford was eating lunch in Kings Mountain at Linwood Restaurant, a small cafe attached to a grocery store.
The restaurant has not changed much over the years. A faded Pepsi sign is on the front of the building, and a 40-year-old plaque of NFL football helmets hangs on the walls. It hasn’t been updated for the Carolina Panthers.
The restaurant also has a large campaign sign for Moore, displayed prominently.
One of Ledford’s friends, Tony Ruppe, was also upset at PayPal’s announcement last week that it would cancel the planned Charlotte project.
“It’s irritating to me that businesses are telling people what to do,” he said. “They are already running the country.”
Rural vs. urban
When the ordinance was overturned in a special session last month, all 11 Democrats who voted for HB2 came from rural districts. And a recent Time Warner News North Carolina poll found that two-thirds of people identifying themselves as evangelical Christians supported overturning the Charlotte ordinance.
Moore’s House District 111 covers almost all of Cleveland County, which is 30 miles west of uptown Charlotte.
Cleveland County is far more conservative than Mecklenburg. Four years ago, Mitt Romney won Cleveland County with 60 percent to Barack Obama’s 40 percent – which is almost an exact opposite of how Mecklenburg County voted.
The difference between Cleveland County and Mecklenburg is indicative of North Carolina’s divide between rural and urban voters.
But the group Common Cause North Carolina said the urban-rural split has been exacerbated by gerrymandering, in which legislative districts have been drawn to create safe seats. Common Cause said that 90 percent of the lawmakers who voted for HB2 either have no opponent this fall or won their last race by more than 10 percentage points.
Moore has been unopposed in his last two elections, and he doesn’t have an opponent this fall.
Misconceptions of transgender people are common in small towns, LGBT advocates said. Madeline Goss, a Raleigh software engineer and transgender woman, grew up outside of Hickory and didn’t come out as transgender until she left to attend the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics.
“I’d never heard of or met another trans person,” she said. “I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain who I was or what I was. Emotionally I was female. ... I spent a lot of time trying to be the guy that everyone wanted me to be.”
In interviews with other residents of Kings Mountain and Shelby, the views of Ledford and Ruppe were common, though there were people with differing opinions.
Women tended to be less concerned about the bathroom issue than men, even though the focal point for HB2 was to protect females from the concern that male predators could enter women’s bathrooms.
And some people who are morally opposed to gays, lesbians or transgender people said they didn’t understand why Charlotte needed to make bathrooms an issue.
“I didn’t see the necessity,” said Heather Brackeen of Shelby, whose husband, Stephen, is a pastor at Bethel Baptist Church. “If someone looks like a lady, and dresses like a lady, then they are probably already using the women’s restroom.”
Stephen Brackeen said the problem has been blown out of proportion by Charlotte and Raleigh leaders.
“I’m a Baptist preacher,” he said. “But I feel like this was just political theater on both sides.”
He said Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts’ decision to push for the full nondiscrimination ordinance, which included the bathroom provision for transgender people, was “pitiful.” He also said Gov. Pat McCrory “jumped the gun” by signing HB2 so quickly.
At the Linwood Restaurant, Tommy Hall and his son Geno were taking a lunch break while doing construction work on apartments.
“I have seven grandsons, and here comes a woman in their bathroom – how can you explain that?” he said. “What’s wrong with using the restroom you are supposed to go to?”
Geno Hall agreed with his father.
“This isn’t like the Rosa Parks days,” he said. “They already have somewhere to go to the bathroom.”
When asked about the impact to the state’s economy, Geno Hall said North Carolina would be OK.
“PayPal packed up and left, so be it,” he said. “Taxpayers are paying for those jobs anyway.” (Hall was referring to $3.7 million in state incentives for the company, which it won’t receive unless it expands in Charlotte.)
But women at other tables at Linwood Restaurant were less concerned.
One retired school teacher said the controversy over bathrooms reminded her of white people’s fears of sharing bathrooms with African-Americans during the civil rights movement. She asked that her name not be given because Kings Mountain is a small city, and she doesn’t want people to shun her for not supporting Moore.
Susan Gibbs, a retired biologist, said legislators overreacted.
“If (a transgender woman) has gone through the change then it doesn’t bother me,” she said. “They are in their stall doing their thing. If it’s done right, you will never know it.”
Another woman at her table, however, suggested that perhaps it should be put to a vote of the people.
That was a common theme among residents, who questioned why a small group of people – transgender individuals – were impacting a much larger group.
Carolyn Parrish from Mooresboro, 10 miles west of Shelby, was eating lunch at Alston Bridges Barbecue in Shelby Thursday. She said she had never even thought about bathroom access for transgender individuals before the Charlotte ordinance.
“I hadn’t even considered it before,” she said. “The transgender population is so small compared with the homosexual population. They don’t need to make accommodations.”
“It’s nothing against them,” said Lynne Wilson, who was taking a walk in downtown Shelby with her husband Charles. “I just don’t want to expose my grandchildren to that. You shouldn’t have to have that talk that early.”
In recent days, some groups, such as the Charlotte Chamber, have urged both sides to reach a compromise.
But that may be easier said than accomplished.
Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist, says like the country, North Carolina has become increasingly polarized.
In the 2012 presidential race, he said, only 15 percent of the state’s nearly 3,000 precincts were truly competitive, with the winner getting 55 percent or less. One reason is that people have tended to gravitate to like-minded communities.
But while lawmakers face strong criticism over HB2, the reality is that the vast majority of them will likely suffer no consequences at the polls this fall over this or other legislation because of their gerrymandered districts.
“One group is from Mars, the other group is from Venus. They can’t understand where the other side is coming from,” Bitzer said. “I’m a firm believer that this polarization has really infiltrated the grassroots. People are just as willing to be polarized as their elected officials.
“Unfortunately I don’t see how this gets resolved because the polarization is getting so baked in.”
Observer staff writer Jim Morrill and Colin Campbell of the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.