In 1819, American author Washington Irving published a short story about a man named Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep under a tree and woke up twenty years later with a long beard in a completely different world. After its release, the story became wildly famous and has since been regarded as an acclaimed part of the United States’ literary history.
However, I was not introduced to the story in relation to its author or merits as a fictional work reflective of nineteenth century American culture. Instead, in a middle school history class, I learned that North Carolina was nicknamed the “Rip Van Winkle State” due to its economic stagnation throughout the early 1800s.
The recent passage of House Bill 2 (HB 2) in North Carolina reminded me of this story and our state’s shameful, yet deserved, nickname. As is often the case, history has repeated itself, and North Carolina is once again among the least progressive states in our country. Only this time, the problem stems from ignorance and an utter lack of tolerance for people who do not conform to social norms.
HB 2 was voted on and signed into action in an emergency session of the North Carolina General Assembly on March 23. While it has become known as the Charlotte bathroom bill because it nullified a Charlotte nondiscrimination ordinance that permitted people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify, the legislation affects many other issues, including workplace discrimination and the minimum wage.
The legislation has been met by harsh criticism nationwide and has already damaged the state’s economy. Prominent companies with employees in North Carolina – including American Airlines and Apple – have spoken out against the legislation. Events, from concerts to sports tournaments, have been canceled or relocated in protest of the law.
It is not only the economic repercussions that make this legislation so cringe-worthy. North Carolina has become a laughing stock, a national joke, because it really is unbelievable that so many educated, publicly endorsed officials could reverse strides toward equality in their state. It has been deemed comical that people in our state stand in front of government buildings with signs advocating the protection of women and children through the oppression of people who have discovered their gender to be different from the one printed on their birth certificates.
But what does that mean to me? To Charlotteans who supported the nondiscrimination ordinance in our city? To North Carolinians who face discrimination at their schools and jobs and are no longer protected by the law? We are not laughing. HB 2 is not only humiliating, but also utterly terrifying. As the rest of the world moves forward, North Carolina remains resting against its tree of antiquated social policies. And as it does so, the state’s residents continue to suffer.
Just last week, a group of pediatric endocrinologists from across the state reported that HB 2 is “inherently flawed and potentially harmful” to the children for whom they care. As many of their patients suffer from chromosomal or hormonal abnormalities, it is often difficult for them to assign a gender to a child at birth. As the kids grow, they often identify with the opposite gender and face social prejudice and complex legal procedures as they make the switch. Their doctors report that HB2 and similar laws worsen the psychological difficulties that patients face.
Unfortunately, my representatives confront their own ignorance or confusion about gender identity with fear and hatred, which has manifested in injustice. Being LGBT is a component of a person’s identity that should be celebrated, not rejected or dismissed. Just as I would feel awkward going into a men’s restroom, I can understand how any other person would feel uncomfortable being required to use a bathroom designated for the opposite gender. To me, this seems like common sense.
There is no need to declare a state of emergency because people in Charlotte were finally granted freedom of expression. How can North Carolinians call themselves “First in Freedom” (as our new license plates so proudly assert) while LGBT and minority populations in our state suffer this oppression?
Over spring break, my mom and I drove from North Carolina to Massachusetts, passing through seven northern states on the way. More than once on this trip, I wondered what the people driving behind me or the strangers walking by my parked car thought when they saw my North Carolina license plate. I wanted to say, “HB 2 is a complete anomaly, a radical decision made by a few ignorant people. Most people where I come from aren’t like that.” But that is not the truth.
The truth is that I see the discriminatory behavior that prompted this decision all around me. I have grown up hearing kids use the word “gay” as an insult. I have seen some of my peers form preconceived notions about a person’s character or economic status based on that individual’s race. I have also heard from people who have had this injustice done to them.
When North Carolina wakes up from its disgraceful slumber, it will have to overcome both the economic damage and its reputation as a discriminatory state. It is then up to the people of North Carolina to strive to be open-minded, compassionate, and inclusive to earn recognition as champions of freedom.
The author wrote this editorial in the Myers Park Hoofprint.