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For transgender CEO, fight to repeal NC’s HB2 is personal

HB2: A timeline for North Carolina’s controversial law

North Carolina repealed HB2 in 2017 but left intact some of its provisions. But with Charlotte’s reputation tainted, the city is still paying to market itself to visitors.
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North Carolina repealed HB2 in 2017 but left intact some of its provisions. But with Charlotte’s reputation tainted, the city is still paying to market itself to visitors.

Like many CEOs whose companies have operations in the Triangle, Martine Rothblatt is against House Bill 2, the controversial legislation that has put North Carolina at the center of the fight over transgender rights.

But unlike many of her fellow CEOs, Rothblatt has a very personal connection to the issues being raised by HB2. In addition to being CEO of United Therapeutics, a $5 billion biotechnology company that employs 300 people in Research Triangle Park, Rothblatt is also transgender.

Born Martin, Rothblatt had sex reassignment surgery in 1994 and has written widely about sexual identity and the need to overhaul our system of labeling people as either male or female based only on their genitalia.

In an interview last week on UT’s RTP campus, Rothblatt, 61, expressed her affection for North Carolina and said her company has no plans to leave the state. Describing HB2 as unnecessary and hurtful, she said UT would work to ensure that the law is either repealed or struck down by the courts.

I think that the law is misplaced because I personally believe that there is no problem here and I’m kind of a limited government person – don’t make a problem where there’s no problem.

Martine Rothblatt

HB2 requires people in public buildings to use bathrooms that correspond to the gender on their birth certificates. It prohibits cities and counties from enacting their own anti-discrimination ordinances, and establishes a statewide policy that excludes gender identity and sexual orientation. It also prevents people from filing employment discrimination lawsuits in state court.

“Of course I think that the law is misplaced because I personally believe that there is no problem here and I’m kind of a limited government person – don’t make a problem where there’s no problem,” Rothblatt said.

Gov. Pat McCrory and other HB2 supporters argue that the law is necessary to maintain expectations of personal privacy in the state’s restrooms, locker rooms and shower facilities. Responding to corporate criticism of the law, McCrory is quick to point out that it does not apply to the private sector. HB2 supporters have also said that allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice will encourage sexual predators to take advantage of the law.

Bathroom bugaboo

While Rothblatt disagrees with those arguments, she said, “I can’t say if it’s unrealistic for someone to have these thoughts.” Indeed, Rothblatt predicted 20 years ago, in her manifesto, “The Apartheid of Sex”, that bathroom privacy – and warnings about sexual assaults – would be issues in any attempt to reform gender definitions.

“If the law does bend and reform to eliminate the legal separation of people into males and females, what will become of sex-separate lavatories?” Rothblatt asked in a section of her book titled “The Bathroom Bugaboo.” “Do not the genitals of a citizenry become a proper interest of the state when it comes to exercising excretory functions in public buildings?”

Rothblatt argues that, as with race, restroom segregation reinforces social discrimination and accommodations can be easily made to address most privacy concerns. As for the claim that assaults will increase, Rothblatt says such arguments are specious.

“Generally rapists prefer seclusion,” she wrote in 1996. “The thought that persons of any sex can enter any restroom at any time should discourage sexual violence in restrooms.”

Rothblatt believes HB2 stems from a lack of education and understanding about the transgender community. She said many transgender people already fear they don’t appear female or male enough and will be arrested for using the “wrong” bathroom.

“So for people who are already dealing with a very, very emotional issue it’s adding some psychological trauma for no benefit,” Rothblatt said of HB2. “ ... And I think that there’s enough real problems we have in the world that I think we should focus on solving real problems rather than causing trauma to our own fellow North Carolinians.”

Sirius to pharma

More than 100 CEOs and business leaders have come out against HB2 since it was signed into law on March 23. Rothblatt said she has been heartened by the level of corporate support for the transgender community, something that would have been unimaginable in the 1990s when she transitioned.

But she said the credit should mostly go to North Carolina residents, and the environment they have helped foster in corporate offices around the state.

“I think there’s been an evolution of North Carolina from sort-of like the Jesse Helms of the last century to the modern days,” she said. “ ... And the corporations are in essence just like mirrors of the society. It’s the North Carolina society that is cutting-edge and advanced.”

Few entrepreneurs have been more cutting edge than Rothblatt, a polymath with degrees in law, business and medical ethics whose success in the fields of science and technology is considerable by any measurement.

“She sees problems and envisions solutions to them and then has the courage and diligence to follow through to actually make them happen,” said Ray Kurzweil, a longtime friend who is Google’s director of engineering and has served on UT’s board of directors for 17 years.

Before founding UT, Rothblatt started several satellite communications companies in the Washington area. One was the car navigation system GeoStar. Another was CD Satellite Radio, which later changed its name to Sirius XM.

More than 30 million customers now subscribe to Sirius XM’s car radio service, and Rothblatt jokes that “to this day more people come up to me and say thank you for Sirius than for medicines that even save lives.”

Rothblatt shifted her focus to pharmaceutics in the mid-1990s after her daughter, Jenesis, was diagnosed with a rare lung disease that is now called pulmonary arterial hypertension. There was no cure for the disease at the time, but Glaxo Wellcome, a precursor of pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline, had a promising treatment that it wasn’t pursuing.

Rothblatt founded UT in 1996 to focus on developing products based on the drug. While its headquarters are in Silver Spring, Md., the company has had a presence in the Triangle from the beginning.

Two of UT’s co-founders, Shelmer Blackburn and James Crow, were former Burroughs Wellcome scientists who lived in Durham and Chapel Hill.

Rothblatt now lives in Melbourne, Fla., with Bina, her wife of more than 30 years, who she married before beginning her transition. Her daughter, Jenesis, works for UT and takes a regimen of drugs that includes one of the company’s products.

In 2014, Rothblatt was the 24th highest paid CEO in the U.S., earning $31.6 million.

Stand and fight

UT’s presence in RTP has steadily grown over the past decade as the 753-employee company has won regulatory approval for more products to treat pulmonary arterial hypertension.

In 2006, UT received state and local incentives to expand its operations in RTP. A state grant of $155,750 was awarded in 2012 after the company created 128 jobs and invested $127.4 million in a research and development manufacturing facility.

While some companies, such as PayPal and Deutsche Bank, have chosen to halt planned expansions in North Carolina because of HB2, Rothblatt said UT is too invested in RTP to pull back on projects it has already committed to. The company did relocate its annual shareholders meeting this year from RTP to Silver Spring because of HB2.

Rothblatt said her preference is to “stand and fight.” That’s why Rothblatt, who plays piano and the flute, will not boycott Moogfest, the electronic music festival in Durham where she is scheduled to give the keynote address on Friday.

Rothblatt has never met or spoken to McCrory or the Republican leaders in the General Assembly. In describing her attitude toward HB2, Rothblatt cited her management style, saying that if an employee did one thing wrong and 99 things right, she wouldn’t let that one mistake overshadow all the good things they have done.

“You can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater just because of one mistake, which I believe is kind of on its way to being corrected,” she said.

Rothblatt’s attitude reflects her upbeat manner, and her belief that scientific research, legal precedent and evolving social attitudes are on the side of transgender rights.

“She has a quiet optimism,” Kurzweil said. “People resist change, but also believe the benefits of change are significantly compelling that the world accepts it and ultimately celebrates things like new medical treatments and cures.”

Rothblatt’s optimism about HB2’s eventual demise is noteworthy, given that the governor and Republican legislative leaders have shown no inclination to repeal the law.

Asked about the threat of North Carolina losing future expansions by companies such as United Therapeutics, Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, an Apex Republican, referred a reporter to recent comments made by state Commerce Secretary John Skvarla in a Site Selection Magazine article where North Carolina was ranked first along with Texas in business competitiveness.

“We’ve found company leaders really don’t know what’s in the law, only misunderstood bits and pieces they’ve seen in the media,” Skvarla said when asked how concerned he was about HB2’s effect on corporate recruitment.

Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican, defended the passage of HB2 as a necessary response to Charlotte’s passage of a law that allowed transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify. Dollar said he hopes business leaders who oppose HB2 will keep in mind all the other great qualities that the Triangle has to offer.

“We want to keep all of our great businesses, entrepreneurs,” he said. “We want them to be comfortable here and to thrive.”

Rothblatt believes the long-term economic threat HB2 poses to the state is real and potentially significant the longer the legislation remains in place. UT typically invests $100 million in new facilities every 12 to 24 months. In 2012, the company acquired three buildings and 135 acres in RTP from GlaxoSmithKline for future expansions.

UT is now seeking regulatory approval to grow organs, such as lungs and hearts, in genetically modified pigs that can be transplanted into humans. The first use in human clinical trials is expected by the end of the decade. Rothblatt said the plan now is to eventually build a facility at RTP where they could produce 3,000 organs a year.

Rothblatt said the demand for lung transplants alone is much greater than that, and if UT is successful it will need a lot more talented employees to expand its operations.

“My folks who run that R&D facility have told me, ‘Martine, we are not going to be able to hire the most qualified people if North Carolina has an image of intolerance,’ ” Rothblatt said. “So I’m really hopeful that this will get fixed quickly so that, as we further expand our facilities, we can do it right here.”

David Bracken: 919-829-4548, @brackendavid

Martine Rothblatt, futurist CEO

▪ Founded what is now Sirius XM, the first satellite-to-car broadcasting system

▪ Started United Therapeutics to find a cure for her daughter’s disease

▪ Founded a religion, the Terasem Movement, focused on extending human life

▪ Commissioned a humanoid AI robot, Bina48, that is modeled after her wife

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