Moderator Molly Grantham asked the audience at Wednesday’s forum on House Bill 2 to turn a mirror toward themselves and their feelings about the controversial law.
After 90 minutes of discussion, the mirror showed a public still deeply divided over the competing issues of transgender protection vs. bathroom safety.
The event at Spirit Square, presented by the Observer and sponsored by Red Ventures, was described as a means to cut through the rhetoric that now dominates the state’s debate. The seven-member panel, which included politicians, journalists, a prominent Charlotte minister, legal activists and a transgender man, staked out the competing arguments.
But there were few solutions offered for an emotional and political divide that already has cost the state thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in lost wages, business expansions and canceled sporting events.
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There was plenty of blame to go around.
Former Mayor Richard Vinroot singled out Charlotte City Council for “making Charlotte a guinea pig” by including the provision of allowing transgender individuals to use the restroom that matched their sexual identity among its expanded LGBT protections.
The Charlotte Republican said the city’s overreach was met by another, the legislature’s passage of HB2. And while he said the law would eventually expand to accommodate broader transgender protections, “we’re not there yet.”
Connie Vetter, a Charlotte attorney who specializes in LGBT issues, said the General Assembly was “drunk with power” when it passed HB2, and she criticized Vinroot for asking residents to sit back and wait for needed change.
Individual freedoms, she said, should not be put up to a popular vote.
Bathrooms vs. lives
Some of the most poignant comments of the night cast the polarization in more human terms.
Pam Burton, who described herself as a born-again Christian and mother of four, told the audience that she fears the Charlotte ordinance would have exposed her children to sexual predators.
Fletcher Page, a transgender activist from Piedmont, S.C., said a 16-year-old member of his community recently died by suicide.
“This is more than about bathrooms,” he said. “This is about lives.”
Most of the back and forth was polite. After Burton spoke of bathroom safety, City Attorney Bob Hagemann, rose from the audience to point out that a nearby identical ordinance approved in Columbia, S.C., had not led to open bathrooms nor an increase in predatory incidents.
David Chadwick, senior pastor at Forest Hill Church and a spiritual counselor to Gov. Pat McCrory, told the hundreds of audience members on hand that no one deserves to be bullied or singled out. But he said supporters of HB2 are too easily stereotyped by some as intolerant and discriminatory.
But when Erica Lachowitz, a transgender woman from Charlotte, talked about her personal experiences, conservative Christian minister Flip Benham rose from his seat and changed the tone in the theater. Earlier in the evening he let out an audible “Ridiculous” as former Observer writer Elizabeth Leland recounted episodes of violence or harassment LGBT individuals she had discovered around the state.
Now Benham, waving a Bible in one hand, interrupted Lachowitz with a shout of “Abomination!” before pivoting his attention toward Chadwick.
“David, is sodomy a sin? Answer the question,” Benham roared repeatedly as two police officers rushed toward him.
“Get him out of here,” another man shouted as Benham was led through the nearest door.
Chadwick responded by saying his was a God of love, not hate, and that the love might offer the promise of compromise. Earlier in the evening, he had also said this; “You can’t legislate the human heart to change.”
The sweeping House Bill 2 was passed on a one-day special session on March 23 – ostensibly to reverse a Charlotte ordinance that had broadened LGBT protections in the Carolinas’ biggest city, including a change that allowed transgender people to use the public restroom that matched their gender identity.
HB2 went far beyond reversing the bathroom provision. It nullified local LGBT-protection ordinances around the state and banned cities from expanding upon state discrimination laws, as Charlotte, Raleigh and about a dozen other cities had done.
It blocked the LGBT community from being added to the classes of people protected from discrimination, while reducing access to state courts for discrimination complaints based on age, race and other factors.
While other states have passed similar bills, none has had the sweep of HB2, legal experts say.
Supporters of the bill continue to blame the controversy on what they describe as the City Council’s “social engineering” to allow those born as biological males to enter women’s restrooms.
McCrory and other GOP leaders say businesses aren’t limited by the bill, and that private companies and private universities can adopt new or keep existing nondiscrimination policies. Private businesses also can establish their own practices concerning LGBT employees and customers as well as bathrooms.
Even so, the pushback has been intense and shows no signs of weakening. On July 21, the National Basketball Association announced it will move its All-Star Game from Charlotte in 2017, which will cost the city an estimated $100 million.
That decision follows cancellations of business expansions and entertainment events by companies and performers protesting HB2. That’s cost the state hundreds of jobs and millions in tourism and entertainment dollars.
On Sept. 12, the NCAA removed seven collegiate sports championships scheduled to be held in North Carolina during the 2016-17 academic year, including two rounds on the wildly popular men’s basketball tournament – all because of HB2.
Forty-eight hours later the Atlantic Coast Conference followed suit. It announced it was moving the conference’s football championship game in December from Charlotte, again in protest to the law.
Looking toward the courts
HB2 supporters from McCrory on down have dug in, setting the stage for an Election Day next week that will serve as an unofficial statewide referendum on the law. Meanwhile, the federal courts get ready to decide whether HB2 discriminates.
Six months after its passage, HB2 remains nationally polarizing – and it could well decide the governor’s race.
McCrory continues to defend the law as “common sense” protection of traditional bathroom rights, while Attorney General Roy Cooper calls for its removal before it does more damage to the state.
The partisan divide shows no signs of narrowing. The Observer invited a series of state and local Republican office-holders to take part in the Tuesday forum. None accepted. The state Republican Party filed a complaint Monday with the elections commission, asking that the event be shut down.
On Wednesday afternoon, an arm of the conservative Family Research Council sent out a blast email describing the forum as a partisan “political stunt” and asking its supporters to target Grantham, a WBTV news anchor, and including her email and the station’s phone number.
Twenty-one states have joined North Carolina in opposing the federal mandate that transgender individuals be allowed to use the public bathrooms that match their sexual identity or lose federal money.
On Aug. 22, a federal judge in Texas issued a nationwide order blocking the Obama administration from giving transgender students in public schools access to bathrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identity.
The ruling dealt a setback to the government’s argument that Title IX anti-discrimination protections apply to transgender students. Last week, the Supreme Court announced it will hear the case of a transgender high school student who has sued his Virginia school district for making him use a special bathroom and not the boys’ facilities.
Most legal experts say the federal courts offer the best hope of a solution. Vinroot said he sees “zero chance” that the General Assembly will rescind the law, regardless of who wins the governor’s race.
Wednesday, the opposing sides showed they can talk to each other, even if they don’t agree.
Toward the end of the panel discussion, Page said transgender people quietly have been using the bathrooms they are most comfortable with “for as long as bathrooms have been a thing.”
Vinroot, sitting next to Page, responded: “Sounds like the City Council gave us a solution to something that was not a problem.”
Vetter waded in: “They wanted to make a statement. We had leaders leading. And what we’re hearing (from you) is ‘Hey y’all, let’s sit back and wait.’ ”
Staff Writer Katherine Peralta contributed.