HB2 hurts economically, but that’s not the point

Plenty of politicians criticize HB2, but most do it for the wrong reason.
Plenty of politicians criticize HB2, but most do it for the wrong reason.

If you listen to state leaders who oppose HB2, you would never know that the legislation was crafted as an assault on the civil rights of LGBTQ people. The discussion today is all about the economic losses inflicted by sports leagues and corporations that have boycotted the state. Like the campaign against Amendment One in 2012, opponents of HB2 have de-gayed the discussion. Why? Because North Carolina politicians and consultants are scared of the words lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer. They are scared that social conservatives might be uncomfortable hearing too much about a third rail issue such as the basic civil rights of gay and transgender people. So they pander. The opposition to HB2 from leaders in the state is as disingenuous as it gets.

I recognize the economic effects of HB2. It is a valid point – but it is not the point. Lost in political doublespeak is the physical and psychological damage that HB2 inflicts day in and day out on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. Those who pay lip service to gay people’s civil rights by using garden variety economic tropes are not leading – they’re pinkwashing. Politicians repeat phrases ad nauseum like “I oppose all forms of discrimination” rather than speak plainly about the oppression of gay people. To these politicians, I say: Gay people are not a commercial venture. We are not an athletic event. We are not an economic development project. We are not a business. We are not a revenue stream. So much ado about a lost game while we remain fair game. We still live on the fringes of society. We are a people who are denied the same rights as heterosexuals. We are a people most likely to be the target of hate crimes in America. We are a people whose 10-24-year-olds attempt suicide 400 percent more often than straight youth. For all the talk about commerce, HB2 is a boon for trauma centers, mental health professionals, suicide hotlines, police departments, physicians and workers’ compensation insurance carriers.

Opposition to HB2 has been packaged in the soft fabric of conventional rhetoric about jobs and the economy by establishment political, educational and business leaders. Gay and transgender people have become invisible in public discourse. Despite having been cast as antagonists in Gov. Pat McCrory’s film noir, we remain mute background actors. U.S. Senate candidate Deborah Ross spoke of HB2 as “bad for business and it’s bad for our brand.” State Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper spoke to HB2 by saying “this is not about sports, this is about communities in North Carolina suffering real economic blows.” State Senator Ricky Gunn suggested repealing HB2 because of the impact it has had “on NCAA and Atlantic Coast Conference athletic championship events.” The statement issued by chancellors Carol Folt at UNC and Randy Woodson at N.C. State was particularly disappointing. In response to the ACC’s decision to move championship games out of North Carolina, they said “We appreciate ... the A.C.C.’s strong commitment to diversity and inclusion,” adding, “However, we regret today’s decision will negatively affect many North Carolinians, especially in the affected host communities.” They should have said diversity and inclusion … for the LGBTQ community. But they didn’t. Their words were crafted to appease, not to confront. They bypassed an opportunity to engage in honest talk about compassion, justice and equality for queer people in the state. Words matter. There is an inherent dishonesty in the sort of pandering that dominates the conversation about HB2.

Where are the authentic, unvarnished voices standing up for the LGBTQ community? I know of one: Duke University Athletic Director Kevin White. In agreeing with the NCAA’s decision to ban NCAA games from North Carolina, White was spot on in stating “We deplore any efforts to deprive individuals, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, of legal protections and rights.”  

A once-in-a lifetime opportunity exists for a politician running for high office – be it Deborah Ross or Roy Cooper – to make an unequivocal address to North Carolinians about the pernicious consequences of HB2 on the LGBTQ community. A catalyst who brings agency and clarity to the table can showcase the sort of leadership and humanity which this state needs. All of us lose when gay and transgender people remain invisible because spineless leaders say only what is politically expedient. The harsh reality is that North Carolina is ground zero for the ugliest degradation of civil rights of the 21st century. Sloganeering by politicians that “we’re better than this” will not work so long as they’re not. 

Jim Neal, a Democrat, was a U.S. Senate candidate in North Carolina in 2008.