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How North Carolina Went From 'Bathroom Bills' to Equality Leader

NC

It's been a little over five years, March 23, since the passage of House Bill 2, a piece of legislation that forever transformed North Carolina and the fight for transgender rights in the United States and around the world. 

On this notorious anniversary, our country is also on the precipice of passing a federal law protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in every area of life, including housing, public spaces, healthcare, and more. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act earlier this month, and it’s up to the U.S. Senate to take the bill and enact its critical protections once and for all. Central to those conversations will be U.S. Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis from N.C. 

It’s incredible to think how far we’ve come in five years — and how North Carolina has been a major player in our country’s major shift toward transgender equality. 

You may remember HB2 as the infamous “bathroom bill,” one of the most anti-LGBTQ bills passed anywhere in the 2010s, and how it ignited a global conversation about transgender rights. But HB2 was about so much more than bathrooms — it outright overturned and banned local statutes throughout North Carolina that protected people from discrimination.

A global backlash followed: Businesses and events canceled an estimated $3.76 billion in investment from North Carolina, with everyone from Paypal to Bruce Springsteen to the NBA pulling projects from the state. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against North Carolina, with U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch famously declaring to trans youth, “We see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.” And that fall, Governor Pat McCrory — a major champion of HB2 — lost his reelection bid, unable to overcome the political damage of the law. 

HB2 was eventually replaced in 2017 by HB142, which continued to preempt municipalities from passing local measures to protect LGBTQ people. That provision expired on December 1, 2020.

That’s right: Until four months ago, state law blocked people from accessing local protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and other characteristics. But a lot has changed in the movement for LGBTQ protections over the past five years, and we’ve seen incredible moves to right the wrongs of HB2 in the months since December. 

In past weeks, a half dozen municipalities in North Carolina have passed LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinances. Each of the ordinances — in Hillsborough, Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Greensboro, and Orange County — passed unanimously. Durham and Greensboro are two of the five most populous cities in the state. With the passage of these six ordinances, the population of North Carolinians protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity jumped from 0 percent to nearly 7 percent. According to polling, more than 67 percent of North Carolinians support nondiscrimination measures.

LGBTQ North Carolinians need protections on the federal, state, and local levels — and I’m heartened to see this local progress while we push for state and federal action. For far too long, North Carolina has lagged behind the rest of the nation when it comes to creating a culture where our most vulnerable can thrive, particularly Black, Brown, trans, and gender-nonconforming folks. 

Now, lawmakers in the North Carolina General Assembly and in Congress need to look no further than this wave of local nondiscrimination ordinances, a total 180-degree pivot from the days of HB2, to see that the tides have turned on this issue. 

North Carolina is ready for nondiscrimination protections, and so is the country.We need all of our elected officials, from mayors, city councils, county officials to our U.S. Senators, to show leadership on this issue. We need them to ensure that our local and federal policies reflect where we actually are as a state — a state that is moving toward inclusion and dignity for all, a state that at last has abandoned the shameful bigotry of HB2. 

Kendra R. Johnson is the Executive Director of Equality NC.(Kendra@equalitync.org

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