Two North Carolina women are facing criminal charges for allegedly groping and verbally harassing a 29-year-old transgender woman in a public restroom.
Raleigh residents Jessica Leann Fowler, 31, and Amber Nicole Harrell, 38, are charged with misdemeanor sexual battery and felony second-degree kidnapping in connection with the incident, which took place at downtown Raleigh’s Milk Bar December 9, The News & Observer reports. Fowler turned herself in to police Tuesday, and Harrell did so last weekend. Both posted bond and were released.
Raleigh police received a call December 10 reporting the assault. Accounts differ as to whether the call came from the alleged victim or a friend of hers, but the caller said two women at first engaged the victim in a cordial conversation, but then one grabbed the trans woman’s genitals and asked if she had a penis.
“The other woman started laughing, pulled up her shirt and asked the transgender woman if she wanted to see her breasts, the 911 caller said,” The News & Observer reports. “One of the women also grabbed the victim’s buttocks, according to the caller.” The trans woman repeatedly asked the other women to stop, but one of them kept groping her after the group exited the restroom, until a bartender asked them to stop, the caller said.
If convicted, Fowler and Harrell will have to register as sex offenders, local TV station WRAL reports.
Fives Hospitality Co., which owns Milk Bar, released a statement condemning harassment of customers and saying company officials are cooperating in the investigation. “[Fives Hospitality Co.] handles all matters that threaten our patrons in a timely fashion to ensure their safety and ability to enjoy themselves at all of our locations,” the statement said, according to WRAL. “This matter was handled with cooperation and full transparency with the Raleigh Police Department and the detective that was assigned this case. [Fives Hospitality Co.] and Milk Bar seek to continue to welcome all patrons into a safe environment.”
North Carolina became nationally notorious in 2016 when it passed a law, House Bill 2, requiring trans people to use restrooms and other single-sex facilities designated for the gender on their birth certificate, not their gender identity, when in government buildings, including public schools and state colleges and universities. The law did not affect private businesses such as Milk Bar, but it was still widely viewed as an attack on transgender people, and it cost the state considerable business. HB 2 came in response to the city of Charlotte passing an ordinance banning anti-LGBTQ discrimination in public accommodations, including restrooms. Some opponents of the Charlotte ordinance painted transgender people as restroom predators, something that has been widely debunked, although trans people are often victims of harassment.
HB 2 also prevented cities and counties from adopting or enforcing antidiscrimination ordinances covering any group not included in state law — and LGBTQ people are not. In a compromise reached in 2017 by the legislature and the new Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, the restroom portion of the law was repealed, but cities and counties remain barred until December 2020 from enacting civil rights ordinances that are broader than state statutes. This is still having economic repercussions — Netflix intended to film a new show, OBX, in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, but because of the law it’s considering South Carolina instead.