North Carolina’s Anti-LGBT Law: When a Cultural “Transgender Tipping Point” Doesn’t Match Reality


North Carolina just passed a shockingly discriminatory anti-LGBT law that explicitly uses the “transgender bathroom panic” canard to strike down all local anti-discrimination ordinances. Being an anti-anti-discrimination law makes the legislation, literally, pro-discrimination.

The AP report explains exactly what the law entails:

North Carolina legislators decided to rein in local governments by approving a bill Wednesday that prevents cities and counties from passing their own anti-discrimination rules. Gov. Pat McCrory later signed the legislation, which dealt a blow to the LGBT movement after success with protections in cities across the country…. Critics focused on language in the ordinance that allowed transgender people to use the restroom aligned with their gender identity.

Beyond the fear-mongering bathroom stuff, the new law “also preempts cities from passing their own nondiscrimination standards, saying the state’s rules — which are more conservative — supersede localities,” writes The Atlantic‘s David A. Graham, explaining that “local school districts would be barred from allowing transgender students to use bathrooms or locker rooms that don’t correspond to the gender listed on their birth certificate. The bill would also ban cities from passing their own minimum-wage laws.”

There’s no silver lining here. Yes, a “transgender tipping point” may be applauded in the media; we may be introduced to trans folks on magazine covers or TV shows and films like like I Am Cait, Transparent, Becoming Us, Orange Is the New Black, Tangerine , I Am Jazz, The Danish Girl, and so forth. But for trans people in North Carolina, daily life just got even worse — as harassment and discrimination against trans people was essentially given the backing of the law, while any local attempts to shield LGBT citizens from discrimination have been given the heave-ho.

In fact, this flurry of anti-LGBT legislation may be in part a backlash to the leaps and bounds culture has taken, especially with respect to gay marriage. Local governments, feeling beset by cultural liberalism, are striking back. TV triumphs aside, that backlash means fear of violence. Janet Mock tweeted a little bit about the direct danger that trans women face at moments like this:

Yet even Mock’s widely circulating tweets reflect a disconnect. Mock, like Laverne Cox, is a beloved celebrity among the social justice set, mobbed at appearances and hailed on social media. But when she goes to North Carolina, her basic rights fall under question.

So where does this divide come from? For one, online activism and visibility efforts have been successful in broader ways, but they can’t shake some of these political strangleholds. Celebrities who tweeted mean things about Caitlyn Jenner after she came out were immediately shamed into apologizing, but the army of tweeters who made them swallow their words haven’t been able to defeat a number of the horrid laws now cropping up. Sometimes, getting the grassroots together is not enough. North Carolina has been home to “Moral Mondays,” a series of dynamic and inspiring protests that essentially failed to change the course of state politics. And after Scott Walker overreached against unions in Wisconsin, he still won re-election and is now at work dismantling the University of Wisconsin system.

Often, these days, the culture shifts forward towards inclusiveness, but the actual experience of oppression intensifies at the very same time. On TV, abortion taboos have been broken much more frequently in recent years, while on the ground, clinic doors are closing at a rapid pace, and women are self-inducing abortions and getting prosecuted for them as though we were in pre-Roe times. Similarly, celebrities, TV shows and politicians alike are talking about Black Lives Matter regularly, but police killings continue along with acquittals or failures to prosecute. And today, even as we celebrate the public reception of Lady Gaga’s anti-rape performance at the Oscars, we see radio host Jian Ghomeshi acquitted of all assault charges in Canada by a judge repeating some common anti-rape myths.

In all these examples, “acceptable discourse” as continually, progressively redefined in national media is very different from how some folks at home want to define it — which explains, in part, Donald Trump’s popularity. For people on the other side of the cultural chasm, he’s a loud voice representing those bigoted local politicians on the national stage.

It’s a bleak, bleak moment. Yet young, digitally connected organizers have had some incredible real-world success too. Last week, in Chicago and Cleveland, organizers banded together and voted out the prosecutors who failed to successfully go after killer cops. It was a huge grassroots victory and a signal that we shouldn’t give up on fighting at the local level. So what’s the answer for activists, besides an inevitable and important legal challenge?

In Georgia, which is also poised to pass a discriminatory anti-LGBT law, corporations like Disney and Time Warner have stepped in, threatening to remove their business from the state. This is one way to leverage the changing culture to actually affect reality on the ground. But for LGBT people waking up in North Carolina today, it’s still not enough.