North Carolina had every good reason to repeal HB2, but chose discrimination instead


Alaina Kupec says her life before House Bill 2 was quiet. She was not out publicly as transgender and lived with her wife. But, after the bill, which denies transgender people the right to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, became law in North Carolina in March, even a trip to the gym became fraught with worry. 

She felt unwelcome in her own state, perceiving danger everywhere. 

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Kupec began to work with the American Civil Liberties Union in North Carolina and says she met with several state legislators after the bill's passing to discuss its effect on trans North Carolinians. She says that, privately, two legislators who voted for the bill told her that she was the first transgender person they'd ever met. When she told them that HB2 had ended the days of her being able to use the bathroom in peace, Kupec claims they hadn't realized the bill's effect on people's everyday lives.

"They both said, 'You shouldn't have a problem using the restroom, because you look fine,'" Kupec said in a phone interview. "And my reaction was 'Well, that's the point. I didn't have a problem, but now I do because of this law you passed!'"

"They were so caught up in the political narrative, they didn't stop to think about what this means for people in my situation."

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It's possible that, before the passage of HB2, some North Carolina lawmakers did not understand the law's effect on transgender people — or on the state's economy. But, nine months later, there's no doubt that HB2 burdens North Carolinians. National controversy swirls around the law, which has cost the state millions of dollars in business. And the law has put countless political issues on the front burner: The fight over HB2 has become a flashpoint for national political issues such as gerrymandering, the powers of governors versus state legislatures, the role of popular will in governance and the struggle for transgender rights

Despite overwhelming evidence of HB2's damaging effects, North Carolina's government has failed to react with anything but inaction. HB2 remains the law of the land in North Carolina.

A failed compromise to repeal

On Wednesday, inside the North Carolina state legislative building in Raleigh, hundreds of North Carolinians waited for almost 12 hours to learn the fate of the controversial bill. They came to see legislators debate the bill's merits, but the public was mostly shut out of most of the discussion of HB2. 

Instead, journalists, activists and other private citizens mulled the bill's future while legislators debated on the floor and in their private quarters. What some community members did hear during the debates from the public seating shocked them.

"They were talking about this bill as if the bill affects some inanimate object," said Candis Cox, a transgender activist who is on the board of directors for Equality North Carolina and attended the legislative session. Cox, who also previously met several of the legislators and spoke to them about the bill, lamented that none referenced transgender people's predicament.

If, as Cox and Kupec say, several legislators claimed not to have met a transgender person prior to passing the bill the first time, the same was not true by Wednesday: Both women had met face-to-face with legislators since the bill's passing. Separately, advocates had met with Gov. Pat McCrory and legislators to help answer questions and explain the bill's insidious implications for transgender people.

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"I think that they're putting their political futures ahead of the citizens of the state of North Carolina," Kupec said. "This was nothing but a political agenda from the beginning, without any idea of the implications this would have on the affected people."

Earlier in the week, the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, whose local equal rights law prompted HB2, brokered a compromise whereby the city council repealed its now-toothless February ordinance expanding legal protections for LGBTQ people. The state was supposed to, in turn, repeal HB2. 

The North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh, however, did not follow through on its end of the agreement. The special congressional session, called solely to repeal HB2, ended after 12 hours with legislators failing to meet their purpose. 

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Costs to North Carolina

Why keep such a deeply unpopular bill? A majority of voters think the law hurts the state, according to public polling. (The bill also did more than just discriminate against transgender people: It rolled back worker protections and is set to exacerbate income inequality.)

Not only did the bill disrupt the lives of countless North Carolinians, it threw North Carolina's economy — and its reputation — into disarray. PayPal reneged on plans to expand their operations in the state. The NCAA looked elsewhere for suitable venues for college championship games. Bruce Springsteen canceled a concert, prompting the Daily Beast to ponder whether the state would ever again host a celebrity.

Only 18 days after the bill passed, the Center for American Progress estimated that it had already cost the state about $86.3 million. It's now been 274 days since the law made it onto the books, and a sudden influx of cash seems unlikely.

"The NCAA's decision to withhold championships from North Carolina remains unchanged," Bob Williams, NCAA senior vice president of communications, said. (Paypal declined to comment.)

Sixty-eight companies — including Capital One, Dropbox, IBM and IKEA, to name a few — joined an amicus brief written by LGBTQ advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign in support of the U.S. Department of Justice's civil rights case against North Carolina. In the brief, a number of the companies agree that the law is "already damaging their ability to recruit and retain a diverse workforce and is imposing a substantial disincentive to investment and commerce in the State, directly impacting their bottom line."

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But it's more than just big business. The boycott on travel and tourism to the state, encouraged by celebrities like Springsteen, has hit small business owners, too. In April, Linda-Marie Barrett, general manager of Malaprop's, a bookstore in Asheville, pleaded with creative types in a New York Times op-ed to visit the state and support its local businesses rather than engage in a broad boycott that left small businesses in North Carolina strapped for cash.

"We did feel it initially and during the summer," Barrett said in an interview. "And I have heard that restaurants suffered, like, 30% [losses], and some artists who were dependent on tourism trade coming to their galleries, they suffered."

Barrett said that Malaprop's and a number of other bookstores across the state wrote a letter to the Gov. McCrory and the legislature pleading the small business case against HB2, but the letter remains unanswered.

"It's frustrating," she said. "I am concerned about the future."

Despite HB2 remaining in force, Barrett and others aren't giving up. From the beginning, North Carolinians opposed to the bill using the hashtag #WeAreNotThis.  In November, voters restated this message when they sacked the bill's most vociferous proponent — the governor, McCrory — and voted in his Democratic challenger, Roy Cooper, an HB2 opponent.

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"My hope is that, because this is important to [Cooper] and it's not a popular piece of legislation," Barrett said, "I'm hoping in 2017 that it will be overturned."

HB2 refused to die

With the litany of evidence that the bill was bad for the state's economy and its citizenry, North Carolinians were scratching their heads as HB2 simply refused to die. Kupec, the trans activist, believes it's a classic case of politics and power over people.

"I think they were trying to satisfy the conservative part of their base," she said. "They've used the trans community as the face of horrible legislation that is in so many ways part of their political agenda to consolidate power at the state level."

Cox said the discussions she heard while sitting in the chamber the day of the decision sounded like discussions that one might hear about civil rights in the South four or five decades ago.

The day of the failed repeal in Raleigh "felt like it was 1962 and we were debating Jim Crow laws and we were debating voter rights and we were debating interracial marriage," she said.

Kupec says that, over time, it will come to light that HB2 is a political charade meant to please a conservative base — and it's backfired horribly.

"Instead of admitting they've made a mistake, they've doubled, tripled and quadrupled down on legislation because there's no way for them to back out with losing face," she said. "It's so demoralizing."

The last hope

Due to severe redistricting, North Carolina's state map favors rural, Republican districts. According to one report, the state should no longer even be considered a democracy. Federal judges have ruled that the state's legislative map is unconstitutional because it packs black and Latino voters into only a few districts. In 2017, when districts are redrawn, all legislators will be up for re-election, even if they were just elected in 2016.

With gerrymandered districts keeping Republicans in power, Kupec is confident that the creation and failure to repeal HB2 stems from a desire to keep power in the hands of one type of person.

"[This is] a white male majority population trying to hold on to the power that they've long held that is slipping out of their grasp," Kupec said. "When you look at who is for HB2, there is zero diversity there."

Cox echoed Kupec's point, and spoke about her time sitting in the legislative session, hearing politicians speak about her life with no regard for her humanity.

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"It felt like a bunch of middle-aged white men and a few middle-aged white women, cisgendered and southern, talking about something they know nothing about and something that doesn't affect them in the least," she said.  

If the current economic squeeze were not enough, the state stands to lose millions more if the North Carolina chapter of NAACP has its way. On Thursday, the state NAACP chapter said it will draft a letter to the national NAACP asking for an economic boycott of the state. A similar 15-year boycott in South Carolina ended in 2015 after the state removed the confederate flag from in front of the capitol building.

Next year, Cooper will take over as governor, albeit with diminished power. And the special election means a potential wave of new faces could take seats in the upcoming legislature. In 2017, then, some citizens are looking forward to a chance to press the reset button.

"I have loved this state my entire life. It's my special place," Kupec said. "These lawmakers are destroying the state for their expense."