Opinion: On HB2 and Country v. City

HB2 forum covers facts, highlights divide
Logan Cyrus
The Charlotte Pride parade, 2014.

The Observer’s HB2 forum Wednesday night at the McGlohon Theater was a sober affair that went out of its way to be factually airtight, scrupulously fair, and respectful of differences of opinion—in other words, and in a good way, deeply out of touch with the zeitgeist. Crazy’s trending, in case you haven’t checked your Twitter timeline lately. Midway through, Flip Benham— the Charlotte area’s leading Bible-thumper and human stink bomb—leapt from his seat and, waving his Bible, began declaiming about hellfire and sodomy. That was more like it. Security escorted him out the door and, I presume and hope, back to his home in the Book of Leviticus.

The problem—as Molly Grantham of WBTV, the forum’s moderator, acknowledged—was that after nearly a year of debate over the Charlotte nondiscrimination ordinance and the sweeping HB2 reaction to it, a review of the facts isn’t likely to budge people from their ideological trenches. With a few exceptions, you either support HB2 or don’t—although there’s room for those who think both measures overreached. One of those is Richard Vinroot, the Republican ex-Charlotte mayor and panelist, who didn’t just make the “pox on both their houses” argument Wednesday night but actually used the phrase.

But Vinroot’s casting of the Charlotte ordinance as “overly provocative” was curious. His point was that people aren’t yet ready for local governments to explicitly tell transgender people they can use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. It raises the obvious questions: At what point will they be ready? Couldn’t you have made the same argument about the Civil Rights Act in 1964? (Wasn’t it made in 1964? Isn’t it still contentious now?)

Connie Vetter, a Charlotte attorney who represents LGBT clients in civil rights cases, made exactly that point: “We do not put people’s rights up to a vote.” The 19th Amendment was pretty provocative in its day, too. Waiting for a critical mass of people to grow comfortable with the idea of women having the right to vote would have invited the real possibility of women never having the right to vote. Rights don’t—shouldn’t—depend on whether enough people are “ready” for them, even now. Speaking of Twitter crazy, did you miss the #Repealthe19th hashtag?

Vinroot did make the trenchant point of mentioning the U.S. Supreme Court’s pending decision in the Gavin Grimm case from Virginia, which will probably establish legal precedent for HB2’s vexing bathroom provision, though not its others. No one knows when that decision will come, and as long as the court has eight members, the possibility remains that it wouldn’t be resolved even then.

But another crucial piece of context went missing from the discussion. From the moment two years ago when the Charlotte City Council first considered expanding its list of protected classes, its opponents have portrayed the measure as an out-of-nowhere bolt of sudden radicalism foisted on Charlotte by devious activists. “Why make Charlotte the guinea pig?,” Vinroot said.

Except that conception of the ordinance changes ignores one of the key motivations for them—economic development. This was addressed from the start, that 17 of the 20 largest American cities have some kind of explicit protection for LGBT people in their ordinances, not to mention four cities in South Carolina. It’s well-established by now that large corporations are allergic to any hint of discrimination in cities where they operate, which is why so many have, since March 23, declined to do business in North Carolina. Without that context, Charlotte’s action does seem sudden and mystifying, a needless provocation of a hostile legislature. With it, the measure makes perfect sense. Charlotte has to keep up with its rival cities in rival states because it plays on a global economic field.

Kinston—all due respect—doesn’t. Neither does Hendersonville, or Eden, or rural Pasquotank County, the kinds of places where the bulk of North Carolina legislators hail from. The fight over HB2 is its own front in a larger, national cultural war not between gay and straight or North and South but, increasingly, urban and rural. You see that split reflected everywhere—in economic policy, in consumer choice, in the Presidential election.

That’s not to say everyone who lives in Charlotte hates HB2, or that everyone in small-town North Carolina approves of it. But that’s where the fight is, over whose cultural standards public policy gets to reflect, and it’s fair to wonder whether either side of this debate will ever accept the other’s, and what that might mean for our city, state, nation, future.

Categories: The Buzz