For touring artists opposed to North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” a complicated question looms:
To boycott or not to boycott?
Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, Ani DiFranco and author Sherman Alexie are among those who have opted to cancel their appearances as a show of opposition to a new law that requires transgender people to use public bathrooms that match the gender they were assigned at birth.
Others, including Cyndi Lauper, Duran Duran and comedian Joel McHale, have decided to forge ahead with their Tar Heel State events and use their time in the spotlight to support local LGBT advocacy groups and speak out against the law.
So which is the right call? What has the greater impact — an artist’s presence or absence?
In Springsteen’s case, he decided that scrapping the concert would make the biggest waves: “It is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards,” he wrote in a statement announcing his cancellation.
But his decision drew a backlash of its own, as the Greensboro Coliseum reported that it would lose about $100,000, and city officials fretted that local hotels, restaurants and wage workers would also suffer from lost revenue.
“This is a huge, devastating economic impact,” Greensboro City Council member Sharon Hightower told the Greensboro News & Record. “We are impacting people’s lives who did nothing wrong to anybody to deserve this.”
Granted, that’s how boycotts are typically designed to work — by sending reverberations through the economy and energizing opposition among regular citizens and business interests. Grayson Haver Currin and Tina Haver Currin, an activist couple who launched the North Carolina Needs You website this month, say Springsteen made the right call. Still, they’re encouraging other artists to keep their dates.
“It drove a lot of attention to what is happening in North Carolina,” Grayson said of Springsteen’s announcement. “But I think there are only a small number of stars that have the cachet of Bruce Springsteen.”
In other words, he’d understand if Beyoncé, who is scheduled to play Raleigh in May, made the same choice Springsteen did. (As of Sunday, Beyoncé’s concert was on as scheduled.) But he was disappointed when DiFranco, a folk singer with a smaller cult following, canceled her performance at Durham’s Festival for the Eno, which benefits conservation efforts on the Eno River and its watershed.
Linda-Marie Barrett, owner of Malaprop’s Bookstore and Cafe in Asheville, voiced similar concerns about the decision by Alexie, a National Book Award winner, to cancel a large speaking event she organized, noting that smaller, progressive community institutions are often caught in the crossfire of social protest.
“I understand there are many who believe that an NC boycott requires total commitment, with no exceptions for any business or institution,” she wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “I bring up the possibility of being more strategic when boycotting, not to undermine those places that are on your side of an issue, so that when this is all over, and the legislation repealed, those places are healthy, and the communities they serve are healthy.”
Other authors have rallied behind the bookstore. And a growing list of performers have decided not to skip their North Carolina tour dates: Laura Jane Grace, the transgender lead singer of the punk band Against Me, said she would use her upcoming show to oppose the law and support local LGBT nonprofits. Mumford & Sons and Duran Duran followed suit, and both contacted North Carolina Needs You for guidance in making a donation to a local organization, the Haver Currins said.
“We considered cancelling our show on Saturday, but decided to go ahead, both for the sake of our fans and to support those in North Carolina who feel as strongly as we do about this issue,” Duran Duran said in a statement Thursday.
But Steve Mitchell, co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, said he would understand if its scheduled authors declined to come to North Carolina. He would stand behind them, he said.
“Of course it hurts. It hurts everybody,” Mitchell said.
But “protest is uncomfortable, and it makes people uncomfortable in all kinds of different ways,” he added. “I’m not sure that there’s a black-and-white answer. I think everyone just has to use their own conscience.”
An earlier version of this story attributed Sharon Hightower’s quotes to the Winston-Salem Journal. While the story was republished in the Journal, it originally appeared in the Greensboro News & Record.