In the week since it was signed, North Carolina’s controversial new law restricting transgender rights has drawn fierce criticism from across the country. Elected officials from Seattle to San Francisco to New York have ordered their employees to steer clear of the state. Big businesses like American Airlines and Wells Fargo have said they are worried about the law. Small businesses have said they will skip conventions in North Carolina.
The NBA even hinted it might move its 2017 All-Star Game, scheduled to take place in Charlotte.
And then there’s the federal lawsuit filed against North Carolina by two transgender individuals and an array of civil liberties groups.
But the issue only reached full fiasco level on Tuesday, when, in equally fiery statements, the state’s Republican governor and its Democratic Attorney General lambasted one another.
“Not only is this new law a national embarrassment, it will set North Carolina’s economy back,” said Roy Cooper, the AG, who also refused to defend the state against the lawsuit.
“We’re talking about discrimination here,” he said.
Shortly after Cooper’s dramatic press conference, Gov. Pat McCrory — who signed the law March 23 and has staunchly defended it — accused Cooper of breaking his oath of office.
“As the state’s attorney, he can’t select which laws he will defend and which laws are politically expedient to refuse to defend,” McCrory said in a video statement. One GOP state senator called on Cooper to resign.
Underlying the spat is the fact that Cooper and McCrory will face off in the November election, considered one of the most competitive and crucial gubernatorial races in the country.
As criticism of the law intensifies inside and outside North Carolina, it increasingly appears as if the state will have to wait until Election Day to resolve its expanding rift over the issue.
The saga began last month when Charlotte, North Carolina’s largest city, passed a sweeping civil rights ordinance.
The left-leaning city’s ordinance expanded protections for individuals on the basis of marital status, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression. Among those protections: a guarantee that transgender people would be allowed to use their preferred restroom.
Even before Charlotte’s city council had voted 7-4 to pass the ordinance, however, McCrory — a former mayor of Charlotte — was promising to override it.
“The only issue I think the state needs to be involved in is the issue regarding locker rooms and restrooms, that’s the one that draws concern that has ramifications beyond city limits,” McCrory said in an email to council members, according to ABC11.
He wasn’t alone in his opposition.
At the time of the vote, more than 12,000 people had signed an online petition concerned the ordinance would encumber small business owners and put women and children at risk in Charlotte bathrooms.
But supporters called that argument absurd.
“It’s very unfortunate because it’s a myth,” Devin Lentz, a Raleigh resident and transgender woman, told ABC11. “The idea that it’s a danger or that it’s something people need to worry about because it poses a threat is, it’s just not true.”
Lentz said that the bathroom issue was real, but that the danger was the other way around.
“If you take a transgender woman and force her to go into the men’s room, which appears to be what the governor wants to do, what you’re going to do is put her in danger, she’s much more likely to be assaulted and harassed,” she said. “Transgender people, especially transgender women are assaulted, harassed, raped, murdered at really heartbreaking levels.”
McCrory’s call for a state law overriding the Charlotte ordinance had the overwhelming support from his party.
The only problem: the legislature wasn’t in session. Moreover, it wasn’t scheduled to reconvene until after the Charlotte ordinance went into effect.
So, on March 21, leaders of the Republican-controlled legislature invoked a seldom-used constitutional provision to call themselves into session just two days later.
“We aim to repeal this ordinance before it goes into effect to provide for the privacy and protection of the women and children of our state,” Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and House Speaker Tim Moore said in a joint statement announcing the special one-day session, which cost the state cost $42,000.
Comments on local news websites captured the deep divides in the state.
“We are lucky to have legislators willing to protect taxpayers who have to take a leak in Charlotte,” wrote one man.
“But they aren’t. Transgender people need protection, and they are about to take it away,” responded another person.
“Transgender people don’t need protection. They need help to stop pretending they are something they are not and can never ever be no matter what has been added or removed,” chimed in a third.
“I hate to break this to you but you are probably already using public restrooms with transgendered people,” replied a fourth person. “Are you really that concerned if someone squats when urinating?”
On March 23, a bizarre and frantic day at the Raleigh statehouse, the legislature passed the bill. Although a handful of Democratic representatives voted in favor, Democratic state senators walked out of the chamber in protest.
“We choose not to participate in this farce,” Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue said, according to CBS.
That same night, McCrory signed the bill into law.
In doing so, McCrory set himself apart from a handful of Republican governors across the country who have recently vetoed or promised to veto similar measures.
On March 1, South Dakota’s Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard vetoed a bill that would have been the first in the nation to restrict transgender students’ access to school restrooms and locker rooms.
Daugaard said the statewide mandate “does not address any pressing issue concerning the school districts of South Dakota.”
“Instead of encouraging local solutions, this bill broadly regulates in a manner that invites conflict and litigation, diverting energy and resources from the education of the children of this state,” he continued.
On Monday, Georgia’s GOP governor came to a similar conclusion, promising to veto a similar bill.
“I have examined the protections that this bill proposes to provide to the faith based community and I can find no examples of any of those circumstances occurring in our state,” announced Nathan Deal. “I do not think that we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia.”
That leaves North Carolina as the first, and so far only, state to pass such a measure.
Local newspapers have rejected the title in disgust.
In an editorial ominously titled “McCrory joins a dark list of Southern governors,” the Charlotte Observer shamed the governor.
“This week, as then, North Carolina needed a leader who understood the damage this law might do — most importantly to its vulnerable citizens, but also to the face we present to businesses and workers considering our state,” the paper wrote. “Instead we got a late-night bill signing Wednesday and some campaign tweets. We got a state newly stained, and a governor joining a sorrowful list of those who decided not to lead us forward, but to bow to the worst in us.”
The Daily Tar Heel went further.
“This bill is wrong beyond repair,” wrote the University of North Carolina’s student paper. “This law is a chapter in America’s horror story.”
Unsurprisingly, the Charlotte mayor who championed the anti-discrimination ordinance blasted the law.
The General Assembly is on the wrong side of progress,” said Jennifer Roberts. “It is on the wrong side of history.”
That argument was bolstered by a cascade of city and state officials from across the country, who said they were ordering their employees to avoid nonessential publicly funded travel to North Carolina.
“We are standing united as San Franciscans to condemn North Carolina’s new discriminatory law that turns back the clock on protecting the rights of all Americans including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals,” said San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee in a statement released last Friday. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo followed suit on Monday.
“In New York, we believe that all people — regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation — deserve the same rights and protections under the law,” Cuomo said in a statement. “From Stonewall to marriage equality, our state has been a beacon of hope and equality for the LGBT community, and we will not stand idly by as misguided legislation replicates the discrimination of the past.”
Even the White House weighed in, calling the N.C. law “mean-spirited.”
That same day, The American Civil Liberties Union, along with LGBT advocacy groups Lambda Legal and Equality North Carolina, filed a federal lawsuit against North Carolina on behalf of two transgender people and a lesbian law school professor.
“Lawmakers made no attempt to cloak their actions in a veneer of neutrality, instead openly and virulently attacking transgender people, who were falsely portrayed as predatory and dangerous to others,” the lawsuit claims.
Cooper, who as AG is one of the defendants on the suit, announced on Tuesday that his office would not defend the state in the suit.
He said that he had defended laws that he didn’t agree with in the past, but this time was different.
“This is a unique and different situation, and as attorney general there are often times situations where you have to make choices with different agencies that are conflicted,” he said in his press conference. “Here, this is the right choice.”
Cooper said that the law conflicted with his own office’s non-discrimination policies, and that the bathroom restrictions were already hurting the state’s economy.
“We know that businesses here and all over the country have taken a strong stance in opposition to this law,” he said.
Republican State Sen. Phil Berger called on Cooper to quit.
“He is telling everybody that it’s more important to him to apply for and work towards the job he wants than the job he has,” Berger said, according to ABC11. “If he wants to run for governor, he’s perfectly free to do that. But he can’t do that and ignore the job he’s being paid for now.”
Gov. McCrory also accused Cooper of playing politics.
“Some have called our state an embarrassment. The real embarrassment is politicians not publicly respecting each other’s positions on complex issues,” he said.
“North Carolina has been the target of a vicious, nation-wide smear campaign,” McCrory continued. “Disregarding the facts, other politicians, from the White House to mayors and city council members and yes our Attorney General, have initiated and promoted conflict to advance their political agenda. Even if it means defying the constitution and their oath of office.”
Polls taken before the transgender law turmoil showed the gubernatorial race as neck-and-neck.
It’s unclear how the dueling politicians’ defiant positions have affected the outlook. Come Election Day, however, people across the nation will be following North Carolina’s returns very closely.
Read more about the battle over bathroom rights: