At a local coffeehouse in this small town Thursday morning, most patrons’ minds were on House Bill 2 — the state’s infamous “bathroom bill” that prevents transgender people from using the restroom that matches their gender identity. An important deadline was about to expire: The NCAA had threatened to remove all championship basketball games from the state through 2022 if H.B. 2 was not repealed by Thursday. Because the political and financial cost of such a move would dwarf the billions already lost to the law, on Wednesday night the state’s Republican leadership and the new Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, forged an unholy deal — a kind of bait-and-switch meant to keep NCAA games and their revenue in the Tar Heel State — and sent it to the legislature Thursday, where it was approved with bipartisan support and later signed by Cooper.
“It’s not about principle, it’s about the money” was the overall take Thursday morning from the cafe gang of six, which included a real estate agent, an ironworker and a schoolteacher. By that they meant North Carolina’s state leaders were dialing for dollars.
Supporters of the measure, such as Republican Senate leader Phil Berger, claimed that the new law repeals H.B. 2 and “protects the safety and the privacy [of women and girls] in restrooms, locker rooms, and shower facilities.” “Compromises are ofttimes difficult to get to,” he added, “and sometimes difficult for folks to fully appreciate at the time.”
In fact, it’s a misnomer to call the new measure a “repeal” of H.B. 2. It’s really more of a replacement or renaming, as the new law doesn’t differ substantially from its predecessor: It prohibits state and local agencies, including cities and the University of North Carolina, from the “regulation of access” to multi-occupancy restrooms, showers and locker rooms unless in accordance with the legislature. In other words, cities such as Raleigh, Durham and my little Hillsborough would be prohibited from enacting legislation to protect transgender people from harassment and discrimination in public restrooms. The new law also bans cities and towns statewide from passing LGBT nondiscrimination measures through the end of 2020. Transgender people in this state can still be fired at will or denied housing or health care simply because of their gender identity.
It’s always dicey to make comparisons between the struggles of African Americans and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to secure equal rights and protections. But would a deal that restricted cities and the state’s flagship public university from ensuring African Americans could use the same restroom facilities as whites be considered anywhere near a “compromise”? Of course not. Yet the state’s political leaders — Republicans and Democrats alike — apparently consider it acceptable to “compromise” on the rights of transgender people.
You can vote to “repeal” H.B. 2 all the way to kingdom come, but it makes no difference if the discriminatory provisions remain essentially the same, which is the case. As Democratic state Rep. Susan Fisher said during the debate, “This is an accountability moment for all of us. We don’t compromise on civil rights.” Well, yes we did.
Cooper said Wednesday night that he supports the “repeal compromise,” even though “it’s not a perfect deal,” because it “begins to repair our reputation.” What he and the state’s GOP leaders really mean is that they hope the NCAA will be fooled by the trickery and award basketball championship games — and the bucks that come with them — to North Carolina. That remains to be seen.
As I left the cafe Thursday morning, with the “compromise” considered a done deal, one customer told me: “The politicians have no morality. . . . It’s just more evidence that Tobacco Road rules this state.” Allow me to translate: Tobacco Road is another way to say the Big Business of College Basketball. More than a whole year into this mess, the politicians should look instead at what North Carolinians think. I can tell you that my friends at the coffee shop have a lot more on their minds than basketball, starting with the “morality” of treating all North Carolinians equally.