For over a year, long before the Obergefell marriage equality ruling, many warned that the backlash to LGBT equality would be ugly and intense, and that too many LGBT leaders and much of the media weren't paying attention, caught up in the wins -- what I've dubbed victory blindness.
The cost, it was noted, would be the stripping of LGBT rights under the radar, with little focus on our issues. Lo and behold, while LGBT rights were front and center for several years and at the forefront of the 2012 presidential election, there's been hardly any discussion of the issues in the current election campaign, even as anti-LGBT forces in the states, in the GOP leadership, and in Congress have been in overdrive. Neither of the two Democratic candidates has given an interview to LGBT media since the primaries began; in 2008, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had done so several times by this point in the race and on through June.
I've noted that the largest LGBT group, the Human Rights Campaign, endorsed a candidate (Clinton) before any votes were even cast -- something it hasn't done in the recent presidential elections until after the presidential primaries were over -- and thus the candidates weren't competing for the LGBT vote by actually talking about the issues. But many other LGBT groups with big platforms, from the often enormously effective National Center for Lesbian Rights (which took the lead in pressuring politicians and groups to drop the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, with its dangerous religious exemptions) to the DC-based National LGBTQ Task Force, the oldest group advocating on behalf of LGBTQ people, have been missing in action during the presidential race. And the brash and loud direct action group, Get Equal, known for powerful protests over the past eight years, pushing President Obama to act, has been on mute.
Meanwhile, the ferocious backlash ensued, in state after state, as religious zealots, through trial and error -- having some losses, and getting some wins -- tried to craft laws to roll things back. And what happened last night in North Carolina isn't only the latest example of it; it's the most far-reaching and frighteningly successful example so far.
The speed with which a horrifically anti-LGBT bill passed the North Carolina legislature was sickening. Within hours of of being introduced in the legislature and getting overwhelming support, a sweeping bill which overturned existing ordinances protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in cities and counties across the state -- and which banned transgender people from using restrooms that correspond with their gender identity -- was signed by the GOP governor, Pat McCrory.
HB2 is the most heinous, homophobic, transphobic law we have ever seen -- just read it. McCrory, running for re-election in November, put out a statement that used transgender "bathroom panic," which LGBT leaders still have not figured out how to battle since the stunning defeat in Houston, to justify rescinding protections for thousands across the state. The new law basically rewrites the state's civil rights laws to protect on the basis of race, color, country of origin, religion, age and "biological sex," creating a new category meant to exclude transgender people.
How it overturns existing ordinances protecting LGBT people in localities -- and seeks to get around the Supreme Court's landmark Romer v. Evans decision -- is by not singling LGBT people out: HB2 states that any local ordinances protecting any group that is not protected statewide with regard to wages, employment or public accommodations are officially rescinded. So, they're not targeting LGBT people, they will tell you, legalistically -- they're targeting anyone and everyone equally.
But the impetus for the law was the recent passage of an anti-discrimination ordinance in Charlotte, which anti-gay leaders -- fresh from the Houston win -- seized upon because it would protect transgender people in public accommodations, including public rest rooms.
In a statement issued before the bill was signed, the state Senate Democratic leader, Dan Blue, said the bill "essentially repeals 50 years of non-discrimination efforts" and "would be the single most discriminatory act in the country. This is a direct affront to equality, civil rights, and local autonomy."
The North Carolina law comes as the governor in Georgia is weighing a "religious liberty" bill sent to his desk and which actually seeks to treat anti-gay zealots as an oppressed minority who should be "protected" from serving or hiring LGBT people -- or anyone who is an affront to their religious beliefs. LGBT activists have rallied big business, as was done in Indiana last year over an anti-LGBT Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the NFL has threatened the state. But in North Carolina, with even Dow Chemical coming out against HB2, that strategy clearly didn't work. Companies can talk a good talk, but until they actually act politicians may learn that they're all talk and no action (and that they really like those great tax breaks they get in a particular state).
After Indiana regressed, and failed to pass a much-anticipated LGBT rights bill this year, for example, no companies actually pulled out of the state even after voicing their concerns. As I've said before, big business and the media are fair weather friends.
The only thing that will stop the hate is shaking ourselves from our own complacency. That also means pushing LGBT groups and leaders not only to come up with a strategy to battle "bathroom panic" but to speak out and pressure politicians, including allies such as the Democratic presidential candidates, who could put these issues in the national spotlight.
Early on during this Democratic primary race, Black Lives Matter activists disrupted events and demanded meetings, making sure that Sanders, Clinton and former candidate Martin O'Malley would be talking about the issues important to their community. The Dreamers, the immigrant youth activists, did this earlier on regarding the issue of immigration.
But when you're absent, or, worse yet, patting the candidates on the back by endorsing them early and campaigning for them, is it any wonder there's no discussion of these issues during the presidential race, and that something like North Carolina can happen right before your eyes?
If you take North Carolina and Georgia, and put them together with the demagoguery Donald Trump has been engaging in against immigrants while flirting with the KKK, and with Ted Cruz's latest call for monitoring and surveillance of Muslim-Americans, you see the grotesque turn the GOP has taken, nationally and in the states -- a turn that the entire country could take. The Democratic candidates, even if just to energize the base, should be connecting all those dots -- loudly, in the national media and in LGBT media -- and we should be pushing them to do it.
Michelangelo Signorile's book, It's Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality, is due out in paperback with a new afterword, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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