Always independent and provocative, Shannon Gilreath is an expert on issues of equality, sexual minorities, and constitutional interpretation. An advocate of interdisciplinary study, the Wake Forest University professor regularly teaches Constitutional Law, Sexual Identity and Law, Freedom of Religion, and Gender and the Law in the law school, as well as various other topical seminars in the law school and in the university's Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department, where he enjoys an appointment as core faculty. Below is a Q & A interview with Gilreath:
Q: North Carolina has been in the national spotlight twice in 2016, both times for issues related to the mistreatment of minority members. First, the HB2 law banning transgender individuals from using some public restrooms. This week, intense protests occurred after Keith Lamont Scott, an African-American male, was shot to death by a police officer. North Carolina also received attention regarding its voter id requirement, which was recently struck down in federal appeals court as being racially motivated. What is going on in North Carolina?
A: What's going on in North Carolina, in part, is that in the 2010 legislative elections the Republicans took control of the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction. It's been like Christmas for them. They had a list of retrogressive policies they wanted to implement, and they've been remarkably successful at it. Decades ago James Baldwin visited North Carolina and was told it "wasn't really the South." Baldwin countered that it seemed quite Southern enough for him. I can only imagine how he'd feel about it now.
As for the Scott case, I think it is, unlike the shooting in Tulsa, far from an easy call. I don't think we yet have enough facts to determine whether this was a "good" shooting, as police would say. What does seem clear to me, though, is that the rioting in the wake of it is most intemperate and regrettable. You may have heard that private property has been damaged, a portion of I-85 shut down, and drivers harassed. At one point, rioters were emptying trailers of their cargo and setting it on fire in the middle of the interstate. This is not productive. I was looking at some old photographs of Selma the other day. Well-dressed, determined men and women, in skirts and ties, were obstructing the bridge with a peaceful political purpose. They accomplished something. What we've seen in Charlotte is pure hooliganism.
Q: In North Carolina, is there a link between racial prejudice and anti-LGBT sentiment?
A: Yes, in the sense that many of the white lower classes, who are less educated and who have fewer options, seem to hate everyone. I suppose hate is a commodity they can afford. Certainly, many poor whites tend to be as homophobic as they are racist. But it's important to note that only eleven Democrats voted for HB2, six of them were black. Of course, they were doing the bidding of their evangelical preacher handlers who see no parallels between black civil rights and gay civil rights. I think these -isms and phobias have a lot to do with lower class prejudices generally, often related to religion, regardless of race.
Q: You were born in North Carolina, I believe. Are you proud to be a Southerner?
A: That's a fascinating question with a complex answer. The answer is, yes, generally. I come from a very old North Carolina family. One of my ancestral relations represented North Carolina at the Constitutional Convention. One of my ancestors also led the charge at Gettysburg that got North Carolinians nicknamed "Tarheels" (a Northern general remarked that the Carolina soldiers stuck to the field like they had tar on their heels). Most of my immediate ancestors have had a concrete sense of civic duty. My great-grandfather, working for the Roosevelt administration, is partly responsible for much of the paved roads in Western NC. My grandfather helped build the local hospital in the town where I grew up, and so on. They were Southerners, and they did these things. There was a real sense of civic obligation. I'm proud of that. I don't pretend that the many generations of my family were all great, or even good, people, but I long ago gave up the self-flagellatory hobby of condemning my ancestors for failing to keep up with the times on account of being dead. I'm proud of the role they played in making this country.
Q: Are privilege or notions of supremacy to blame for recent events in North Carolina?
Well, I think that's an oversimplification of who or what is to blame. The dreary fact is that, in the South, racialized distrust and discontent is always simmering just below the surface. So is homophobia. We've all been watching for the past eight years as Republicans have been ginning up the machinery of race hate, and woman hate, and gay hate, to a fevered pace. They've been actively telling the unemployed and otherwise disconsolate that the reason their world is shrinking is because of blacks, or Hispanics, or gays, or Obama, or all of the above. All the while, they've been eliminating public education, unemployment compensation, and other social welfare programs that, at least, maintained the status quo. Who hasn't seen this? In effect, we've been watching the Republicans rattle the nerves of a whole underclass of working whites whose lives of dead-ended chances suddenly look even more dead-ended. Is anyone really surprised that we're now on the verge of chaos.
Q: Have any media outlets been too rough on your home state?
A: I wouldn't really know. I read my news and listen to NPR. I don't really watch the more sensationalized outlets.
Professor Shannon Gilreath’s books include Sexual Politics: The Gay Person in America Today (2006) and The End of Straight Supremacy: Realizing Gay Liberation (2011) (Cambridge University Press). His innovative casebook, Sexual Identity Law in Context: Cases and Materials, published by Thomson-West (2007) (2nd ed. with Lydia Lavelle, 2011) is designed to put the law concerning lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into a social context. The views expressed by Professor Gilreath do not necessarily reflect those of this article’s author or platform.