The Politics of the Single-minded: Lessons From North Carolina's 'Bathroom Bill'

If you heard that the dust up in North Carolina was just about who could rightfully pee standing up, you heard wrong.
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On March 23, 2016, the North Carolina General Assembly passed, and the governor signed, House Bill 2, a measure designed in part to overturn a Charlotte city ordinance that provided that transgender/transsexual folks had a right to use public restrooms and changing facilities that corresponded to their gender identity. In the process, North Carolina became--in the span of just a few hours-- the most anti-gay state in the United States. If you heard that the dust up in North Carolina was just about who could rightfully pee standing up, you heard wrong.

The N.C. General Assembly, goaded on by Governor Pat McCrory, repealed nearly every antidiscrimination protection we'd won, tooth and nail, over the last twenty-five years. In the process, our Republican legislators seized the opportunity to ban all antidiscrimination suits, including those alleging race or gender violations, from N.C. state courts. In other words, even suits brought by members of federally protected classes in North Carolina must now be litigated in federal court--where antidiscrimination suits are slower and more expensive. It was a boon for discriminatory employers, and the legislature knew it. Even veteran preferences at the local level have been eliminated. The legislation is stunningly retrogressive and stunningly broad.

Thinking North Carolinians understand that our state legislature is a fetid swamp of prejudice, bigotry, and irrational hatred. We have seen them, time and again, wield a clumsy, hasty, ill-considered fundamentalist zeal that would make Torquemada blush. We know they are moving us ever backward, day by day. We know, therefore, that responsibility for H.B. 2 is ultimately that of our dullard legislators and their wooden-headed governor.

But stopping the story here is too easy, and it is an incomplete look at how we came to this tragic moment in North Carolina LGBT history.

Years ago, I left the board of Equality N.C. because the group decided to publicly oppose a national antidiscrimination law that would have covered gays and lesbians. The reason given was that the law didn't cover transsexuals. I thought this was terribly bad politics. Transsexuals already had more employment discrimination protection than gays because of the way in which courts were interpreting "sex" in Title VII cases. Nobody seemed to care much about the legal reality. But more than this, anyone who understands civil rights politics knows that change is most often incremental. Legislative progress, whether it is at the local, state, or national level, rarely accomplishes all of our goals in one fell swoop. Instead, progress is achieved in baby steps, with each victory forming the basis of renewed activism and accomplishment. But instead of supporting protections for gays and lesbians while we could, some folks wanted to oppose a law that had the potential to relieve the suffering of countless gays and lesbians across the country and advance the movement in a way that only national employment antidiscrimination legislation can. I didn't think it was fair to ask gays and lesbians to sacrifice ourselves in this way. It was a self-defeating single-mindedness that I could not abide.

After years of negotiation over the Charlotte ordinance, I was horrified to see that same single-mindedness rear its head again. And this time we're all paying the price. Advocates and groups, loosely denominated "gay," opposed any antidiscrimination ordinance without the controversial bathroom edict. The governor in no uncertain terms warned the Charlotte city council that if it proceeded with a law containing the bathroom-specific language he would call a special legislative session for the purpose of repealing it. Of course, given his history of crafting some of the ugliest, most racist, most misogynist legislation in the country to date, there was every reason to believe he meant it. But the single-minded "gay" groups and their allies pushed it anyway.

It is, frankly, difficult to explain. LGBT advocates and the Charlotte city council behaved like petulant children. Their actions amounted to sticking their collective tongue out to an abusive parent and then waiting for the blows to fall. There was no reason for any conscious person to believe that McCrory wouldn't make good on his threat. This is the same government that brought us an anti-gay constitutional amendment and, after that was pronounced illegal, a "religious accommodation" statute to ensure that bigoted government employees don't have to follow the law when it interferes with their religiously-motivated bigotry. Given the virulent homophobia reigning in the General Assembly, the Charlotte bathroom ordinance was the equivalent of throwing a kitten to a pack of rabid dogs. The blood-shed was sure and swift.

Now, transgender people are no better off than before in North Carolina, and gays and lesbians are overwhelmingly worse off. The politics of the single-minded--the politics of those who see only aspiration and never material reality--has been our ruin.

There is another interesting political side-note to this story. Only eleven House Democrats voted in favor of this draconian legislation. Six of them were black--old, black men. The politics of the single-minded got the better of them. Of course, they were doing the bidding of their evangelical preacher handlers, who see no commonalities between the gay and black civil rights struggles and resent it when parallels are drawn. But they were too stupid to read or to comprehend that this legislation just made it easier for employers to discriminate on the basis of race in North Carolina and get away with it. Their overriding desire to stick it to the perverts motivated them to support overtly racist legislation. We'll see if the NAACP has the guts to oppose their reelection campaigns (since odds are they won't have the humility or integrity to resign in warranted disgrace).

The politics of the single-minded isn't good for anyone or anything, except regressivism. I think transsexuals deserve dignity and respect. I think gender is an emergency, created by heterosexual people, that we all, heterosexuals included, must endure. It's a prison for all of us, cisgender and transgender alike. We ought to resist its enforcement. But that resistance ought not to take the form of scorched earth politics. As strongly as I feel that transgender people ought to get to use the public restroom of their choice, I don't think it is fair to ask gays and lesbians to give up everything to accomplish that goal. By this political logic, black men shouldn't have voted until 1920, when women finally got the vote. Why should gay people answer to a different standard?

If you are gay and lesbian in North Carolina, March 23, 2016 was like Dresden for you. There is nearly nothing left in its wake. As we begin the task of rebuilding and reclaiming all that we've lost, we have to admit--as uncomfortable as it may be--that Trans interests and needs are not always synonymous with our interests and needs. It is absolutely fair for us to insist that advocates purporting to represent us put our welfare, and not the needs of vocal special interests, first. Clearly, we can't afford the politics of the single-minded any longer.

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