Among major corporations and in many corners of social media, the reaction to North Carolina’s new LGBT law has been overwhelmingly negative.
But stop in at Sylvia’s Barber Shop in downtown Clinton, and you’ll hear a different take on House Bill 2. Sylvia Caldwell presides over a modest one-chair shop with a red, white and blue barber pole painted on the front window.
Caldwell and several of her customers have only positive things to say about the law’s best-known provision, which says that transgender people, at public facilities, must use the bathroom that matches the gender on their birth certificate.
Caldwell says she’s uncomfortable with people using bathrooms that don’t match their anatomy.
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“Everybody’s got a right to be whatever they want to be, but they can’t push their rights on us,” she said while trimming a teenager’s hair.
James Becton, an 89-year-old customer at Sylvia’s, said he agrees with her. Having retired to Clinton after working as a cab driver in bigger cities like Detroit, he said gay, lesbian and transgender issues are more prominent in urban communities.
“It’s so much different than it is here,” he said.
The debate over the law pits North Carolina’s liberal-leaning cities against many of its more socially conservative rural communities. The legislature’s action was prompted by a Charlotte nondiscrimination ordinance that would have allowed transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify.
When the ordinance was overturned in a special session last month, all 11 Democrats who voted for House Bill 2 came from rural districts. And a recent Time Warner Cable News North Carolina poll found that two-thirds of people identifying themselves as evangelical Christians supported overturning the Charlotte ordinance.
Clinton, a city of 8,700 people an hour’s drive south of Raleigh, sits at the center of Sampson County. In 2012, when 61 percent of North Carolina voters supported adding a ban on same-sex marriage to the state’s constitution, 82 percent of Sampson voters supported the measure.
And while a federal court ruling legalized same-sex marriage in the state, views on LGBT issues haven’t changed much in Clinton.
Shop owners and customers interviewed last week had largely the same view of the law: They agreed with Republican lawmakers that the Charlotte bathroom provision posed a safety risk. They couldn’t recall ever meeting a transgender person. And they weren’t familiar with the law’s other provisions, which include a ban on filing state court lawsuits over employment discrimination claims.
“I really didn’t understand it at first,” said Lee Tart, a farmer who owns apartment buildings and shopping centers.
Once Tart learned more about the issue, he said, he immediately thought of his two teenage daughters’ safety. He worries that “some guy dressing up” might take advantage of an ordinance like Charlotte’s to enter the women’s bathroom.
“I don’t want my daughters put in jeopardy,” he said.
Tart said he doesn’t think he’s ever met a transgender person. Asked what he pictures when he hears the term, he described a man “all dolled up with makeup and clothes.”
Safety a concern
Misconceptions of transgender people are common in small towns, LGBT advocates said. Madeline Goss, a Raleigh software engineer and transgender woman, grew up outside of Hickory and didn’t come out as transgender until she left to attend the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics in Durham.
“I’d never heard of or met another trans person,” she said. “I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain who I was or what I was. Emotionally I was female. ... I spent a lot of time trying to be the guy that everyone wanted me to be.”
Goss said that transgender people are more likely to be threatened or assaulted in bathrooms than other groups. And while proponents of House Bill 2 have cited safety concerns, there have been no documented instances of sexual predators using transgender-friendly bathroom laws to commit crimes.
Goss said she used the men’s room in high school before coming out as transgender and was sometimes picked on and beat up.
“Being small and queer and effeminate in a men’s room was very unsafe,” she said. “I reached the point where I dreaded going in the bathroom when there were other people around.”
Deborah Thompson, who owns the Simply NC gift shop in downtown Clinton, says she finds the bathroom debate to be a “very confusing issue.”
“A lot of people don’t understand what the whole transgender thing is,” she said.
Thompson says the safety concern has been at the front of her mind as she’s considered the issue. “On the side of safety, I approve of what the governor did,” she said, adding that she’s glad Gov. Pat McCrory hasn’t changed his position in the face of opposition from major companies. “It’s nice to see somebody who’s not afraid to stand up for what they believe in.”
Thompson is among a small number of business owners who are willing to publicly support House Bill 2. The Keep N.C. Safe Coalition says that nearly 400 business owners have signed its petition in favor of the law, but only 65 of them agreed to have their names listed.
“Due to vocal threats and bullying from the LGBT community, some business owners feared for the well-being of their business and families,” the group said in a news release.
Thompson said the reluctance to speak out is common. “Too many times, Christians and conservatives, we stay too quiet,” she said.
Along with several others interviewed in Clinton, Thompson said she wasn’t familiar with the non-bathroom provisions of the law and didn’t feel comfortable venturing an opinion.
The law strikes down city and county ordinances that ban discrimination; Republicans declined to include sexual orientation and gender identity in a new statewide nondiscrimination law. The legislation also restricts local governments from regulating employment practices, such as requiring municipal contractors to pay a higher minimum wage.
Wendy Ella May, a transgender woman running for Johnston County commissioner, said the bathroom provision is designed to distract people from the more sweeping changes in House Bill 2.
“That’s just a scare tactic used by the Republican Party,” May said. “This is about a law that’s taking power away from the local government and giving it to the state government.”
She said Johnston residents should be concerned about the provision that requires workplace discrimination lawsuits to go through federal courts. “In a rural county, this is more important – in a rural county, more discrimination occurs,” she said.
May is a Democrat seeking to bring change to Johnston’s all-Republican county leadership. While openly transgender people are relatively rare in rural counties, May said her campaign has been well received so far.
“I don’t put myself out there as the transgender candidate for Johnston County,” she said. “I am a woman, so when (people) see me, they don’t meet some guy dressed in drag.”
May, a minister who runs a retreat center for military veterans on her farm, said the new law won’t affect her bathroom habits.
“I’d probably cause more problems in the men’s room, and most in the transgender community feel the same way,” she said, adding that the last time she used a men’s room – shortly after beginning to live publicly as a woman – someone called the police because they were concerned a woman was using the wrong bathroom.
A number of leaders in rural communities have voiced concerns or opposition to House Bill 2. Several of the Johnston County commissioners said that while they disagreed with the Charlotte bathroom provision, they thought the legislature’s action was “overreach” that limited local authority.
And last week, the Marion City Council in the western mountains unanimously approved a resolution opposing the law. Marion is the county seat of McDowell County, where more than 80 percent of voters backed banning same-sex marriage in 2012.
Mayor Steve Little, who is a registered Republican, said the bathroom provision “tries to fight an evil that doesn’t really exist. I’ve seen nothing to suggest that there’s a risk from transgender people. Are they going to start hiring people to be bathroom monitors?”
Little said he sees “nothing positive” in the rest of the law, and he’s concerned PayPal’s decision to cancel a Charlotte expansion shows “the potential for economic damage.” He said Marion’s resolution against the law has gotten positive feedback from residents.
“We actually like our local representative and our local state senator, but they were not elected to micromanage local governments,” Little said.
Back in Clinton, though, Mayor Lew Starling said he hasn’t heard much from residents about the law and hasn’t reviewed the issue closely.
“Candidly, I hear more about UNC basketball than I do anything else in the last month,” Starling said.
Poll finds split over bathroom issue
A Time Warner Cable News North Carolina poll conducted by the national firm SurveyUSA found that support for House Bill 2’s bathroom provision varies based on political and religious affiliation.
Overall, 51 percent of the 540 registered voters surveyed said that overturning Charlotte’s nondiscrimination ordinance was a good idea. About 40 percent said it was a bad idea, and 9 percent said they weren’t sure.
Only 22 percent of Republicans agreed that transgender people should be allowed to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify, compared to 45 percent of independents and 50 percent of Democrats.
About 68 percent of people who identify as evangelical Christians said transgender people shouldn’t use the bathroom of their chosen gender, compared to 36 percent of people who don’t identify as evangelical.
People with a four-year college degree were more likely to support the Charlotte bathroom provision than people with a high school diploma.
What the new law does
House Bill 2, the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, was signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory on March 23 after a special legislative session.
It prohibits local governments from enacting their own regulations that ban discrimination. Instead, the bill would create a statewide law that would ban discrimination on the basis of “race, religion, color, national origin or biological sex” at businesses and other “places of public accommodation.” The law wouldn’t include sexual orientation and gender identity as categories protected from discrimination.
Local school districts would be banned from allowing students to use communal bathrooms and locker rooms that don’t match the gender on their birth certificates. Schools still could allow transgender students to use single-occupancy facilities.
The legislation also restricts local governments from regulating employment practices. Cities and counties could not require contractors to abide by regulations or controls on employment contracts as a condition of bidding for work. So, for example, localities cannot require contractors to pay a higher minimum wage.
The law eliminated the ability to file a state lawsuit over discriminatory firing, a claim that state courts have accepted since the 1980s. People can still file federal discrimination lawsuits, but those courts have a much shorter statute of limitations.