As the General Assembly opens its 2017 legislative session an important message about its agenda arrived from an unlikely source – the January cover of National Geographic magazine.
The iconic American journal, in continuous publication since 1888, featured a remarkable cover photo of a nine-year-old girl born as a boy. On newsstands, an alternate cover featured a group photo of people spanning the spectrum of sexual identity. Inside, was a report on the “Gender Revolution” focusing on international concepts of male and female and the rising awareness of gender as fluid, even to the point of children switching sexes.
National Geographic took heat from conservatives who saw it as pushing a progressive agenda. But in fact the magazine was reporting as it always has, looking at the curious, the wondrous and the new in the world and in the human condition. And what the report should tell North Carolina lawmakers is that transgender people, once virtually hidden, are being recognized and gaining acceptance. That change means time has already run out on Republican lawmakers who want to keep North Carolina’s notorious HB2 “bathroom law.”
The legislature’s Republican leadership already gave North Carolina the shameful distinction of being the last state to try to outlaw same-sex marriage even as the Supreme Court was on the verge of declaring it a right. Now, they again are locked in opposition to growing public opinion that transgender people are a true expression of human nature and deserve the right to act in accord with the gender with which they identify.
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As transgender people receive broader attention in the media and legislative debates, opposition is giving way to education and familiarity.
“People are now seeing and hearing about what it means to be transgender and it’s becoming not a matter of fear, but a matter of common sense. Transgender people should have fair and equal access to employment and health care and public accommodations,” said Chris Sgro, a leader of the LGBT advocacy group, Equality NC, who served a partial term as a Democrat in the state House in 2016 after being appointed to fill a vacancy.
Indeed, enough Republican lawmakers have come to better understand the issue, or at least have grown weary of defending HB2 in the face of economic boycotts, that the law could be repealed. But Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore can’t let go of their baseless fears that acknowledging the rights of transgender people will lead to a mixing of the sexes in middle school locker rooms and invite sexual predators into public restrooms.
Berger said in an interview last week, “There’s also just a real question out there of whether or not it’s appropriate for men to share restrooms, locker rooms and shower facilities with women. I think the vast majority of people in North Carolina have real concerns about that.”
But the issue isn’t men and women sharing facilities. It’s whether transgender women have access to women’s restrooms and transgender men have access to men’s restrooms. Berger simply doesn’t accept transgender as a genuine identity and with that rejects the rights of transgender people.
As transgender people gain recognition and rights, conservatives have pushed back across the country. The Human Rights Campaign reports that more than 50 anti-transgender bills were introduced in state legislatures in 2016, but almost all failed to pass or were vetoed. Meanwhile, state legislatures last year saw more than 500 bills filed in support of LGBT rights and 48 passed, mostly in California and the Northeast.
In North Carolina, HB2’s toll keeps mounting. In Raleigh, for instance, the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau says that since HB2 became law last March the city and Wake County have lost meetings, conventions and sporting events resulting in 24,400 lost hotel nights and an economic impact of more than $9 million.
Berger and Moore’s illusions are getting more costly by the day. It’s time to acknowledge and accept the reality of transgender people.