My five year old grand-daughter recently taught me that North Carolina’s now world-renowned HB2 bathroom bill has many of the qualities of a fairy-tale.
The poignancy of the moment derived from my own childhood near Winston-Salem where I learned much at the knees of my mother. She was in the habit of reading the classic fairy tales to my sister and me. The yarns of the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen filled our tender minds with both scary folk tales and memorable lessons.
Those lessons served me well as I wended my way through two degrees at Duke and a Ph.D. in history from Chapel Hill. And also when I became North Carolina’s State Historian followed by another seven year stint as State Historian for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (where I still live).
I had not quite grasped what HB2 meant for me personally until I came to North Carolina this Christmas to spend the holidays with my sons and their families in the Research Triangle area. One evening we went to a popular restaurant in the Raleigh area. After much food and liquid nourishment, I made a visit the establishment’s restroom facility. Unfortunately, both men’s and women’s rooms were occupied. I was next in line for the men’s room. But there were five squirming women in line at the women’s door.
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When the men’s room opened, I gestured to the waiting women that one of them would be welcome to use the now vacant room next. This seemed to me the most proper and gentlemanly thing to do. None of the women moved. Momentarily the facts of the situation came to mind. “Oh, my gosh,” I uttered to them and to myself, “I forgot that this is North Carolina!” Their eyes rolled expressively as they shifted foot to foot waiting at their door.
That was a small embarrassment compared to the lecture I got from my granddaughter two days later. It is my practice to take each of my grand-children – three boys and one girl – on individual shopping trips to buy their Christmas presents. As nature would have it, my granddaughter needed to use the restroom at the first store we visited. When we went to the restrooms, the door to the women’s room was locked. As I explained to her that we would wait for it to open, she said with great authority, “Not to worry, Grandpop, we’ll go to the men’s room.” I paused awkwardly, not knowing how one is supposed to handle this situation in the new-fangled North Carolina.
As I stood in momentary paralysis, she bravely opened the door and headed into the single- hole men’s room. She then looked at me as if I was a fool and said, “Come with me, Grandpop.” I followed her orders as a silent servant. As she went about her business, this little sprite of wisdom and honesty, lectured me on proper bathroom etiquette: “It’s all right to use either the women’s room or the men’s room, Grandpop.” With big expressive eyes, she consoled me, “Don’t you know that?”
As I pored over her innocent admonitions, I suddenly felt like one of the titled people in Hans Christian Andersen’s story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” The pompous emperor had asked two weavers to make him the most beautiful regalia ever seen by humankind. The guileful weavers presented him with a new set of clothes that, they wryly said, would be invisible to those citizens of the realm who were incompetent, stupid, and unfit for their positions. Sure enough, when the emperor went on parade before his obedient subjects, all observers pretended that they could see his new finery. That is, until a child in the company cried out, “But he is not wearing anything at all.” When the innocent child uttered the obvious truth, the gathered throng broke into laughter at the duped and silly emperor--and also at themselves.
Oh, what a web we sometimes weave when we are not mindful of the teachings of our sacred religions, of Poor Richard’s wise sayings, of the Golden Rule, and the powerful lessons of fairy-tales! And the wisdom of an innocent child.
Larry Tise is past director of the N. C. Division of Archives and History.