In 2015, the Christian right began a new assault on LGBT rights. The architects of the far-right movement knew they had lost on marriage equality. And as they looked for a laboratory to test a next generation of anti-LGBT legislative strategies, North Carolina met their criteria: Newly gerrymandered districts had ushered in an era of political extremism in our state and, frankly, members of both political parties were willing to support anti-LGBT legislation.
This is how in two years’ time we have seen North Carolina emerge as ground zero for anti-LGBT laws. The far right’s three prongs of attack – religious exemptions, attacks on transgender people and local pre-emption – have all now been codified in North Carolina law.
In 2015, there was the passage of Senate Bill 2, which carves out “religious exemptions” to allow public employees to recuse themselves from serving same-sex couples. In 2016, House Bill 2 was a direct assault on transgender people’s ability to participate in public life, and in 2017, House Bill 142 pre-exempts cities from passing measures that protect LGBT people from discrimination.
Like HB2 before it, HB142 was passed hastily and in a fog of controversy. Proponents of HB142 argue that the new law titrates the level of discrimination to a tolerable dosage – I couldn’t disagree more. HB142 – like HB2, SB2 and Amendment 1 before it – is based on the belief that LGBT people do not deserve the basic legal protections and the fundamental rights that other people do. Any law based on animus is, at its core, an assault on human dignity. (Not to mention unconstitutional.)
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So why are these laws passing, even as polling shows that a record number of North Carolinians support LGBT equality? Part of the answer is that the LGBT community is politically powerless in our state. We meet every definition of this standard, from being unable to stop the passage of laws that target us, to an inability to pass laws that would protect us, to being woefully underrepresented at every level of elected office. From the moment HB142 surfaced in bill form to when it was signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper, the LGBT community was univocal in opposition to the law. When a community being targeted by a law opposes that law and is dismissed by the very people who vote for the law, that’s textbook political powerlessness. As long as SB2 and HB142 remain on the books, our legislature sends a clear message that North Carolina condones discrimination against LGBT people.
Until the LGBT community can build real political power, we will remain vulnerable to laws that target us and our civil rights. Doing so is the work of a generation and part of a much larger project of transforming the politics of our state to be truly representative of a 21st-century North Carolina.
Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara is the executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, an Asheville-based organization that advocates for full LGBT equality across the South. She is a minister in the United Church of Christ and a Buncombe County commissioner.