Op-Ed

In wake of HB2, a call for a cathartic Truth Commission

Being Transgender in North Carolina: Reaction to HB2

VIDEO: The News & Observer talks with transgender residents of the Triangle area of NC about their experiences and the impact of HB2 on their lives.
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VIDEO: The News & Observer talks with transgender residents of the Triangle area of NC about their experiences and the impact of HB2 on their lives.

Many North Carolina Republicans now accept they made a colossal error of judgment passing House Bill 2. They played a fear card for marginal electoral gain, and it exploded in their faces. Their chief miscalculation was that they thought transgender Carolinians were an easy mark – a defenseless and friendless punching-bag of a minority – but they were wrong.

Most Republicans no doubt would love to return to how it was before – the status quo. The economic hit to North Carolina has been huge. Our once well-regarded state has become an embarrassment. In the rest of the world, North Carolina now conjures up images of hateful bigotry not pictured since the days of the Klan defending whites-only bathrooms.

Statehouse leaders tried to engineer a deal where the Charlotte City Council would rescind its nondiscrimination ordinance in return for a partial step back of HB2. It was a deal no one in their right mind would have taken, and Mayor Jennifer Roberts rightly opposed it. Why would Charlotte sell its transgender residents down the river to get out of the quagmire the GOP leaders had sunk into all by themselves?

Targeting transgender kids through the law has left them even more fragile and vulnerable than before – we know that after this type of demonization, depression and fear take hold and suicide attempts balloon. But we can use this moment for good. Can we make something healthy out of the ashes of catastrophe?

While the governor may want to return to the status quo, we must never forget that for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Tar Heels the status quo was unacceptable. The reason that Charlotte passed its nondiscrimination ordinance was that LGBT people in the Queen City were being discriminated against. The nearly 30,000 transgender Tar Heels continue to navigate a hostile world that shuns, shames and bullies them.

shine A light on their treatment

Let us use the moment that HB2 provides to have a statewide conversation about who we are and who we want to be – just as Ireland did last year when it used its marriage equality referendum to send a message to the world that modern Ireland was inclusive and fair and loving. In their millions, Irish people voted yes to gay marriage to say “sorry” to their sons, daughters and friends.

We need to have a conversation about who we want to be as Carolinians and allow our gay and transgender loved ones to tell their stories. We need a Truth Commission to shine a light on our LGBTQ Tar Heels, how they have been treated and how they are treated today. What was it like living with HIV-AIDS in North Carolina in the 1980s and what does it mean today? What did it do to the child in the mountains who grew up bullied, beaten and humiliated because of the way he talked? We need to hear from the two dads who struggle to bring up their children like everyone else and the teen in high school who takes the long walk home every day just to avoid the name calling.

Stories of those past and present

We need to hear the stories of both the celebrated and unknown: Armistead Maupin, the Jesse Helms prodigy from Raleigh who became the pre-eminent chronicler of gay life in his “Tales of the City” novels, or Ken Sherrill, who used his 1970s Ph.D. from UNC to launch his career as the doyen of gay political scientists.

And we need to hear the stories of how North Carolina treated those who fell along the way: Blake Brockington and Ash Heffner, the trans kids who killed themselves in 2015, or Joe Herzenberg, the first openly gay elected official in North Carolina who passed away in 2007.

When I was at the University of Cape Town in the early 1990s, I went with my friends to Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in Pretoria and Cape Town to experience firsthand the catharsis of telling the truth and being heard.

If the furor about HB2 has taught us anything, it is that we need to see and hear our LGBTQ children, family, friends and neighbors more clearly. We need to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and make ourselves whole in the future. A North Carolina LGBTQ Truth Commission could be a crucial step in making North Carolina happy again.

Andrew Reynolds is a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and director of the UNC LGBTQ Representation and Rights Research Initiative.

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