A friend who visited Boston last week was riding a shuttle from the airport to downtown when she struck up a conversation with another female passenger. When my friend said she was from North Carolina, the other woman asked, only half jokingly, “Should I even be talking to you?”
There near the site of the Boston Tea Party echoed the effect of tea party pols in Raleigh. This is happening countless times. People from elsewhere who are mystified and appalled by House Bill 2 are asking people from North Carolina, “What is going on? Who are you?” The typical answers are, or should be, “It’s crazy” and “It’s not us.”
But that combination of dismay and denial hardly disperses the effect. North Carolina’s reputation is being stained by the fight over HB2. The damage is hard to put a number on, but it’s real, it’s personal and it will last even after the feds, the courts or the voters put an end to the discrimination against LGBT people that the General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory have put into law.
People want to be proud of where they live. They want to talk to relatives, customers, clients, vendors and strangers about their state’s virtues. They don’t want to have to explain the behavior of its lawmakers or stress that the representatives really aren’t representative.
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An altered view
You could sense the national disapproval of HB2 taking a bit of the glow off the University of North Carolina’s run in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. Some states have barred their employees from non-essential travel to North Carolina. The James Taylor lyric “going to Carolina in my mind” has taken on a different tone.
North Carolina’s moderates and liberals got a lot of practice explaining their state during the years of Sen. Jesse Helms. But he could be dismissed as one politician still willing to appeal to people’s worst instincts, a lingering figure from a fading South. The New South was consigning his type to history.
Other states paused
But how to explain why the Republican majorities of the state House and Senate, 11 House Democrats and a supposedly moderate governor collectively agreed to blow up their state’s reputation to fix a nonexistent problem? When other states led by conservatives have nearly done the same over gay and transgender issues, governors in Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia, South Dakota and (after a brief lapse) Indiana stepped in to cut the fuse.
In North Carolina, a combination of zealous lawmakers safely ensconced in gerrymandered districts and a governor up for re-election and desperate to bolster his conservative base let the fuse burn all the way down. The resulting explosion drew national news coverage, boycotts by other states, travel advisories from the United Kingdom, canceled concerts and conferences, diminished tourism and petitions and appeals for the HB2’s repeal from CEOs, doctors and clergy. Despite all that, no one in power has moved to put out the fires. That includes U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis and the rest of the state’s Republican congressional delegation who have stood silent while other state leaders have tied the state’s image to their fears and prejudices.
In a crowning touch, the ones who vandalized a North Carolina reputation built by generations of enlightened leaders are making the Orwellian complaint that they are the victims of an orchestrated “smear campaign.” Those who are requiring that transgender men and women revert to using the bathroom that matches the sex on their birth certificates say they are being bullied by real-life versions of Orwell’s “thought police.” This is especially rich since passage of HB2 occurred with a distinct absence of any thought.
The U.S. Department of Justice, no doubt baffled that North Carolina would not only do what it did but also refuse to undo it, has brought out the big stick. Last week the head of the department’s civil rights division wrote to the governor, the University of North Carolina and the state Department of Public Safety. The letters said the state’s bathroom mandate violates the civil rights of transgender state employees and students and a law covering violence against women.
Unless the law is repealed, officially ignored or substantially amended, the federal government will suspend federal funding for North Carolina. The amount could be billions of dollars depending on how hard the federal government wants to squeeze.
Legislative leaders responded by putting the word “Obama’s” in front of every reference to the Justice Department, as if invoking the president somehow negated the warning from the nation’s highest level of law enforcement. Speaker Tim Moore talked tough about ignoring the DOJ’s Monday response deadline as if he was waving off a complaining town attorney.
Slowly it will dawn on these cloistered and myopic leaders that there is a whole nation out there with many millions of people who think people should be free to be who they are. Those people are reconsidering North Carolina and avoiding it. Companies, conventions and tourists are crossing the state off their lists.
Meanwhile, when someone from out of state asks you why this has happened in North Carolina, tell them the sad truth: There’s no good reason. None at all.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver. com