By Ryan Leach
On March 23, the North Carolina legislature accomplished two things that were fairly unheard of. First, they managed to pass a law through both chambers of their state assembly and have it signed by the governor in under 10 hours. Second, that new law is one of the most anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender laws ever created in the country.
Who says government can’t accomplish anything?
The North Carolina law is different from other discriminatory anti-LGBT laws that have made the news in recent years, in that it is much worse. The purpose of this state law is to override all local LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances and protections concerning wages, employment, and public accommodations. It also restricts single-sex public restrooms and locker rooms in publicly-run facilities to people whose gender matches the gender listed on their birth certificate. Further, and most notably, it bans transgender students from school restrooms that correspond with their gender identity.
It is that latter part of the law that could potentially cost North Carolina upward of $4.5 billion in Title IX funds for educational institutions throughout the state. Title IX is a provision of the 1972 Education Amendments law that says, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
In 2014, the Department of Education clarified that transgender students are, in fact, protected under Title IX.
The North Carolina legislature was reacting to the recent passage of a nondiscrimination law in the city of Charlotte, which would have taken effect on April 1. That law is similar to the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) that failed to pass locally by a large margin in November 2015. Members of the legislature (and the governor himself) specifically pointed out that their March 23 law was designed to protect women and girls from being preyed on by transgender women—whom they refer to as “men.” For Houstonians, this false claim about transgender women became all too familiar as our radios, televisions, newspapers, and social media feeds were bombarded with disingenuous messages about bathroom safety during the HERO campaign.
Although North Carolina’s law is the most egregious thus far, there are other Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs) being considered elsewhere. For instance, a RFRA similar to last summer’s infamous Indiana law was almost enacted in Georgia, but was vetoed by the state’s governor in late March. These laws make the claim that people should be allowed to discriminate against others if they have a “sincerely held” religious belief that requires them to do so. Although that exemption could create a slippery slope of allowable discrimination against all types of people, the narrative usually highlights the bakers and florists who don’t want to provide services for LGBT weddings.
And on March 24 in Kansas, Governor Sam Brownback signed into law a bill that some refer to as the Student RFRA. The law would allow student religious groups who receive funding from a university to discriminate against potential members who do not hold to the core beliefs of the organization. Some argue this is in direct violation of a Supreme Court holding that student groups be open to all students.
While this backlash against the LGBT community was expected after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality in June, the actions taken by North Carolina, and the continued push for RFRAs in other less-tolerant states in the South, signal that the fight for LGBT equality is far from over. Earlier in 2016, the Texas legislature held a special hearing regarding its own RFRA law. Although there were some allies present (like Equality Texas Board Chair Steve Rudner) to speak to the committee, much of the discussion was about two things: bathrooms and perceived religious persecution. The committee appeared to be unmoved by any of the testimony claiming that this type of law was bad for Texas.
Due to the efforts of groups like Equality Texas, all of the anti-LGBT legislation offered in Texas during the 2015 session was successfully blocked. However, 2017 is not looking as promising. Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick are looking for red meat to feed their ultra-conservative base, and the LGBT community and women’s health issues consistently provide the juiciest filet cuts on the political menu.
Equality Texas, through its Texas Competes program, is creating a nonpartisan coalition of Texas businesses in the hope that the business community may have some sway over preventing passage of these laws. Texas Competes currently has over 500 businesses that have joined the coalition; they are looking to have at least 2,000 by the beginning of the 2017 session. The work we do now will have a huge influence on the laws passed in that session.
There are a few things that we can do now:
Vote for candidates in every race who represent the values of equality that are important to the state. You can always get good recommendations from the Houston GLBT Political Caucus at thecaucus.org.
If you own a business or work for a business that believes that equality is good for Texas, you can join the coalition (for free) at texascompetes.org.
Vote in every race—not just in the presidential contest. This includes your state representative, state senator, and U.S. representative races.
Support local organizations that are fighting for your equality. National organizations like the HRC are great, but when it comes to Texas, no one knows Texas better than Texans, and Equality Texas focuses all of its resources in the state. Also, support the GLBT Political Caucus, and find other LGBT groups that fit your particular political preference. You can get more information about Equality Texas at equalitytexas.org.
Ryan Leach is a community leader and activist who is dedicated to the social and political advancement of the LGBT community, as well as all communities fighting for equality. He is also a board member for Equality Texas,and a former board member for the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. You can connect with his work by emailing him at [email protected].