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What’s at stake in the fight over North Carolina’s ‘Bathroom Bill’

In North Carolina, lawmakers met in a special session to debate repealing HB2, the so-called “Bathroom Bill” they passed in March. The controversial law says transgender people must abide by the sex listed on their birth certificate, not their gender identity, when using restrooms in public schools and government buildings. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Jeff Tiberii of WUNC for an update.

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  • Editor’s Note:

    During the introduction to this segment and in the background of one graphic, we erroneously displayed the state flag of Georgia instead of North Carolina. We apologize and regret the error.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    We turn now to North Carolina, where lawmakers are meeting in fits and starts for a special session to debate repealing HB2. That's the so-called "bathroom bill" they passed in March. It's a law that thrust transgender rights into the spotlight and sparked national controversy. And now, its fate hangs in the balance.

  • MAN:

    Visitors will retire from the chamber. The sergeant at arms will close the doors.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Lawmakers who would normally be home for the holidays, found themselves back in Raleigh:

  • MAN:

    I don't like to be here any more than the rest of us do on this time.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And it was clear that some who pushed House Bill 2, nine months ago, weren't happy about being called into special session to repeal it.

  • MAN:

    I'd like to protest that this is an unconstitutional session of this assembly.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The statute bars local governments from enacting legal protections for members of the LGBT community. That includes preventing transgender people from using bathrooms matching their gender identity in public schools and government buildings. It also limits any anti- discrimination measures aimed at employers.

    From the moment it passed, the law touched off protests. Companies from PayPal to Deutsche Bank scrapped plans to put jobs in the state. The NBA canceled plans to hold its 2017 all star game in North Carolina, and entertainers, from Cirque du Soleil to Bruce Springsteen dropped plans to perform.

    HB2 was itself a response to an anti-discrimination ordinance in Charlotte, the state's largest city.

    And, under fire, Republicans had promised a special session to repeal it, if Charlotte rescinded its ordinance.

    Today, the Charlotte City Council, dominated by Democrats, voted to scrap the ordinance entirely, on condition that HB2 is repealed. That came despite opposition from LGBT activists:

  • PAIGE DULA, Transgender Rights Activist:

    I feel those people in city council we worked so hard for, they turned their backs on us and it really hurts.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All of this comes too late for Republican Governor Pat McCrory. He narrowly lost his re-election bid last month, in a race dominated by the backlash against the "bathroom bill."

    For more on the controversy surrounding the law, and its possible repeal, we're joined now by Jeff Tiberii. He's the capitol bureau chief for WUNC Public Radio and joins us now from the North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh.

    Jeff, we're speaking a little after 6:00 Eastern Time. It's been kind of up and down all day on whether this thing will come to a vote or not.

    Just bring us up to speed. What's happened today?

  • JEFF TIBERII, WUNC:

    At this very moment, the Senate Republicans, they had taken a ten-minute break that went on for two and a half hours. They're in right now and we believe a vote is going to happen on Senate Bill 4 which is a measure to repeal House Bill 2. It could happen at any moment. It would be a full repeal of House Bill 2.

    There is another section of the bill, although it's a very short bill, maybe nine or ten lines, and the other component of this bill would mandate that there would be a 180-day cooling off period for municipalities and localities where they couldn't enact any kind of ordinance or provision similar to what Charlotte did last February that more or less set this whole thing off. So, that's where we stand now but it's not clear that it will move through both chambers.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Now, you were in the chamber. You were visiting with the legislators and also supporters on both sides. What were they saying that it came down to this?

  • JEFF TIBERII:

    Of course, it depends who you talk to. What's interesting about North Carolina, specifically in the North Carolina House, it's 120 members, there's 75 Republicans, and there is really some diversity within that chamber. We're talking about representatives who serve areas that are deeply red and very religious and other Republicans who serve suburban areas and in swing districts and that could be seen as vulnerable.

    At the end of the day, the holdup at this point, the reason there haven't been a smooth process of repealing House Bill 2, because let's remember there is a Republican governor and Republican supermajorities in both chambers. But the reason that it hasn't moved now is there aren't enough Republicans in the North Carolina House who support a full repeal and again that goes back to the districts they serve, and the types of business leaders and religious leaders and kind of power players that they ultimately answer to.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Jeff, I also heard this described in shorthand as bathrooms versus basketball. How much of this came down to the economic pressures that the state felt and the consequences of this?

  • JEFF TIBERII:

    The economic impact has been huge. As we heard in the reporter piece there, I've seen some estimates that are up $400 million. But ultimately, this is not just about bathrooms or basketball, this is really about power. And the Republicans here at the state legislature warned Charlotte City Council members not to pass such an ordinance almost a year ago, they did and then they felt they had to act.

    Now, whether they had to do that from a policy standpoint or whether they had to do that from an electoral standpoint, and they thought it gave them good cover in the elections, there are a number of reasons for that. But ultimately, this is about power.

    And what one of the fundamental challenges in North Carolina, a thing that is just on the table constantly is the rural-urban divide. And in the rural areas, which is where many of the most powerful lawmakers are right now, you are talking very conservative areas. And then in urban regions of the state, specifically Charlotte and Raleigh, they're some of the fastest, couple of the fastest growing cities in the country, and they're very blue. And some of the local ordinances are very out of touch or out of line with what Republican lawmakers would like to enact here and that's one of the big I guess disconnects, we shall call it.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What's the status for an average LGBT citizen that might be living in Charlotte today? If this repeals does this basically go back nine months and their life is protected or unprotected the way it was or if it stays the same? How does it change?

  • JEFF TIBERII:

    This essentially is a reset button. That's what we've heard from Republicans who have introduced this legislation thus far today. They say it resets.

    And effectively, we would go back to a place where, prior to the state HB-2 that so many viewers know about and prior to the Charlotte City ordinance that sought to provide protections for people who are transgender, this goes back to prior to either of those. So, ostensibly, there would not be protections for transgender people. But let's also remember that House Bill 2 established a statewide non-discrimination ordinance that conveniently left out the LGBT community.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And so, while the bathrooms get the bulk of the attention, there were other things in the bill as well, right?

  • JEFF TIBERII:

    Mm-hmm. Absolutely.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Jeff Tiberii from WUNC the capital bureau chief — thanks so much for joining us.

  • JEFF TIBERII:

    Not allowing any municipalities to pass —

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