In mid-March, just as spring’s cheery yellow forsythia was peaking and the tulip trees were popping, 600 fierce veterans and fresh, new activists gathered in the progressive oasis of Asheville, North Carolina, for the third annual “LGBT* in the South” conference.
On panels and in informal conversation, attendees cautiously discussed the city of Charlotte’s decision a month before to allow transgender people to use restrooms matching their gender identity, rather than the gender they were assigned at birth.
Though the ordinance was a first of its kind for North Carolina, these Southern organizers were floridly realistic. They indulged in a moment of hopeful back-patting that their state might be on the verge of turning purple, even as they planned for the inevitable backlash from the governor and the legislature.
We flew out from Charlotte early Sunday morning, back to the cold beige of the Yankee North. The white rocking chairs throughout the Charlotte airport, placed there to suggest warmth and welcome, looked forlorn in the nearly empty airport.
We just assumed everybody was fixing to go to their megachurches.
A few nights later, as predicted, the state legislature went vindictive—and way beyond bathrooms. Under cover of night, the cowards passed a bill blocking any protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity in restaurants, hotels, taxis, or any public accommodation. Governor Pat McCrory immediately signed the bill into law.
Turns out North Carolina is turning purple alright, but it’s from getting beat up so much. For my part, I wanted to go back and smash to kindling those supremely white, faux-homey rocking chairs.
Backlash against emancipation is not new to the South. After Emancipation and Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws were passed to legalize segregation through systematic brutality. Now that we have had the LGBT federal marriage victory, Jim Queer laws are meant to legalize discrimination through the ruse of religious exemptions and bathroom hysteria.
Less than two weeks after the bill was passed, PayPal’s CEO announced the company was backing out of a planned expansion into North Carolina that would have created 400 jobs. Executives from eighty companies including Apple, American Airlines, and North Carolina’s own Bank of America (which is headquartered in Charlotte) signed a letter objecting to the new law.
What is new in this story is not that corporations are threatening to boycott cities and states, but that they are doing so to protest anti-LGBT discrimination.
The notion that discrimination is bad for business has been the Human Rights Campaign’s mantra since 2002, when it began publishing the Corporate Equality Index. A CEI score is based on several markers: a written nondiscrimination policy; inclusive sexual orientation and gender identity policies in diversity training; transgender-inclusive policies and rejection of any activities that undermine the goal of equal rights for LGBT people. See: Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Kentucky, Alabama, Indiana.
Many Wall Street Journal and New York Times business page articles tell the story of corporations scrambling to get a 100 percent CEI rating. Now that corporations are people, the stories always read like one morning Dow Chemical was having her coffee and reading the Charlotte Observer with her life-partner Biogen, when she saw what their governor had done during the night. The gals called their Best Boyfriend, Red Hat, and agreed to meet to strategize their messaging with Freedom for
All Americans, a campaign to pass non-discrimination laws in the twenty-nine states that don’t have them.
How did corporations become LGBT BFFs? Part of the answer is the work of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates. For twenty years, this group has provided training and resources to employees to start LGBT employee resource groups at work. Those groups supported and encouraged workers to come out to coworkers: on an assembly line at Ford, in jet assembly teams at Northrop Grumman, at the State Department and U.N. The out workers have schooled human resources departments and management on being their authentic selves at work. Some CEOs have come out.
As corporations go global, LGBT rights have gone international through their workforces. North Carolina, goddamn.