RALEIGH, N.C. – Seven years ago, North Carolina became ground zero in the nationwide fight over transgender rights with the passage of a “bathroom bill” that galvanized culture warriors, canceled business projects and sporting events and influenced a gubernatorial race.
And while a similarly Republican-controlled legislature’s enactment this week of a trio of laws aimed at transgender youth generated passion from advocates and legislators, the public pushback against these policies has been light compared to 2016 and House Bill 2. And the corporate world largely has taken a pass on getting involved.
What can the change in attitudes be attributed to? Top legislators said this week’s measures, approved when they overrode Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes, already have taken effect in other states and resonate with the public.
That compares to 2016, when then-GOP Gov. Pat McCrory faced significant backlash for signing a bill that banned cities from enacting new anti-discrimination ordinances and required transgender people to use public restrooms that corresponded with the sex on their birth certificate.
“Since that time, because that first dip in the pool of fear has happened, it’s been used over and over successfully in other states,” said Katie Jenifer, policy director at the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization Equality North Carolina.
Republican Senate leader Phil Berger acknowledged Thursday that the “bathroom bill” is widely regarded as the prelude to the present wave of legislation affecting trans people nationwide. He called the 2016 law the “tip of the spear” in the ongoing debate.
When the law passed, major sports tournaments, businesses and conventions pulled out of North Carolina, costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue before the policy was eventually rolled back in 2017 and settled in federal court in 2019.
Republicans now hold veto-proof majorities in both chambers for the first time since 2018, which has opened the door to some LGBTQ+ restrictions that had not previously gained traction in the state. And, Berger added, “the business community has for the most part decided that they’re going to concentrate on their business and not delve into those matters of policy."
Businesses have not shown up for trans people in the same way they did in 2016, Jenifer said, noting that the community used to have “a really big ally” in the National Collegiate Athletics Association, which moved several championship games to other states in protest of the “bathroom bill.”
Conservative politicians have since turned the tables, spreading fear of a transgender contagion and boycotting companies that partner with trans celebrities. Most notably, Bud Light sales plunged because of conservative backlash to a sales campaign featuring transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney.
Politicians now have a clearer path to pass these laws without fear of losing revenue, Jenifer said, because it has become riskier for businesses to support trans rights.
Although the Republican General Assembly had drawn up the bathroom bill, it was McCrory who became the public face of the legislation. Cooper, then the attorney general, blamed McCrory for the negative publicity and business announcements during their gubernatorial campaign. Cooper ended up winning by just 10,000 votes.
The fact that legislators in other states have since passed similar prohibitions without significant political repercussions gave North Carolina Republicans more confidence — and cover — to advance the measures, said Western Carolina University professor Christopher Cooper, who is not related to the governor.
“It’s happened other places, and they didn’t lose their jobs,” he said.
Legislation enacted Wednesday bars medical professionals from providing hormones, puberty-blocking drugs and surgical gender-transition procedures to anyone under 18, with limited exceptions. The House and Senate also enacted laws prohibiting instruction about gender identity and sexuality in K-4 public school classrooms and banning transgender girls from playing on girls sports teams from middle and high school through college.
The governor and several Democratic lawmakers warned repeatedly of a similar economic fallout as the bills moved through the legislature.
In his July veto message for the three bills, Cooper said Republicans are “damaging our state’s reputation and economy like they did with the harmful bathroom bill.”
Sen. Jay Chaudhuri of Wake County drew a similar comparison Wednesday during floor debate. He criticized Republicans for prioritizing legislation that he said limits the ability of doctors and parents to take care of vulnerable children, when they're more than a month behind on passing a budget.
“We talk about running our state like a business, but we're costing our taxpayers $42,000 a day because we don't have a budget,” Chaudhuri said.
Republicans are cognizant of the attempts to link the new laws to the original bathroom bill, but they argue public opinion has changed and more people consider these measures necessary.
House Speaker Tim Moore said Thursday he saw little connection between the 2016 law and those enacted this week, when he said lawmakers acted in defense of children and fair competition.
And when the Senate voted in April for a version of the sports measure, Majority Leader Paul Newton of Cabarrus County responded to what he called a “vague threat” by opponents that businesses would retaliate against North Carolina for the bill like they did in 2016.
“I just do not believe that is true. No. 1, this is not HB 2,” he said, referring to the so-called bathroom bill. “And No. 2, this is common sense.”
A former Duke Energy executive, Newton pitched the bill as a benefit to business leaders thinking of expanding to the state: "If you come to North Carolina and you have daughters, we’re guaranteeing that they are treated fairly,” he said.