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Why the North Carolina Governor's Election Is Such a Big Deal for LGBT People

Dec 05, 2016

Mara Keisling has been out as a transgender woman for more than 15 years, and she has never been verbally assaulted on the street, she says, despite her job as a prominent advocate for transgender rights. That changed a week ago when someone driving by her in Washington, D.C., rolled down his window and yelled, "F--- you, faggot!" Dozens of other people have reported similar stories around the country since the election, like a woman in Arkansas who found a note taped to her door: "Trump says get back in the closet, fags!"

As President-elect Donald Trump adds people to his team who have records of opposing LGBT rights, uncertainty and fear are plaguing a community that experienced enormous progress under President Obama. But there is one election result that is giving them hope. On Monday, Republican North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory conceded a tight election to Democrat Roy Cooper, in a contest that was—more than any other high-profile race this year—a referendum on LGBT issues.

"The only place where transgender people were on the ballot this year was North Carolina," says Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. "And we won."

At the center of the fight was HB2, a controversial measure often called "the bathroom law" because it banned transgender people from using certain public restrooms, in addition to banning cities from passing non-discrimination measures that explicitly protect LGBT people. Since its passage in March, the law has been contested in multiple lawsuits—including one from the federal government— months of protests and boycotts that are estimated to represent hundreds of millions in lost revenue. Corporations pulled jobs and promised not to bring their business to the state in the future, as influencers ranging from Bruce Springsteen to the NBA canceled plans to hold events in the state.

Yet unlike other Republican governors who were put under similar pressure over bathroom-related bills in 2016, McCrory refused to budge, using that blowback to position himself as a steadfast champion of social conservative values as he sought reelection. Cooper, the state's attorney general, refused to defend the law and made his opposition to it a central part of his campaign. "It writes discrimination into our law," Cooper alleged, repeatedly pushing for its repeal.

The election was close—coming down to about 10,000 votes after a recount—but the win upset several tides in a year that clearly went to Republicans. Trump carried the state by three points. No other sitting governor in the country lost reelection, and no sitting governor in North Carolina previously had since 1971, when the state began allowing them to serve two terms. In exit polls, the economy topped North Carolina voters' concerns, and about two-thirds said they opposed the law. According to research commissioned by the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT rights group, 57 percent of voters said HB2 was the top reason “not to vote for Pat McCrory.”

"That's a strong signal for the rest of the nation," says Jay Brown, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign. "It’s not a recipe for success to single out anybody when you’re a lawmaker. Voters saw a law passed unfairly targeting a group of people, and they rejected that kind of lawmaking."

In the days after the election, some have alleged that identity politics and support for sexual and gender minorities, in particular, is to blame for the Democratic Party's downfall. As a Columbia University professor wrote in the New York Times, "To paraphrase Bernie Sanders, America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms." While liberals have widely embraced transgender rights in recent years, advocates point out that they've been playing defense rather than offense on the issue. Political fights over bathrooms have largely been picked by social conservatives, many upset that they lost the fight over same-sex marriage and some riled by the increasing visibility of transgender people. (One South Dakota lawmaker who supported a similar measure, which was ultimately vetoed, likened it to "a virus that has broken out.")

Advocacy groups repeatedly described HB2 as a "solution for a problem that doesn't exist," noting that transgender people have not caused problems in many states and cities where non-discrimination laws have long protected their right to use the public bathrooms that align with their sense of self. "We’re the last ones who wanted to fight a battle over restrooms," says Shannon Minter, the legal director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights and a transgender man. He sees the results of the gubernatorial election as proof that "it’s not a fight any of us should be having to waste time and energy on."

Says Keisling of such measures, "That’s not a pushback on identity politics, that actually is identity politics."

While it's unclear whether Cooper's win could lead to an actual repeal of the law, given that Republicans continue to control the legislature, advocates believe that there's power in the narrative as a cautionary tale for other conservative legislatures that will almost certainly consider similar measures in the coming months. "This is not an issue voters want to see their elected officials prioritize," says Matt McTighe, executive director of Freedom For All Americans, an organization dedicated to passing non-discrimination protections. Elections that will take place in the state next year after court-mandated redistricting may also give Democrats more of an edge.

Trump himself has said things that appear to express sympathy with—or at least a lack of antipathy against—the community. In an interview during the race, he said transgender people should use "whatever bathroom they feel is appropriate" and applauded the audience at the Republican National Convention for cheering when he said he would protect the LGBT community.

But Cabinet picks such as Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who Trump has made his pick for attorney general, are making some LGBT people nervous. He voted against the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and supported a constitutional ban of same-sex marriage. And some protections LGBT people currently have at the federal level are only in place by executive order, which advocates worry Trump will be pressured to change.

The Human Rights Campaign says their site got more traffic on the day after the election—with anxious people trying to find out what legal changes might be coming—than the day that the Supreme Court upheld marriage equality. "We really don't know what's going to happen," says Keisling. "But we did not come this far to only come this far, even if it gets as bad as it could."

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