Passing new local protections in North Carolina could be the key to wider changes across the South, Scott and her allies argue. For queer-rights advocates, local legislation has become more crucial than ever, because Donald Trump and his Republican allies have rolled back federal and state protections over the past four years. But major obstacles to this plan lie ahead.
Among the most significant is that the Republican-run state legislature could try to renew the state’s ban on local protections—or even resurrect H.B. 2 itself. H.B. 2 first arose in response to the city of Charlotte’s passage of a local LGBTQ-rights ordinance. In 2016, the state GOP “decided that culture-war issues ought to take precedence over traditional conservative preference for local control,” The Atlantic’s David A. Graham wrote at the time. Sure, H.B. 2 went on to cause massive economic and reputational problems for the state, and arguably contributed to Republican Governor Pat McCrory’s defeat later that year. But the expiration of its replacement essentially resets the state’s laws to the moment before Charlotte passed its ill-fated local protections. It’s possible that if LGBTQ-rights advocates try again, Republicans in the legislature could respond the same way they did in 2016—although Roy Cooper, the state’s Democratic governor, would have the power to veto a resurrected H.B. 2.
Although President-elect Joe Biden’s victory may have rebuilt his “blue wall” in the Midwest, at the presidential level, the southern region of the United States remains an almost unbroken sea of red. Trump won North Carolina by tens of thousands of votes, and Republicans held on to their majorities in both houses of the state legislature. North Carolina is one of 13 states that don’t treat crimes based on gender identity or sexual orientation as hate crimes. The state has limited protections for transgender people, and it only just recently outlawed the use of federal funding for anti-gay “conversion therapy”—which is still legal in the state.
A majority of North Carolinians, however, back new LGBTQ protections in the state. More than two-thirds of North Carolina voters support laws that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in jobs, public accommodations, and housing, a 2019 poll found. But laws there, and in the broader South, rarely reflect the reality that the South has always been home to queer people—and that substantial public support for their rights exists. “When you look at the history of LGBTQ communities and identity formation, we’ve always been policed,” E. Cram, a communications professor at the University of Iowa who researches queerness in rural areas, told me. “We’ve always had to live our lives in excess of the law.”
Supporters continue to hope that new protections are possible. H.B. 142, the Republican legislature’s replacement for H.B. 2, “was a compromise that kept discrimination in the books,” says State Representative Pricey Harrison, who voted against H. B. 142 because she believed it would worsen homophobia and transphobia in North Carolina. “Our state is very politically divided. We’ve got pockets of blue, but then once you go outside of that, it’s not as welcoming. It’s really frustrating, because we have a vibrant queer community here.”