Basketball or bathrooms: The Tar Heel state is stuck

You would think reasonable people could find compromise, especially on a fine, warm winter day, in a city named for a gracious nobleman, a place gracious and noble in its own right.

But questions of personal choice – once just that, personal – have flared into an angry showdown between two sides, each of which is certain it is right. That’s never good, or reasonable.

The cause is HB2, an ironically bland name for an explosive piece of state legislation that has ripped North Carolina into bitter camps, united only in vitriol. The bill was passed last year by a Republican-controlled legislature and signed into law by a Republican governor (who proceeded to lose his bid for re-election). It prohibits municipalities in the Tar Heel state from passing laws that let people make use of whatever bathroom or locker room they choose. Gay rights groups see the state law as an attempt to dilute legal protection for gay and transgender citizens.

HB2 overrode laws in cities like Durham (home of Duke University), Chapel Hill (University of North Carolina) Raleigh (North Carolina State), and Charlotte (UNC  Charlotte) which had enacted statutes to grant anyone access to any bathroom, based on the gender a person thinks he, or she, is.

It’s significant that all those towns host college campuses, which tend to be more liberal than the general population of the North Carolina. Large swaths of this state are rural, religious, and socially conservative.

“The vast majority of people in North Carolina don’t believe that women and girls should have to share restrooms and locker rooms with people who clearly are men,” says Phil Berger, the president of the state senate, and who supports HB2.

The response to HB2 has been dramatic, and hugely damaging. Gay rights organizations, led by the New York-based Human Rights Campaign, have organized boycotts and sanctions, backed by two organizations that control North Carolina’s unofficial religion: basketball.

The National Basketball Association removed this year’s all-star game from Charlotte, sending it to New Orleans instead. The NCAA, which governs college sports, warned that no tournaments will be held in North Carolina for at least four years unless the bill is repealed (The HRC, NBA and NCAA declined requests for interviews to discuss HB2).

Everyone agrees North Carolina has lost millions of dollars in business since the boycott began last year. The loss of NCAA tournaments for four years could push that figure much higher. In addition, entertainers including Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Buffett and Ringo Starr have said they will not perform in the state as long as HB2 remains in force.

“I don’t think anyone could fathom the kind of reaction we have received,” says state senator Berger. “The point of view of people who don’t want girls and women to share bathrooms with men has been deformed into discrimination against transgender people. That’s not what this is.”

The head of the state GOP agrees. “Our girls and our women are not for sale,” says Dallas Woodhouse, the Republicans’ blunt-talking executive director. “Yes, we are paying a price for our principles. But the safety of our citizens has got to take precedent over financial considerations.”

As to why the NBA and NCAA got so openly allied with the anti-HB2 movement, Berger thinks he knows. “It’s all about money,” he says. "They’re afraid of losing sponsorships if the HRC declares a boycott.”

Besides, he says, both sporting bodies are hypocrites. “I don’t see the NCAA mandating that men’s and women’s locker rooms be merged.  Or the NBA opening up the players’ facilities to anyone who feels male on a given day.”

So, to recap, HB2, a state bill that was enacted in response to municipal legislation that some feared would displace traditional values, is now the cause of boycotts and allegations that it endorses hate. It wasn’t what either side in this confrontration intended.

Lots of things don’t end up as they started out.

The explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, for whom this delightful city is named, is remembered in legend for having spread his costly cape across a pool of muddy water so that his patron, Queen Elizabeth, could avoid soiling her shoes.

Sir Walter’s good fortune ended with Elizabeth’s reign. Her successor, James I, had Raleigh’s head lopped off.

Let’s hope both sides in this dispute can keep theirs, and stay out of the mud.