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Of Lunch Counters, Bathrooms, and College Hoops

bathroom sign
Written by Jonathan Riehl

Here in North Carolina we have a lot of traditions.

They range from the entertaining, everyday variety — we are proud of being the birthplace of barbecue and our college basketball franchises are some of the greatest in NCAA history — to the more politically and socially profound. Greensboro, N.C., was the site of the first high-profile lunch counter sit-ins of the Civil Rights movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded at Shaw University in Raleigh.

But, more recently, it has been a rejection of that progressive civil rights history that has had the politics of North Carolina in a state of upheaval, drawing national attention. The infamous “bathroom bill,” known here is House Bill 2 (H.B.2), was repealed last week, although the compromise accepted by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has left both the more-extreme liberal and conservative constituencies upset.

H.B.2, signed last year by former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, required transgendered people to use the bathroom identified on their birth certificate, rather than the gender they identify with individually. A remedy for a problem that did not exist, this first-of-its-kind measure served as the latest proxy fight lodged by the social conservative right. Here in North Carolina, these social conservative forces had suffered a major blow following court rulings in 2014 that invalidated the state’s constitutional amendment declaring same-sex marriage illegal. They sought H.B.2 as a rebound.

The battle over gay marriage started with Amendment One, as it was known here, which passed a popular referendum in 2012. Following lower court rulings in 2014 invalidating the law, the permanent blow to the anti-marriage equality forces came with the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling on gay marriage, Obergefell v. Hodges, holding that laws like Amendment One violated the constitutional right to equal protection of the laws.

Civil rights activists in our state and across the nation hailed Obergefell as a victory in keeping what Justice Anthony Kennedy has called the American tradition of “ever-expanding” rights. It is a tradition we are proud of in North Carolina, traced back in modern history to the lunch counter sit-ins which first gained national prominence at a Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960. Since 2010, that former Woolworth’s building has been site of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. (Greensboro’s history is by no means one-sidedly progressive; the city was the location of one of the country’s worst race-motivated hate crimes, a KKK-led massacre in 1979.)

Soon after Amendment One passed, Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, began a rise to national prominence as leader of what has become known as the “Moral Monday” protests at the state capital. On a weekly basis since the spring of 2013, protesters have swarmed the capitol grounds and legislature, often prompting arrests in the tradition of civil disobedience. The protests have been directed not only toward the Republican legislature’s repeated anti-LGBT initiatives, but also toward racial gerrymandering and other policies.

Last year’s election saw Gov. McCrory forced from office by the narrowest of margins in what most analysts saw as a straightforward rejection of the bathroom bill’s disastrous consequences for the state’s reputation and its economy.  It was reported recently by the Associated Press that boycotts by corporations from PayPal to Adidas; sports organizations, including the NCAA and NBA; and celebrity performers, from Bruce Springsteen to Itzakh Perlman, would collectively cost the state close to 4 billion dollars in lost profits over a dozen years.

These dire predictions seemed timed to force the legislature, still firmly in Republican hands, to finally do something about H.B.2. Their action came last week with a repeal compromise agreed to by Gov. Cooper, whose hands are tied by the veto-proof state house. Under the compromise, the bill itself is repealed, but — in an odd legal balancing act — the state retains “preemption” power over all state and other localities in regulating access to public restrooms.

From one standpoint, fighting over bathroom access seems a strange fight to pick; even when the law was in effect, it was never enforced and was, in fact, unenforceable — there never were and never would be any “bathroom police” asking for birth certificates before allowing entry.  It has been reported that many school administrators simply looked the other way when transgendered students used the bathroom they felt most comfortable with. The entire battle was a proxy waged by conservatives hoping to keep social issues surrounding gender and sexuality at the forefront of the electoral mind.

“It was never about bathrooms,” said Michael Waltman, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and an expert in hate speech. “The stakes were higher. It was about people’s ability to participate in their community’s public life.” In the same way that lunch counter sit-ins were never about the right to order a slice of pie, H.B.2 was never about the right to go to the bathroom. “It’s those everyday public settings that set the stakes,” Waltman said, “They illustrate what the stakes are for discrimination.”

The unfolding debate over LGBT rights and H.B.2 are unfolding here even as North Carolina teeters on the progressive electoral brink, a “purple” state since first going for Barack Obama in 2008 before narrowly swapping sides for Romney in 2012 and Trump in 2016.

The rural/urban divide in the state continues to contribute to a rapidly shifting demographic dynamic. There are longstanding progressive enclaves in Asheville in the western part of the state and Chapel Hill in the East, with growing urban and suburban centers in Charlotte and Raleigh/Durham. The 4th Congressional District in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill “Triangle” has one of the highest number of accredited colleges and universities of any in the nation, as well as the high tech Research Triangle Park.

How those Triangle corporations and others across the state react to the H.B.2 compromise repeal remains to be seen. Likewise, a verdict on the NCAA’s threatened boycott is apparently on hold until the Tar Heels take their shot at another national championship. That less-consequential North Carolina tradition is now viewed in tandem with our record on civil rights, dangerously jeopardized by Republican initiatives in recent years.

“The hope is this will be seen as good faith,” Waltman said of the bathroom bill repeal. “But this is also political game-playing…I kind of see it as the same fight that’s ongoing: The extreme right’s continued need to provide enemies who ‘threaten our traditions’; an attempt to breathe new life into a rather extreme movement that is falling out of disfavor.”


Jonathan Riehl is a communications consultant for campaigns and nonprofit organizations. He is a former political speechwriter and is completing a book on the modern conservative legal movement.

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About the author

Jonathan Riehl

Jonathan Riehl is a communications consultant for political and nonprofit organizations and campaigns, is a former political speechwriter, and teaches undergraduate communications.

He is currently completing a book on the modern legal conservative movement. He holds a law degree from the University of Virginia and Ph.D. in Communication Studies from UNC-Chapel Hill, where his doctoral work focused on the Federalist Society. Riehl is an opinion contributor to state and national political publications focusing on conservative political rhetoric and debate.