The week started out well enough. After the Human Rights Campaign Los Angeles gala on Saturday, when Chad Griffin urged Hollywood to stand with LGBT people in opposition to Georgia’s “religious freedom” bill, the Motion Picture Association of America issued a statement expressing confidence Gov. Nathan Deal would veto the measure.
Echoing a threat from the National Football League to withhold the Super Bowl from Georgia, Disney and Marvel Studios, currently filming “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” in Georgia, announced they would take their business elsewhere if discrimination became law in the state. AMC Networks, which produces “The Walking Dead” in Georgia, also urged a veto.
But after those small victories, things quickly changed. On Tuesday, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law SB 175, a religious freedom bill that would allow religious organizations at public universities to deny membership to LGBT students. Brownback became the first governor in the nation to sign this year a measure enabling anti-LGBT discrimination.
An even bigger disappointment came the next day when the North Carolina Legislature, in retaliation over a recently approved pro-LGBT ordinance in Charlotte, rushed through in a special session House Bill 2 to undo all pro-LGBT protections in the state and prohibit transgender people from using public restrooms consistent with their gender identity. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory wasted no time in signing the measure, which has been dubbed the worst anti-LGBT law in the nation.
Major businesses, including Google, Marriott, American Airlines, Trillium Asset Management and PayPal, came out against the law after it was signed, as well as Bank of America, the largest employer in the state. The National Basketball Association issued a statement saying it doesn’t know whether Charlotte can now successfully host the All-Star Game in 2017 and film producer Rob Reiner said he won’t make any more movies in the state.
But the fact remains the measure is now the law in North Carolina, and there’s no sign the legislature will revisit it anytime soon. It remains to be seen if any of the major companies that denounced the law will put their money where their mouth is and cease to engage in business in the state.
Measures in other states may soon be on the way to becoming law. In Tennessee, an anti-trans “papers to pee” bill prohibiting transgender students from using the restroom consistent with their gender identity was thought dead, but has been given new life. In the House, a committee that rejected the measure is set to reconsider the bill on Tuesday, and in the Senate, a committee this week approved the measure, clearing the way for a floor vote in that chamber.
In Mississippi, a Senate committee on Wednesday approved HB 1523, a bill that would expand the “religious freedom” law signed by Gov. Phil Bryant and enable businesses and state employees to discriminate against LGBT people. Under a deadline to take action by Wednesday, the full Senate may soon vote on it.
In the aftermath of losses this week and potential enactment of anti-LGBT laws in other states, LGBT advocates are saying it’s time for a reassessment of the movement, particularly in a way to ensure transgender people aren’t targeted by discriminatory measures.
Richard Socarides, a New York-based gay Democratic activist and former adviser to President Clinton on gay rights, said losses in North Carolina and Kansas demonstrate LGBT rights supporters need to build efforts at the state level.
“It becomes more clear every day that these state-by-state efforts to rob us of our hard won victories must be the new focus of our efforts,” Socarides said. “We must all focus on trying to defeat them and where we can’t, making sure the haters pay a price, whether at the ballot box or through working with business and community groups to send a message. As a community we need to re-organize, recommit, and redouble our efforts. Certainly whatever pause there may have been since the Supreme Court’s marriage decision must end.”
In an op-ed published on Medium, HRC’s Griffin articulated his vision for the way forward, saying victory isn’t always assured.
“Sadly, we do not yet live in an era when these victories are inevitable,” Griffin said. “And while it would certainly be easier if we chose to fight only the winning battles, that is not why we do this work. We fight even when the climb appears steep and insurmountable.”
Griffin wrote the ultimate solution to defeats for LGBT rights at the state level is federal action, which would consist of passage of comprehensive LGBT non-discrimination legislation known as the Equality Act.
“But, until we build the bipartisan majority needed to pass the Equality Act in Congress and elect a president who will sign it into law, we must continue to fight these battles — in cities like Charlotte, in states like North Carolina and Georgia, and everywhere that LGBT people find their rights under siege by those who have cemented their feet on the wrong side of history,” Griffin wrote.
A key component of any reassessment will likely be messaging on transgender rights and allowing transgender people to use public restrooms consistent with their gender identity, which is considered the most contentious part of pro-LGBT non-discrimination measures and the driving force behind many of the anti-LGBT bills throughout the country.
Jillian Weiss, a transgender advocate and law professor at Ramapo College, said “reassessment is always a useful exercise” in the wake of losses like those in Kansas and North Carolina.
“There is also no question that efforts are being taken to address the problem in these states,” Weiss said. “However, the combination of victory blindness and failure to utilize and publicize the federal civil rights laws that already protect us have created fertile soil for the states’ rights backlash that we are now seeing.”
Weiss made the case LGBT advocates should immediately seek recourse in the federal court system, which has produced a growing number of victories in recent years in favor of LGBT rights.
“We ought to be in the federal courts of Kansas and North Carolina right now with top notch legal firms to fight these laws,” Weiss said. “Instead, we seem to be milling about in confusion. The truth is that the federal government, including the federal court system, is on our side right now. I myself have won a number of victories in very conservative courts on behalf of trans people in the last year. This should be known to all of our rights orgs. Why are we not taking advantage of this now?”
What makes North Carolina particularly troublesome for LGBT advocates is that it was passed in retaliation over the enactment of a pro-LGBT non-discrimination ordinance in Charlotte, sending the signal that efforts by cities in other conservative states to bar anti-LGBT discrimination may be overturned by state legislatures.
Rebecca Isaacs, executive director of the Equality Federation, said LGBT rights supporters should pressure North Carolina to make clear there will be consequences for states that seek to undermine the decisions of localities to protect LGBT rights.
“I think the thing we need to do is, number one, make it hard for them — as hard as we possibly can,” Issacs said. “Businesses need to come on board, people need to take their conferences out of there, people need to make it known that this is not the wave of the future, this is not the next best thing that our opponents should do. We want it to hurt.”
But Isaacs demurred when asked if an outright boycott is appropriate as a consequence of the enactment of the anti-LGBT law in North Carolina.
“What I think is really important in applying pressure, is that whatever it is, it is successful,” Isaacs said. “I’m very wary of specifically calling for boycotts unless they are really big, concerted efforts. But I think that if there is a groundswell of support, especially from business, the way it happened in other states as in Indiana and a lot of stuff happening in Georgia. I think it’s credible. And I think having businesses operate as a moderating force on this issue is going to be critical.”
In the event more states follow North Carolina and Kansas and pass anti-LGBT laws, some of the blame will be placed at the doorstep of the Human Rights Campaign, which continues to receive criticism for its perceived lack of national strategy to defeat such legislation.
Michael Petrelis, a gay San Francisco-based blogger and critic of the Human Rights Campaign, blamed the organization for allowing losses to occur as the organization advocates for electing Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“We’re suffering setbacks on the non-existent religious freedom crisis and hysteria over transgender people using restrooms from Indiana to Houston, South Dakota, Georgia, Tennessee, Kansas, Mississippi and other locales too depressing to think of, and HRC is putting too many resources into Hillary Clinton’s campaign,” Petrelis said.
Petrelis said the first step of any reassessment process is for Griffin and other leaders of the LGBT movement to show how they are spending their time and disclose their calendars since Jan. 1.
“How does Griffin organize his schedule and who is he meeting with?” Petrelis said. “Our official leaders, just as with electeds, must open their calendars regularly for public inspection.
Blade photo editor Michael Key contributed to this report.