Last December, a three-year state ban blocking new, local non-discrimination ordinances expired. The ban was a legacy of the brutal fight over House Bill 2, the controversial law that excluded lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from statewide nondiscrimination protections. Though a 2017 law (House Bill 142) partially repealed HB 2, it locked in place a moratorium on new LGBTQ protections — including nondiscrimination ordinances for employment and housing.

As the year opened, some openly worried a flood of new non-discrimination ordinances would inflame conservative lawmakers in the Republican dominated General Assembly, perhaps setting up another high-profile, HB2-style struggle.

But state lawmakers had been stung by a corporate backlash and state boycotts sparked by HB2; they were also courting Apple Computer to build a new North Carolina campus, so the General Assembly did not curb the quickly proliferating ordinances. Nor did they advance inflammatory legislation, including a bill that would have barred transgender women from playing women’s intramural, public school and university sports in the state.

By the end of the year, 16 local governments — including the largest and most populous cities and counties in the state — had passed new, LGBTQ-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances. Equality NC and the Campaign for Southern Equality celebrated the success of their “NC Is Ready for LGBTQ Protections” campaign, touting polling that showed 67% of North Carolinians support such anti-discrimination protections.

But the LGBTQ community also endured a year of vicious attacks from some of the state’s most prominent GOP elected officials and a renewed effort to ban books with LGBTQ themes and characters from school and public libraries. Among the most prominent stories:

1) New local LGBTQ protections could set up a fight with the General Assembly

As the year opened, Policy Watch talked with LGBTQ advocates and local elected officials about the promise of the sunsetting ban on new non-discrimination ordinances. The first new ordinances were taken up in the Orange County towns of Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Hillsborough. Leaders there were aware of the potential conflict but determined to make up for the progress put on hold for years after the passage — and later partial repeal — of HB2.

From that story:

Especially right now, it’s heartening to see these three communities in North Carolina — and more to come next week — reject the politics of division,” said Allison Scott, director of Policy & Programs at the Campaign for Southern Equality. “These ordinances not only establish concrete, clear protections from discrimination but also send a message that everyone deserves respect, dignity, and equality. We applaud the leadership of these lawmakers and cheer on the momentum that these ordinances signal for LGBTQ North Carolinians across the state.”

HB 142 still prevents any governing body besides the General Assembly from regulating access to multiple occupancy restrooms, showers or changing facilities. Conservative lawmakers and activists had seized on this issue in the HB2 fight.  They based their argument on whether transgender people could choose a bathroom that matched their gender identity as one of safety for women and children.

But LGBTQ advocates stress that the protections lost under HB2 and HB 142 went far deeper. The three ordinances passed this week address discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations unrelated to restrooms. That’s long overdue, advocates say, and an important step for the state.

“North Carolinians have amazingly stepped up and demonstrated that our state is a beautiful place to be LGBTQ,” said Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality NC. “For too long, North Carolina has lagged behind the rest of the nation when it comes to protecting LGBTQ folks and creating a culture where our most vulnerable can thrive. The tides are changing, and we hope other cities and towns across our state will be encouraged by these victories and do the right thing for their own citizens in the weeks ahead.”

2) Bill targeting transgender athletes for exclusion receives a hearing in state House committee

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Lawmakers nationwide filed a record number of proposals targeting transgender people. Among the most popular were bills attempting to ban transgender women from women’s sports at various levels.

In North Carolina, no such bills became law. While Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper would almost certainly have vetoed any such bill, ultimately Republican legislative leaders said they independently concluded that this wasn’t a real problem and didn’t require new laws.

Though such bills didn’t go the distance legislatively, LGBTQ advocates argued that the fierce rhetoric around the subject helped to create a deadly environment for transgender people in the state facing discrimination and violence.

From the story:

The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Mark Brody (R-Anson), said he expects it to be controversial but that it is a solution to a problem that can’t be ignored. “I expect that those who disagree with this bill will come forward and offer solutions,” Brody said. “And not a solution that says, ‘I don’t want to do anything.’”

Brody said it is important to make the standard policy in North Carolina that decisions about gender will be made according to “reproductive biology and genetics at birth.”

That’s not the standard used by most mainstream sports governing bodies.

The International Olympic Committee has allowed transgender athletes to compete at the highest level of international athletic competition since 2003. The NCAA has had a policy on inclusion of transgender athletes since 2011. The North Carolina High School Athletic Association has had a similar policy since 2019. Each of those policies make exceptions for transgender athletes undergoing hormone therapy that suppresses testosterone.

Brody offered supporting documents from the American College of Pediatricians, a conservative splinter group that broke with the larger and widely respected American Academy of Pediatrics in 2002 over that group’s support of the rights of gay and lesbian parents to adopt.

The conservative group, which North Carolina Republicans also relied upon in their arguments supporting the controversial 2016 law known as HB2, unsuccessfully fought to keep same-sex marriage from becoming legal and supports so-called “conversion therapy,” a scientifically debunked practice now banned in 20 states.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Duplin), another of the bill’s sponsors, eschewed scientific arguments to speak to his more personal reasons for supporting the bill.

“My primary motivation for all my bills in the General Assembly is, to some degree, my faith and the way I feel about things,” Dixon said.

A clause in HB 358 cites and quotes the work of Doriane Lambelet Coleman, a Duke Law professor and former elite track and field athlete, on the biological differences between men and women and their importance to competition in sports.

But Coleman opposes the bill and others like it, saying lawmakers in a number of states have cherry-picked her work to make arguments that aren’t supported by science or the law. “If you’ve been an athlete, a competitive athlete, whether it’s just in high school or in college or in the elite ranks, there is no escaping the performance gap between male and female athletes,” Coleman said in an interview with Policy Watch Wednesday. “It’s not a myth. It’s a fact.”

But transgender women who have undergone hormone suppression to avoid a male puberty don’t have vast inherent advantages over athletes assigned female at birth, Coleman said. Pretending they do is also ignoring the latest available science. “It’s overly broad and probably unlawful to exclude them,” Coleman said.

“You have to pay attention to and be honest about biology in order to come to a solution on these issues,” Coleman said. “But you can come to a solution that is inclusive or a solution that is exclusive.”

Transgender-inclusive policies such as those of the NCAA and International Olympic Committee have worked for years without incident, Coleman said. To this point, there hasn’t been a problem in North Carolina. It is indeed important to protect women’s sports and Title IX, Coleman said, which has allowed women athletes to make great strides. But the inclusion of transgender athletes doesn’t have to mean the end of Title IX or women’s sports.

“There are politicians who see this as a wedge issue, a culture wars issue,” Coleman said. “Politicians do that.”

3) GOP pols Robinson, Walker, Cawthorn align themselves with movement seeking to end to separation of church and state 

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson poses with Rep. Madison Cawthorn and Rep. Mark Walker.

Perhaps the most publicly and virulently anti-LGBTQ politician in the state this year was the GOP’s highest-ranking elected official, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. As Robinson publicly said he was “95 percent sure” he would run for governor, there was more attention this year on his frequent anti-LGBTQ statements.

In October, the group Right Wing Watch posted to Twitter a video of Robinson giving a church speech wherein he said, “There’s no reason anybody, anywhere in America should be telling children about transgenderism, homosexuality, any of that filth.”

When the video went viral and led to calls for his resignation, Robinson explained that by “anybody, anywhere in America” he actually meant public school libraries and that “transgendersism, homosexuality, any of that filth” actually meant specific books he found too sexually explicit that were available in school libraries. The reaction was split — even among members of his own party.

The North Carolina Republican Party released a statement supporting Robinson in his pivot to talking about sexually explicit books in school libraries. But the statement made no mention of LGBTQ people or Robinson’s characterization of them as “filth.”

Likewise, House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) released a statement supporting Robinson’s new criticism of explicit material in public schools but not addressing his characterization of LGBTQ people as “filth.”

Instead, Moore’s statement contained a call to “work together with greater respect for our neighbors even in the most passionate political debates.”

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) made no comparable statement and didn’t return calls and emails from reporters seeking comment on the controversy.

Brent Woodcox, Berger’s senior policy counsel, however, took to Twitter to address Robinson’s comments. “There is no future for a political party that is anti-gay,” Woodcox wrote. “There just isn’t a large enough constituency in this country for the attitude. The world changed. Some politicians are catching up.”

State Rep Marcia Morey (D-Durham) called Robinson’s pivot from characterizing LGBTQ people as “filth” to talking about books in schools “a bait and switch.”

“I think this started out by a video that was in a church, and it was disgusting,” Morey said at a news conference earlier this month “Now, it has pivoted to what kids are reading in schools. These are really two different issues. I think we all want good solid literature for kids to read, but don’t conflate this with the words of hate and filth that sparked this entire debate.”

Beyond simply defending the remarks, Robinson would go further. In a November speech at the Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, Robinson said straight couples are inherently superior to LGBTQ couples, homosexuality “creates nothing” and has no purpose and compared LGBTQ people to maggots, flies and cow excrement.

Robinson also reiterated his belief that transgender people don’t exist but are simply confused or mentally ill people who don’t realize which gender they really are.

“I don’t care how much you cut yourself up, drug yourself up and dress yourself up, you still either one of two things — you either a man or a woman,” Robinson said. “You might be a cut up, dressed up, drugged up ugly man or woman, but you still a man or a woman, and I don’t care who doesn’t like it.”

As the controversy around Robinson’s remarks intensified, Policy Watch took a look at Robinson’s connection to a fundamentalist Christian organization called The American Renewal Project. Robinson’s anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is tame as compared to some of that group’s teachings, which are also embraced and promoted by NC Congressman Madison Cawthorn and former congressman turned Senate candidate Mark Walker.

From that story:

The American Renewal Project – and its state arm, the North Carolina Renewal Project – provides a pipeline for conservative politicians to reach highly motivated Christian voters and activists on the political right.

The group rejects the notion of a separation between church and state. It argues that churches are at the forefront of a culture war, and pastors should run for office to ensure victory.

On Monday former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker tweeted a photo of himself with fellow North Carolina Republicans U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn and Lt. Governor Mark Robinson at an American Renewal Project event.

“It’s a great way to start the week speaking at the American Renewal Project luncheon with pastors and faith leaders from western North Carolina,” Walker wrote.

A particular theme to which all three men have returned is that of persecuted Christianity and the need to institute religious teaching and principles into all areas of civic life, particularly public schools, which they say should be reformed according to their religious principles or abandoned by Christian families.

Robinson has forged an even stronger bond with the American Renewal Project than his predecessor, Dan Forest, who headlined a Charlotte event for the group in 2019. Robinson has been the special guest and keynote speaker at private pastor events for the group across the state throughout 2021, including this week’s event in Asheville with Walker and Cawthorn.

At the “Salt & Light” event, Robinson stated that the United States is and has always been a “Christian nation” and invited those who disagree with that premise to leave the country. “If you don’t like it, I’ll buy your plane, train, or automobile ticket right outta’ here,” he declared.

4) Murders highlight violence, inequality that transgender North Carolinians have long faced

As debates about their rights and core identities raged at the highest levels of state government, LGBTQ people in North Carolina continued to face the very real threat of hate-driven violence.

From Policy Watch’s story in April about the  murder of two young, Black trans women in Charlotte:

Jaida Peterson was found shot to death in a Quality Inn & Suites near Charlotte Douglas International Airport on Easter Sunday. She was 29.

Remy Fennel was also fatally shot. She was found early on the morning of April 15 in a room at the Sleep Inn in Charlotte’s University City. She was 28.

Anti-transgender rhetoric and legislation drives the rising violence in North Carolina and nationwide against transgender people, many of whom already face staggering health and social inequities.

“Being a Black trans woman in America means you’re far more likely to experience inequities and prejudice, including extreme poverty and systemic, state-sanctioned violence and murder,” said Rebby Kern, director of education policy for Equality NC.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said they weren’t sure whether the two murders are connected. But they said both women were sex workers and issued a warning to “members of the LGBTQ community engaged in sex work to exercise extreme caution and immediately report anything suspicious by calling 9-1-1.”

Police later arrested and charged two men with the murders. But the police handling of the cases, and the lack of attention to the community’s needs, show two arrests do little to protect the safety of transgender people.

5) Transgender prisoner fighting for gender-affirming surgery

Policy Watch has for years been following the case of Kanautica Zayre-Brown, a transgender woman who became the first transgender person in the state to be transferred from a prison designated for one gender to one designated for another.

Her case has laid bare some of the problems faced by most transgender people trying to navigate large and complicated bureaucracies that often do not acknowledge or make proper allowance for their gender identities.

In November, we spoke to Zayre-Brown about her current struggle to have a gender-affirming surgery while still in prison and the lack of transparency around how the state is handling her case.

From the story:

When Kanautica Zayre-Brown was transferred to Anson Correctional Institution in 2019, she became the first incarcerated transgender person in North Carolina to move from a prison designated for one gender to one designated for another.

But that hasn’t solved all the problems of navigating a state prison system that seems ill-prepared for the realities of incarcerating transgender people. In an exclusive interview with Policy Watch, Zayre-Brown recently detailed her continuing struggles to be regarded as female.

That includes her fight to have a gender-affirming surgery, which she has been working toward since well before she entered prison. Though her doctors and specialists at the UNC Transgender Health Program  say it’s medically necessary, Zayre-Brown said the state won’t approve the procedure.

“Maybe because they haven’t dealt with this situation before, they’re still trying to learn to deal with it,” Zayre-Brown said. “But it’s been a really bad experience.”

The Department of Public Safety, which runs the prison system, would not comment on the specifics of Zayre-Brown’s case.

“North Carolina and federal law prohibit the release of information pertaining to an individual’s medical or confidential prison records,” said John Bull, communications officer with the department, in response to questions from Policy Watch. “What we can tell you is that requests for transgender accommodations, which would include medical procedures, by policy are reviewed by a multi-disciplinary committee,” Bull said.

This committee includes 10 administrators, including the Health Services medical director, chief of psychiatry, behavioral health director, chief medical officer, and the Prison Rape Elimination Act director.

“Each individual’s situation is reviewed, and decisions made on a case-by-case basis,” Bull said. “Staff has been trained on transgender issues, including how to properly address a transgender offender.”

A total of 103 incarcerated people identify as transgender and five as intersex, according to the prison system’s intake screening and Transgender Accommodation Review Committee process. Prisoners have the right to deny being identified, which means those figures could be an undercount. Some people fear if they self-identify they’ll be abused by fellow incarcerated people and prison staff.

Jaclyn Maffetore, the ACLU staff attorney handling Zayre-Brown’s case, said it’s unclear how the state is making decisions about Zayre-Brown’s care.

“Unfortunately there hasn’t been the degree of transparency either to us or to Kanautica, a person who is deeply impacted by these decisions being made on her behalf, that there should be,” Maffetore said.

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