When Deven Balsam, a DJ and producer based in Asheville, North Carolina, found out that the state Senate had passed House Bill 2, he was helping his three kids with their homework. A single parent and transgender man, he said that when he learned that HB2, which overrides local LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances and bans transgender people from using the public bathroom facilities that correctly align with their gender identity, was signed into law by Governor Pat McCrory, “the feeling of despair and fear was immediate.”
“If I get arrested, we have no family closer than 10 hours away in either direction,” Balsam told MTV News, “but I worry more for my fellow trans people who do not yet pass.”
HB2 was positioned by religious activists and conservative groups (with assistance, sadly, from some radical feminist organizations) as a response to Charlotte’s nondiscrimination ordinance, which they believed put women and children at risk by allowing transgender women -- whom they referred to in hearings and documentation as “men” -- to use women’s restrooms. The same strategy was used in Houston late last year to repeal nondiscrimination protections, ignoring the fact that LGBT nondiscrimination protections have nothing to do with protecting predatory or illegal behavior (not to mention that attacking someone in a bathroom is already illegal).
The law went into effect on Wednesday, and the impact was felt almost immediately. Charlie Comero, a trans man and the founder of 41 Percent, an organization focused on supporting transgender people struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, was on the Senate floor when the vote took place. “I was looking around at everyone who I could tell was going to vote for this unjust bill and all I could feel was a deep sadness for why they felt it necessary to do this. I wanted to go up to every single one of them and introduce myself and share my story. I wanted to make them listen to my story -- to see me as a human being and possibly acknowledge where they are terribly misunderstood about transgender people. I just kept thinking, they don't understand us. They don't get it. Do they even want to?”
Ironically -- and horrifyingly -- the transgender women whom these activists are demanding be banned from restrooms face violence and harassment themselves at astonishing levels. In Washington, D.C., whose LGBT population is nearly triple the national average, 70 percent of transgender people have been denied entrance to or harassed and assaulted while trying to use a public bathroom. And across the country, at least 21 transgender women of color were murdered in the first six months of 2015 alone.
Beyond outright violence, the stigma created by laws like HB2 has real consequences on the lives of transgender people. Transgender and gender-nonconforming people living, working, and raising families in North Carolina are already minorities in their communities. Now, with HB2 on the books, many of these people are feeling increasingly isolated and concerned about their safety. Maddison Homjak says that she’s the only trans woman in her area with a public business presence. When she found out the bill had passed, “I cried. I was hurt. As someone who was already outcast from her family as a freak, it felt miserable knowing my state’s government would not protect me now either.”
For Che Busiek, a trans man and one of the founders of a support group for transgender people called Transcend Charlotte, HB2’s passing hit hard. “I've worked so hard just to get OK with myself,” he told MTV News, “And [now] I have a bunch of people telling me I'm actually a freak of nature. Then they passed a law so if I disagree, they are still validated. It's devastating. And they wonder why our suicide rates are so high.” (Forty-one percent of transgender people attempt suicide, compared to 4.6 percent of the general population.)
Despite the paternalistic, “protecting women and children" guise of HB2, the law puts transgender people, particularly transgender women, at serious risk. “[HB2] means that the next homeless trans woman who comes to me after having been assaulted in a men's shelter or men's bathroom,” Trey Greene, a trans man and social worker focused on victims of sexual assault, told MTV News, “I'm going to have to tell her that the state of North Carolina has mandated she does not exist and doesn't deserve humane treatment because of who she is, [and requires] she be in spaces that are dangerous and too often deadly for her.” He added that for transgender police officers, doctors, teachers, and others, the bill is a “slap in the face ... and this is done in the name of God and righteousness?”
Erica Starling, a trans woman, 12-year resident of Charlotte, a mother, and a member of the board of directors of the Charlotte LGBT Chamber of Commerce, told MTV News shortly after the bill's passage, “My hopes for moving here was to start fresh in a progressive city that was ripe to boom economically and had a good core LGBT base.” She added that HB2 had her “seriously considering leaving” the state. “If their HB2 law stands,” she said, “I can look forward to my chance of assault (both verbal and physical) to increase greatly.”
Starling said she was also talking with other activists across the state about how best to fight back against HB2 and stand up for the transgender community. Already, groups including ACLU of North Carolina and Equality North Carolina have filed a federal lawsuit challenging HB2, saying that the law “violates the most basic guarantees of equal treatment and the U.S. Constitution." The state’s attorney general has said that he will not defend the law in court.
“We will prosper and win our rights,” Homjak said. “We just can't give in to the bullying. We can't give up ... We are human beings. And we deserve human rights just as much as any other person. Personally, I will fight tooth and nail beside my peers until our voices are heard and justice is served in favor of equality.”