RALEIGH — State Rep. John Autry’s voice caught as he told reporters Tuesday that one of his family members identifies as female and is in the process of transitioning.
“You know, a transgender girl is not a boy,” Autry, a Charlotte Democrat, said in response to a question about opposition to a North Carolina bill that would ban transgender children from playing on sports teams of the gender with which they identify. “And the emails that I’m receiving portraying that there is some conspiracy of transgender youth to assume an identity that they were not born with to cheat at sports is just ludicrous and I can’t find the words that can express my, I guess, disgust, is one of them.
“For me it’s a personal issue.”
Autry’s frustration came out during a news conference where lawmakers introduced four bills that would fight discrimination against North Carolina’s LGBTQ population.
“I would do anything to protect any of my children and my grandchildren,” Autry said, “and that is one of the reasons I am so supportive with these measures here today.”
LGBTQ protections package
March 23 marked the fifth anniversary of former Gov. Pat McCrory signing into law House Bill 2, which banned transgender men and women from going into the restroom matching the gender they identify with instead of the gender on their birth certificate.
Democratic lawmakers gathered to say that North Carolina officials have not done enough to repeal the entirety of HB2 or protect the LGBTQ community.
Three of the bills they are pushing have been filed before but failed to get any traction. Those bills would repeal HB2 in its entirety, prohibit many forms of discrimination and ban conversion therapy.
“Unfortunately, one of my aunts went through conversion therapy,” said Rep. Allison Dahle, a Raleigh Democrat. “And still to this day — she’s in her late 70s — there are ramifications from said therapy, and so it’s really important to me that we make sure that no child has to go through any of this, that no person has to go through this.”
A fourth bill, the latest effort to stop LGBTQ discrimination, prevents defense attorneys from using a strategy in front of juries in which they blame the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity for causing the defendant to panic and assault or murder the victim.
Autry explained that what he called the trans-panic defense is often used after an assailant attacks a transgender individual after the two engaged in sexual relations and the defendant was unaware the victim was transgender.
The Washington Post reported that a similar tactic, the gay-panic defense, is used to place the blame on the victim for making an unwanted sexual advance against a person causing them to violently lash out, uncontrollably.
The American Bar Association posted an article to its website last summer saying that though LGBTQ people makes up less than 4% of the population, sexual orientation ranks as the third most common motive for hate crimes after race and religion.
The association said the gay- or trans-panic defense is a tactic to play on the jury’s prejudices. Its article ends with a call to action to lawmakers to help ban the defense.
Banning the trans-panic defense could lead to more consequences for people attacking transgender people “in the heat of the moment,” said Kori Hennessey, the director of education and programs for the LGBT Center of Raleigh.
“There are a lot of stories that have come out that are like, you know, ‘I went to the police to get help, and they just laughed at me or they didn’t do anything,’” said Hennessey, who identifies as non-binary and prefers gender-neutral pronouns.
They said if the bills pass, it could send a more welcoming message to the LGBTQ community, and said transgender people are killed every year in North Carolina.
Jenna Franks, a 34-year-old transgender woman in Jacksonville, was killed in February, WTVD-Channel 11 reported.
“Knowing that there are some sort of repercussions for people’s actions, I think that will make a huge impact on trans people feeling just a little bit safer in a state that doesn’t always consider transgender individuals like everyone else,” Hennessey said.
Bill support and opposition
Allison Scott, the director of impact and innovation for the Campaign for Southern Equality, said the bills being filed so close to the anniversary of HB2 becoming law was a symbolic means to show the importance of erasing the law and its successor, House Bill 142, from the books.
“As part of the symbolism, is to again introduce these other bills to get them pushed into law, to show that we’ve turned a corner and that North Carolina is not the same as it was when HB2 was brought about — that we’ve grown,” Scott said.
But not everyone agrees.
Tami Fitzgerald, executive director at the North Carolina Values Coalition, said in a written statement that the new bills treat people of faith like second-class citizens.
“They would override the fundamental right to exercise our religious beliefs and engage in free speech that our First Amendment guarantees,” Fitzgerald said. “Disagreement is not discrimination, yet these bills target those whose views the LGBT groups don’t like rather than respecting a diversity of beliefs.
“These bills would ostracize and marginalize people who hold decent and honorable beliefs about marriage, sex, and gender.”
The coalition also backs the sports ban, saying there is a risk that girls will be forced to play sports against biological males who have an unfair physical advantage.
HB2 and HB142
North Carolina became known internationally in 2016 for passing HB2, which many described as “the bathroom bill.”
In addition to deciding what bathroom a transgender person must use in schools and other government buildings, the bill also stopped local governments from passing their own anti-discrimination policies.
Lawmakers passed the bill in a special session in response to the Charlotte City Council passing an anti-discrimination policy.
The fallout from HB2 was huge.
Companies banned travel to North Carolina and canceled events planned in the state.
Performers canceled concerts and shows and sports organizations canceled games.
Other countries warned members of the LGBTQ community against traveling to North Carolina.
Businesses decided to stop development in the state.
Lawmakers found a compromise in HB142. It withdrew the bathroom portion of HB2, to an extent, but still mandated that local governments could not make rules regarding the use of bathrooms and changing rooms that differed from the General Assembly’s. It also prevented local governments from making their own anti-discrimination laws, a provision that ended on Dec. 1, 2020.
Scott said in an interview with The News & Observer Monday that after the passage of HB2 she faced immediate backlash as a transgender woman.
“Immediately in my life I saw discrimination in my work,” Scott said. “I saw people asking for me to be fired. It just really uncovered a lot of the things that people, at least, wouldn’t say before — they probably would have been too ashamed — but when they see states or governments codifying these kind of things, they feel empowered.”
Since HB2 passed, Scott said she has witnessed other transgender people not be able to get jobs, housing or relief from discrimination.
Rep. Vernetta Alston, a Durham Democrat, introduced the proposed full repeal of HB2 and anti-discrimination bill, saying they will protect people in housing, public accommodations, schools and employment.
Bipartisan support for bills?
There was little sign during Tuesday’s news conference of bipartisan support for the bills. Republicans control the General Assembly.
Only Democrats joined the press conference and Republicans have been filing bills like the sports ban and an update to a previous bill that allowed magistrates to use a religious exemption to avoid marrying a same-sex couple. Once that went into law, and was upheld in the courts, if a magistrate opted out of marrying a same-sex couple they couldn’t marry anyone for six months.
The bill which passed the Senate Monday night would allow magistrates who also serve as ministers to continue marrying couples in their other role.
At the news conference, lawmakers sidestepped questions about GOP support for their bills, saying there is growing support from constituents around the state for nondiscrimination protections.
“People want this change to happen,” Alston said.