Friday, April 01, 2016

A Personal Reflection on North Carolina

Written by  Roger E. Hartley

I am a newcomer to Baltimore. I joined this fantastic city and the University of Baltimore with my family last June. Prior to becoming the dean of the College of Public Affairs, I was a professor and director of the Masters of Public Affairs program at Western Carolina University (WCU). We lived in this quite progressive and gorgeous city of Asheville, North Carolina, which has a substantial LGBTQIA population and is the headquarters of the Campaign for Southern Equality (CSE). If you don’t know CSE, you should really read about them ( ). They have been fighting the battle for LGBTQIA rights on the front lines with love and a healthy dose of challenging discriminatory laws and protest. They are among the most impressive civil rights organizations I have ever known and are known for bringing couples together in Southern cities to ask (and be denied) a marriage license. They are heroes who raised awareness and also paved the way for legal challenges.

All of this to say, that I am stunned and outraged about the passage of HB2 in North Carolina. My friends in North Carolina and at CSE are battling back hard. The national backlash to this discriminatory law has been swift and likely lasting. I wanted to take a few minutes though to relay what makes this law personal to me. Like most things that we remember forever, it is about a person I met, got to know, and who rubbed off on me.

I once had a student at WCU named Josh. He was kind, smart and full of life. Josh was my new advisee and a student in my MPA program in my first year at WCU. We talked about his career goals a bit and I discovered that he valued equality for all and wanted to dedicate his career to change. He talked to me about a career in diversity and inclusion in universities and, generally, we talked about his future. I was excited and I encouraged him. I came to find out that he was very well liked by other students and grew up in the country outside of Winston-Salem.

Later that same year, our program and students were devastated to learn that he took his life. I learned shortly after from some of his friends that he was transitioning and that his new name was to be Alice. Josh believed for most of his life that he was a woman.

I didn’t know this. He was just a nice kid in my program. He was not a predator or a weirdo as the law suggests. He was not anything but a sweet guy to me.

I attended his funeral and met his family who were also struggling with the change. It was clear that they loved their son soon to be daughter. At the funeral I watched a mother dance for him and then with the deepest of pain, call out Josh’s name to the heavens. Her pain was unbearable and it is among the most moving moments I have ever experienced.

I know that many readers of this fantastic publication know very much how this feels. To others who do not, put yourself in Alice’s head. Which bathroom does she go to? When faced with a society that is not welcoming, does Alice go to the men’s room and risk what might be in store there? Think of the loss of dignity.

The new North Carolina law requires that a transgendered person go to the bathroom of their genetic birth. The law does a lot more than target transgendered individuals. It includes an outright reversal of over 15 city ordinances (and prevents future ordinances) that end private employer discrimination against LGBTQIA people. The law is much deeper than some describe it and used fear of transgendered people to pass it and perhaps bring out conservative voters this fall. Worse, the state legislature called a special session to pass this law with little notice and would not release the bill to be read. There was 30 minutes of debate allowed on short notice. The vast majority of democrat legislators walked out of the session, it passed, and Governor McCrory signed it. That is a whole lot of effort and special attention to people like my student Josh.

So the law has been passed and our nation is reacting. This isn’t the first time. The same North Carolina legislature not so long ago placed Amendment 1 on the ballot in North Carolina which allowed the voters to constitutionally “protect” traditional marriage. It was a Super Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that also ended state benefits to same-sex couples. There was strong reaction. A Campaign for Southern Equality lawsuit and several other lawsuits ended Amendment 1 in a North Carolina federal district court. Public opinion changed, and marriage for all was made legal by the US Supreme Court. There has been some great progress in North Carolina, but then this law.

While Alice had warm and supportive friends at WCU, Alice faced a society (and likely family members) that were not accepting. I’ll never stop believing that if people made it just a little easier on her that she might be with us today.

In the state-by-state battles that make up this culture war, I sure wish for all of us to see the hope and change that comes from backlash to the law that is occurring now. I hope very much that we think of Alice and that more people stand up to make things at least a bit easier.

Roger E. Hartley is dean of the College of Public Affairs and Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore.


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