Even by North Carolina standards, the events surrounding its year-long “bathroom bill” drama have been frenetic.
In March 2016, North Carolina became the first state to pass a law restricting which public bathrooms and locker rooms transgender people can use. On Thursday — almost exactly a year later — it became . In between, its voters helped elect Donald Trump to the presidency and kicked out a Republican governor.
Whether the bathroom bill’s eventual demise is a spark of social change in the South or a blip on North Carolina’s otherwise Republican-dominated politics depends on who you talk to.
Even as they decried the repeal as discriminatory, LGBT and civil rights advocates say the battle over bathrooms has awakened a new activist class.
“The political culture of the state has still changed for the better,” said Chris Sgro, a former Democratic state lawmaker and head of Equality North Carolina. “We’ve been talking for 370 days in a row now about why transgender people need to be protected and what it means to be transgender.”
Democrats point out that the same voters who narrowly chose Trump in November also ousted the sitting GOP governor — the first time in North Carolina’s history that’s happened. And there’s a strong case to make that former governor Pat McCrory lost by 10,000 votes because of bathrooms: He defended the law so vigorously that he ended up owning it.
Conservatives paint a different story of their state’s transformation this past year — mainly that there was none. Their constituents didn’t have a problem with the fact that the law, known as H.B. 2, aimed to protect their children from predators in bathrooms and locker rooms. It was outside businesses and sports organizations that seized on the law — with boycotts and economics threats — to advance their political agendas and force the legislature to repeal it.
“Politically, economically, H.B. 2 has not been a major issue,” said Rep. Chris Millis, who represents a rural and suburban district northeast of Wilmington, N.C. “It’s only been an issue for the special interests and the politicians they want to control.”
Democrats might have knocked off a weak sitting governor in 2016, but they failed to win any other big race in the state. Sen. Richard Burr (R) won his reelection. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest was the first Republican in the state to be reelected to the No. 2 job. The North Carolina congressional delegation kept its heavy Republican political balance. Oh, and Republicans kept their super-majority in the state legislature.
But liberal groups and the media — and liberal media — keep the drumbeat on H.B. 2 going, said Jim Burton, a GOP strategist in the state.
“People kept hearing about it; it continued to be the topic of conversation,” he said. “You go to a barbecue and people were talking about H.B. 2.”
The truth — whether North Carolina is a different state than the one that passed a bathroom law a year ago — probably lies somewhere in the middle.
This is a swing state, after all; one that is sharply divided between its liberal urban centers in Charlotte and Raleigh and its conservative rural areas. That tug-and-pull can play out in the whiplash everyone saw on the bathroom debate.
The drama over the bathroom bill engaged many of North Carolina’s traditional coalitions — and it exacerbated their divisions, said UNC law professor Michael Gerhardt. Rural vs. urban, legislature vs. executive branch, Democrat vs. Republican. Everyone had a reason to feel strongly about it.
“All the splits that have defined North Carolina up to now, they’re all still intact,” Gerhardt said.
In the end, it was a GOP-controlled legislature that passed the bathroom legislation and a GOP-controlled legislature (with the help of Democrats) that repealed it. Which suggests something else was at play here: Economics.
The business, sports and entertainment communities almost universally repudiated the bathroom law. Bruce Springsteen canceled his concerts there. PayPal pulled out of a deal. The NCAA gave lawmakers until Thursday (yes, the same Thursday lawmakers repealed the law) to get rid of it or lose the rights to host all college tournaments in the state for the next six years. that came out Monday said the law could cost the state almost $4 billion over a 12 year period.
The economic pressure on the state became impossible for even supporters of the law to ignore.
“The economic boycott is wrong, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady (R). “And so why, as a legislature, would you go down that road in the same way we have?”
In a divisive vote Thursday in the state House to repeal it, Republicans were split about whether to change course. About 40 GOP House lawmakers voted for repeal, while 30 voted against it.
Amid the opposition, an awkward coalition formed of conservatives who blamed the NCAA for trying pressure them into moving to the left and of liberals who blamed the governor for selling them out.
“We would rather suffer H.B. 2 than to have this body one more time deny us the full and unfettered protection of the law,” said Democratic Rep. Deb Butler, one of two openly LGBT lawmakers.
The winning argument ended up being something like this: This year’s been tough. Let’s just get rid of this law that, fairly or not, has caused the state so much heartache.
“People were tired of fighting that battle,” McGrady said. “They realized … they can sort of get out of the bathroom business.”