As the sun blazed down on the legislative building on Jones Street Monday afternoon, a short-haired woman argued passionately with two men wearing white T-shirts with "HB 2" crossed out in red.
"This isn't about discrimination, it's about protecting her," the woman said, motioning toward an elementary-school-aged girl holding a sign that read, "Stand With North Carolina."
"So which bathroom should I use?" one of the men asked.
"I can't tell if you're a man or a woman," the woman said. "I don't mean that to be ugly."
"I'm transgender female to male," the man replied. "Would you want me using the bathroom with your daughter?"
"Do you have a penis?" the woman asked, utterly serious.
On the opening day of the General Assembly's short session, hundreds of people from all over the state descended upon Raleigh, either to support HB 2 or, led by the Reverend William Barber and his Moral Monday crew, to call for its full repeal.
Those in support, about eight hundred people, set up lawn chairs on Halifax Mall, the long, grassy strip to the north of the legislative building, for a noon rally. They listened to gospel music and heard speeches from stalwarts of the state's religious right: perennial congressional candidate Mark Harris, family values lobbyists Tami Fitzgerald and John Rustin, pastors and elected officials and conservative pseudo-celebrities like the Benham brothers.
- Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
The tone was unmistakably conservative Christian, and people's stated support for HB 2 was entirely based on the imaginary premise of protecting women and children from predators in restrooms; the other parts of the far-reaching bill were barely mentioned.
Senator Andrew Brock, a Republican from Mocksville who is running for Congress, threatened to assault any trans person who dares use the wrong bathroom: "A newspaper reporter said when we had the special session that it was going to cost forty-two thousand dollars. 'You're a fiscal hawk. How can you justify that?' I said, 'Forty-two thousand dollars will not cover the medical expenses to the man who walks into the bathroom when my little girl's there."
Representative Dan Bishop, the Mecklenburg County Republican who introduced HB 2, called opponents' response a "media-fueled, ideological carpet bombing." Other speakers leveled vitriol at companies like Target, Starbucks, and Barnes & Noble—which have all publicly opposed HB 2—and tore into attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper.
"The media will give this rally this much attention," said a woman in a red T-shirt and sunglasses, bringing her thumb and index finger together. "They'll be talking about that other thing over there for days."
That other thing, the rally for HB 2 opponents—which also took on a religious tone, albeit a more inclusive one—was well attended, too, with a similar turnout. Following a morning press conference at the Capitol, a coalition of civil rights, faith, business, and advocacy groups delivered petitions with more than 150,000 signatures calling for a repeal of HB 2 to Governor McCrory's office.
In the afternoon, opponents rallied at Bicentennial Mall before staging a sit-in inside the legislative building, right as the House and Senate went into session. (There were no arrests at the sit-in, though fifty-four protesters were arrested throughout the day.)
The Moral Monday crowd kept its focus on the entirety of the legislation, with Barber urging people not to focus strictly on the bathrooms issue. Instead, he characterized HB 2 as being of a piece with voter suppression, racial gerrymandering, and class warfare, in that it denies cities from passing living-wage ordinances.
"Hate Bill 2 was passed in the spirit of the politics of Jesse Helms," Barber said. "When Jesse Helms was down in the polls in the eighties, he attacked the gay community and he attacked the black community. This bill is the combination of homophobia, race, and class as a political wedge issue."
Monday's dueling rallies may not have changed any hearts or minds, inside the General Assembly or out. But don't expect the conversations—or the protesters—to disappear before November.