One gover­nor’s de­feat could be a wa­ter­shed mo­ment for gay rights

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - Dana Mil­bank Colum­nist

Not since Larry Craig widened his stance has a bath­room caused so much trou­ble for a politi­cian.

North Carolina’s Repub­li­can gover­nor, Pat McCrory, was a good bet for re­elec­tion ear­lier this year. But then he signed HB2 into law in March, elim­i­nat­ing mu­nic­i­pal nondis­crim­i­na­tion or­di­nances and re­quir­ing trans­gen­der peo­ple to use the bath­room of the gen­der listed on their birth cer­tifi­cates.

Since then, McCrory’s for­tunes have been, well, in the toi­let.

Last fall, the con­ser­va­tive group North Carolina Civ­i­tas had a poll show­ing the gover­nor with a fa­vor­able rat­ing of 54 per­cent. But in late April, a month after McCrory signed the bath­room bill, the same group found his fa­vor­able rat­ing had dropped to 39 per­cent. Polling shows McCrory trail­ing his Demo­cratic op­po­nent, Roy Cooper, by four per­cent­age points. And there’s lit­tle doubt HB2 is a ma­jor cause. A plu­ral­ity of North Carolini­ans dis­ap­prove of McCrory’s han­dling of the is­sue and say it makes them less likely to sup­port him.

The back­lash is less about sup­port for trans­gen­der rights than an un­der­stand­ing that the con­tro­versy has hurt the state’s rep­u­ta­tion and fi­nances. High Point Univer­sity polling in late Septem­ber found that 6 in 10 de­scribe the bill’s eco­nomic im­pact as “large,” the same pro­por­tion who would like the law changed. An Elon Univer­sity poll last week, con­firm­ing other, ear­lier sur­veys, found that 56 per­cent of likely vot­ers want HB2 re­pealed, vs. 34 per­cent who would keep it.

Hu­man Rights Cam­paign, a gay-rights or­ga­ni­za­tion, puts the law’s cost for North Carolina at nearly half a bil­lion dol­lars. What­ever the fig­ure, the re­ac­tion has been se­vere: The NBA moved its 2017 All-Star Game from Char­lotte, while the NCAA and the At­lantic Coast Con­fer­ence took their championships from the state. Pay­Pal — one of about 200 cor­po­ra­tions call­ing for re­peal — can­celed plans to bring 400 jobs to Char­lotte. Bruce Spring­steen, Ma­roon 5 and oth­ers have can­celed per­for­mances in the state. On Oct. 4, the James Beard Foun­da­tion can­celed its meet­ing in the state be­cause of HB2.

Nearly half a cen­tury after the Stonewall ri­ots, a de­feat of McCrory be­cause of the bath­room bill would be a wa­ter­shed (or, if you will, a wa­ter closet) mo­ment for gay rights. Stig­ma­tiz­ing les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der Amer­i­cans has al­ready lost its po­tency as a po­lit­i­cal weapon. But this would be the first case of a prom­i­nent of­fi­cial be­ing voted out of of­fice be­cause his anti-gay ac­tions back­fired.

Mag­gie Gal­lagher, founder of the anti-gay Na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mar­riage, wrote in Na­tional Re­view in August that “the fu­ture of re­li­gious lib­erty for tra­di­tional re­li­gious be­liev­ers hangs on” McCrory’s re­elec­tion. If he loses, she wrote, “the GOP will con­cede what­ever the Left demands on gay rights.”

In a rare con­ver­gence, HRC Pres­i­dent Chad Grif­fin agrees. He says the McCrory elec­tion “holds the pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing a turn­ing point in the po­lit­i­cal his­tory of our fight for equal­ity.”

There’s no re­al­is­tic prospect of re­vers­ing the le­gal­iza­tion of same­sex mar­riage, so op­po­nents are in­stead pur­su­ing scores of state ini­tia­tives re­strict­ing gay rights in the name of “re­li­gious free­dom,” bath­room bills and more.

But while 202 such bills were in­tro­duced in 2016, only five were en­acted, ac­cord­ing to HRC. Repub­li­can Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, in a tight re­elec­tion race, dis­tanced him­self from HB2. Half a dozen Repub­li­can state leg­is­la­tors who voted for the bill have said they want a do-over.

Con­fi­dent that pub­lic opin­ion con­tin­ues to shift in their fa­vor, gay-rights ad­vo­cates, with Hil­lary Clin­ton’s back­ing, are aim­ing for a fed­eral “Equal­ity Act,” which would bar anti-LGBT dis­crim­i­na­tion in employment.

The leg­is­la­tion faces long odds in Congress. But that could change — if North Carolini­ans flush Pat McCrory next month.

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