Corporations step up to fight bathroom bill
When North Carolina’s legislature passed a law requiring transgender people to use public washrooms corresponding to the sex specified on their birth certificate, rather than their current gender identity, some of the protest was typical and expected.
Famously activist rock musicians like Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam cancelled shows in solidarity with those for whom the simple act of urination would invite political controversy and legal peril, to say nothing of awkward glances. Ringo Starr and Cirque du Soleil did the same.
State governors in more lefty northeastern states like New York and Connecticut called a halt to non-essential government travel to North Carolina.
But some of the most effective protest — the law may yet fail, for both legal and political reasons — came from less obvious quarters.
Titans of corporate America, including executives with Google, Apple and Facebook, openly voiced their disagreement with state-sanctioned gender discrimination.
PayPal and Deutsche Bank cancelled expansion plans in Raleigh, for a combined 600 jobs.
An unnamed technology company cancelled a planned 1,000 jobs, according to the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, which put the economic fallout from the law in the tens of millions of dollars, plus perhaps $5 million in lost tourism.
A spokesperson for drug giant GlaxoSmithKline contacted Republican Gov. Pat McCrory “to express our concern that policies that impede inclusion and diversity harm North Carolina’s competitive business ecosystem and hinder our ability to recruit and retain key talent.”
Together, these companies made a business case for equality on the tricky terrain of gender politics. There are many reasons.
Partly this protest is an effort to protect brands whose value depends on acceptance by a younger, more progressive demographic. Partly it is to protect members of their own workforce and the political climate in which they live. Partly it forestalls government regulation of the same issues. And partly, perhaps, they felt it was the right thing to do.
For corporate America, such overt idealism would cut against the grain. And while this trans washroom protest has drawn favourable comparisons to the shifting economic and agricultural factors that helped push the civil rights movement to victory in the American South, it also reveals the vast political influence private companies usually exert in more subtle ways.
“Usually business doesn’t have to be activist,” said Miriam Smith, professor in the law and society program in York University’s department of social science.
When they are, it often comes across as a sign of weakness. And so they prefer to exert their power by proxy, funding campaigns, lobbying politicians, staying safely in the shadows of money.
“I think they have to be careful,” Smith said. Businesses can face political backlash just as much as governments can, and boycotts can do serious harm.
But she said the question of transgender rights fits into a broader trend of corporate competition to be friendly to diverse sexualities. In the U.S., that shows itself in well-funded LGBT advocacy groups, and serious efforts by big companies to rise up the various rankings of tolerance and inclusion.
The Prop 8 battle in California over gay marriage, for example, became a corporate battleground in which Silicon Valley executives invested heavily in support of what they described as a question of equality and civil rights.
“This is bigger than the bathroom issue,” Smith said. She contrasted the American picture to Canada’s, in which more poorly funded groups have had greater success in pushing legislative change, partly because the Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives them an “outsized legal advantage,” unavailable in the U.S.
In America, where states’ rights are a constant source of political conflict against federal intervention, the question of which washroom transgender people use has taken on an oversized political relevance.
North Carolina’s law is steeped in this dynamic of competing jurisdictions. It was passed in a special session of the Republicandominated legislature, called for the sole purpose of overturning a local ordinance in the state’s largest city, Charlotte, which would have allowed people to choose washrooms according to their gender identity.
The reaction has been mocked as unenforceable, for example by a sheriff, who said his officers are not in the business of inspecting people’s genitals.
But other states have tried to do the same as North Carolina, or are about to, or have done so and backtracked, often in the face of corporate protest: Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Minnesota.
Brought mainly by Republicans, these “bathroom bills” are seen as an effort to build political momentum in advance of November’s elections.
Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, for example, has made hay with the controversy, telling a town hall in Buffalo: “Men should not be going to the bathroom with little girls.”
His rival, Donald Trump, struck a more conciliatory tone, acknowledging the “economic punishment” North Carolina has endured, and noting the near total absence of complaints or controversy behind such a drastic measure.
“People go, they use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate, there has been so little trouble,” he said.
Legally, these laws are on shaky ground. An appeals court ruled 2-1 this week that Virginia discriminated against a transgender boy by refusing to let him use the boys washroom.
They found it violated Title IX, which prohibits discrimination in schools, and has also played a big part in the debate over how universities respond to reports of sexual assault.
That Virginia law also ignored a directive from the U.S. Department of Education that transgender students be free to use washrooms that correspond to their gender identity.
This ruling is about Virginia, but it may also invalidate the North Carolina law, as the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, also covers that state.
Politically, though, the response from North Carolina’s leaders has been steadfast and dismissive, even belligerent — a risky stance to take against capitalist power.
“North Carolina will never put a price tag on the value of our children,” Republican Lt.Gov. Dan Forest told Reuters in an email.
“If a corporation wanting to do business in North Carolina does not see the worth of our children in the same light, then I wish them well as they do business somewhere else.”