Calgary Herald

Corporatio­ns step up to fight bathroom bill

- JOSEPH BREAN

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.”

 ?? JESSICA NUZZO / THE ENTERPRISE VIA THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? A statue in High Point, N.C., sends a message against a state law on LGBT rights that requires transgende­r people to choose bathrooms based on the gender on their birth certificat­e.
JESSICA NUZZO / THE ENTERPRISE VIA THE ASSOCIATED PRESS A statue in High Point, N.C., sends a message against a state law on LGBT rights that requires transgende­r people to choose bathrooms based on the gender on their birth certificat­e.

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