North Caroline has become ground zero in the fight for gay and transgender rights in the United States.
A sweeping new anti-LGBT law that was controversially passed during a special session of the state's legislature and swiftly signed into law last week excludes a person's sexual orientation from discrimination protection,nullifies anti-discrimination bills passed by local municipalities, sends discrimination claims to federal courts, and forces transgender students and adults who have not undergone sex-reassignment surgery to use the bathroom of their gender at birth.
On Monday, three plaintiffs — two transgender men and a lesbian woman — filed a federal lawsuit against HB2 that is being supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, Equality North Carolina, and Lambda Legal. The lawsuit, which names the state's Republican Governor Pat McRory, the University of North Carolina, and the state's attorney general as defendants, charges that HB2 "bans transgender people from accessing restrooms and other facilities consistent with their gender identity and blocks local governments from protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender ('LGBT') people against discrimination in a wide variety of settings."
The plaintiffs say the law denies their right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment and violates Title IX, which they argue treats transgender bathroom discrimination as sex discrimination. The lawsuit says that gender dysphoria is "a serious medical condition that if left untreated can lead to clinical distress, debilitating depression, and even suicidal thought and acts," and notes that treatment for gender dysphoria includes permitting a person to live their life consistent with their gender identity, "including when accessing single-sex spaces like restrooms and locker rooms."
"We are asking the court to overturn House Bill 2 because it is unconstitutional, because it violates the Equal Protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment," said Chris Brooks, legal director of the North Carolina ACLU, at a press conference on Monday. "It discriminates on the basis of sex and sexual orientation, and it is an invasion of privacy for transgender men and transgender women."
"HB2 is the most sweeping anti-LGBT bill in the nation, and it will not stand the test of time or the test of federal court," said Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality NC.
North Carolina's adoption of the law comes as ideological battle lines are being drawn over transgender rights in public bathrooms across the country, but the extent of its impact beyond that specific issue has particularly alarmed rights advocates.
HB2 was a reaction to the city of Charlotte's recent approval of a nondiscrimination ordinance that protected LGBT individuals from discrimination by businesses. In addition to prohibiting businesses from refusing services to an LGBT member of public, it was dubbed the "bathroom ordinance" by its opponents because of the restroom accommodations it extended to transgender people.
In response, the state's overwhelmingly Republican legislature reconvened on Wednesday and hammered out HB2, which is widely regarded as one of the most regressive bills on LGBT rights to be made law in recent years. McRory signed the measure on Thursday.
Under HB2, employers and businesses are prohibited from discriminating against employees or customers based on their race, ethnicity, religion, age, or "biological sex." But the law does not prohibit someone from refusing service to a customer based on the person's sexual orientation or from deciding against hiring someone based on their gender identity.
Transgender advocates have argued that lawmakers who oppose extending certain rights and protections to transgender people misrepresent them as a public menace and use fear to roll back laws protecting the trans community from discrimination.
"Our opponents stereotype trans people as sexual predators and try to use 'bathroom panic' to defeat legislation that would protect our ability to gain employment and live safe lives," said a 2014 statement by the DC Trans Coalition, an organization that pushes for transgender rights in the District of Columbia.
The debate has unfolded in other parts of the country as well. Just as the ACLU threw its weight behind the federal lawsuit against North Carolina's law, governors in Minnesota and Georgia prepared to veto aggressive anti-LGBT proposals in their own states.
On Monday, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton said he would veto a proposal that would restrict transgender individuals to bathrooms and locker rooms that match the gender listed on their birth certificates. Dayton declared that proponents of the bill were "wrong on the issue and wrong on the morality of it." A similar bill was vetoed earlier this month by South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal also said on Monday that he plans to veto HB757, a bill that would allow faith-based organizations and businesses in his state to refuse service to LGBT individuals. Its proponents claim that the bill protects religious freedom. Deal's decision to veto the bill follows an outcry from major companies with headquarters or large-scale operations in Georgia, such as Disney, the National Football League, Unilever, and Intel, who have spoken against discriminatory practices becoming law.
Similar bills have been pushed in states like Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia.
In an effort to push back against the wave of criticism being directed at him and the North Carolina legislature, McCrory's office released a press release titled, "Myths vs Facts: What New York Times, Huffington Post and other media outlets aren't saying about common-sense privacy law." Among other things, it claims that the bill actually toughens discrimination protections for those in the state.
The local news outlet WRAL soon posted a refutation of many of the governor's points online, and gave his press release the lowest rating on its fact-checking scale.
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen