The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 16, 2016

It’s about more than just bathrooms

August 16, 2016

The NBA recently announced that it was moving its 2017 All-Star Game from North Carolina in protest of a state law requiring people to use public bathrooms that correspond to the gender listed on their birth certificates. With that decision, the NBA joined several organizations and corporations that have taken action in response to North Carolina’s House Bill 2. Opponents of the law have called for boycotts of the state, urging people not to travel to North Carolina for business or pleasure. And the federal government has threatened to withhold roughly $4.8 billion in federal grants and contracts. 

These economic actions are one way to fight the bill, which is seen as discriminatory treatment of transgender people (individuals whose gender identity is not the same as the gender they were assigned at birth). From the federal government’s standpoint, it is also the penalty that grant recipients should pay for violating federal laws and regulations on nondiscrimination.

But there are political or religious conservatives who support the ban because of their religious or social beliefs or their views on states’ rights. They think the boycotts and the withholding of funds are inappropriate and excessively punitive.

Would the views of either group change if they had a deeper understanding of the bill and of who is hurt by the boycotts?

What else does the bill ban?

While House Bill 2 is widely discussed as a bathroom law, it includes provisions that are potentially damaging in more ways and to more groups. As part of an effort to ensure that local ordinances don’t reverse the legislation’s intent, House Bill 2 prohibits local governments from making laws that would contradict or override the bathroom directive. It also restricts antidiscrimination protections in employment to “race, religion, color, national origin, age, biological sex or handicap” (emphasis ours), thus legalizing discrimination against transgender people.

Limiting the antidiscrimination provisions to biological sex opens up the possibility that transgender people could be discriminated against in employment without legal recourse. They already face higher unemployment rates and higher levels of harassment and discrimination at work than cisgender people, both nationally and in North Carolina. This bill is likely to make things worse.

Although the North Carolina governor issued an executive order to exclude state employees from the more restrictive interpretation of the antidiscrimination protections in employment, private employers would still be allowed to discriminate against transgender people. 

In addition, the law prohibits local governments from passing ordinances that would set minimum wages higher than the state’s, which could hurt minimum-wage workers, a group that is disproportionately people of color.

People who were supportive of or indifferent to limiting bathroom access may have opposed the legislation had they known about these additional consequences. 

Who gets hurt by the boycotts?

The boycotts also have consequences that could harm some of the groups that protestors are concerned about. In essence, low-income and marginalized people might be paying twice for this legislation.

According to the Williams Institute, the federal government funds that are subject to withholding include $4.7 billion in US Department of Education grants and $88 million in Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act funds. The education grants for programs such as Title I and preschool primarily support low-income children, who are disproportionately children of color. The workforce development funds help low-income and jobless workers find better jobs. 

Boycotting the state could also disproportionately hurt marginalized groups. Tourism is big business in North Carolina, with just over $27 billion flowing into the state in 2014, including spending on lodging, food and beverage, and recreation. Tourism is the fourth-largest employer in North Carolina and pays $3.2 billion in state and local taxes. A significant reduction in tourism would have a major impact on the economy and could hit workers of color and low-income workers hard.

African American and Hispanic workers are disproportionately represented in lower-income, tourist-related jobs, such as food services, hotel clerks, porters, and maids. Fewer tourism dollars could mean lower hours or layoffs for many of these workers. Small-business owners can also be affected by tourist boycotts, even owners who disagree with the law.

This evidence raises the question—who pays for the boycott if it’s successful? It may be important to use all the tools we have to help shape social policy in a way that makes communities more inclusive and creates safe places for all people, but we need to acknowledge that these actions might harm other marginalized or economically vulnerable groups.

A unisex sign and the "We Are Not This" slogan are outside a bathroom at Bull McCabes Irish Pub on May 10, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina. Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

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