Last month, I took a dear friend on a trip to the North Carolina mountains. Throughout the trip we were sharply aware that we were no longer in the progressive enclave where we both lived – the tiny area whose deep blue always stands out in votes-by-county maps after elections and whose responses to discriminatory legislation like HB2 – the controversial “bathroom bill” that prevented trans people from using the restrooms that correspond to their identities – has always been resistance.
Even in our progressive bubble, though, transphobic people found themselves empowered by legislative support to speak louder and more harshly to gender nonconforming people. Leaving that bubble for two days of rural travel with a trans friend meant a thread of tension that followed us throughout much of our trip, as every glance, every bathroom break and every interaction with strangers had the potential to become upsetting or frightening.
This is the lived, everyday consequence of HB2 and laws like it: good people, loving people, who’ve called this state home for most or all of their lives are now walking through it with an added layer of anxiety and a heightened sense of vulnerability. To be clear, people from marginalized communities are aware of the societal norms and behaviors that aim to harm, silence, and disempower them whether we pass discriminatory laws or not. The dangers of bathroom bills for the trans community include direct legal concerns like access to restrooms in public schools and removal of protections in businesses, and that’s without considering the impossibility of enforcement in any way that would be consistent with the ideals of a civil society.
Another danger of bathroom bills, perhaps less obvious than the legal concerns, is the way in which they empower those who would abuse or harm trans people, reinforcing their fears, misconceptions, or hatred through real or imagined governmental support. While Governor Pat McCrory might not personally assault a trans person in a restroom or vandalize a business that chooses to honor gender diversity, the passage of HB2 lends a false sense of righteousness and air of vigilantism to those who would and do.
Interviews I did with a handful of trans North Carolinians for a recent research project reflected this concern – the passage of HB2 made trans issues more visible, and while many of the people in their everyday lives felt compelled to come out with unexpected support and compassion, they also experienced an uptick in harassment and unsolicited negativity. While some of this came in the form of responses to which restroom they used, more frequently it was in the form of direct, negative responses to their very expressions of self – responses received while working at their jobs, shopping for basic needs, or even walking down the street.
HB2 is not just a bathroom law. It was crafted to erode the very protections that localities were considering or had enacted to protect their vulnerable populations in the absence of statewide protections – local minimum wage statutes and anti-discrimination laws are prohibited by the statewide law. The bathroom provisions, however, highlight the ways in which protection of women and girls is held up as the ideal the law supposedly promotes – the same ideal that was held up by those who resisted desegregation. This false ideal reinforces the narrative that assaults are typically committed by strangers in spite of statistical evidence that most assailants and abusers are known to those they harm. It reinforces the narrative that trans people are inherently dangerous – a narrative that causes direct harm to a community already targeted for violence and struggling with high suicide rates in the absence of family and community support.
These kinds of laws – laws like HB2, bathroom bills, and “religious freedom” restoration bills – stem from the fusion of right-leaning, authoritarian political tenets, unrestricted free-market capitalism, and a specific set of religious moral dictates which entirely disregard the existence of religious communities that advocate for social justice and fully accept LGBTQ individuals. Some ancient traditions and new religious movements alike embrace queer people in all their authentic diversity, and even the major monotheistic religions most typically associated with “religious freedom restoration” efforts have movements and theologians who give full equality of humanity, participation, and leadership to their LGBTQ peers.
Pushes for theocratic rule in a pluralistic society provoke the question of whose theology, and the tendency for theocratic rule to exclude or marginalize vulnerable and historically oppressed people demands the question of why theocracy? Then there’s the U. S. Constitution, which simply says no. In a recent discussion about LGBTQ rights, I reminded someone that our country is not a theocracy. Rather than attempt to argue secular points, he simply said: “Who said I don’t think we should have a Biblical theocracy?”
This is the thinking that seems to have served as impetus behind HB2 and other attempts to curtail the rights of marginalized people, even if it typically remains unspoken. It’s an impetus that shaped the climate of mistrust – one in which the powerful have come to view equality as personal oppression – that has provided the backdrop for the rise of one of the most divisive presidential candidates imaginable. And it’s an impetus that those of us who consider ourselves to be theologically progressive feminists will be called to answer with an impetus of our own.
What does the spiritually and religiously progressive response to religion-based discrimination look like? How do our gods, our goddesses, our beliefs, and our rituals support justice for the oppressed, protections for minorities, and a climate in which people can move and breathe freely without fear for their safety? How can our theologies inform our responses, fierce and compassionate, to controversial national politics or attempts at extremist takeovers of our local and regional governments, without allowing our theologies to become the measure by which we determine a law’s specifics? These are not hypothetical concerns, not now, not in this political climate.
Christy Croft is a writer, teacher, and healer whose interfaith, personal spiritual practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. She holds a BA in Religious Studies from The University of South Florida and is currently a graduate student at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She has facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, priestess, mentor, mother, and friend. Her research interests include spirituality, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy, and she sometimes blogs at The Sacred Loom.