This story originally published online at NC Policy Watch. 

At Tuesday night’s Wake County Republican Party convention, John Amanchukwu, a youth pastor with Raleigh’s Upper Room Church of God in Christ, gave the opening prayer.

“There is a war in our public schools,” Amanchukwu said. “Our children are being turned out at an alarming rate. Our public education system is in shambles and our children have now become expendable. They are being taught that Heather has two mommies and Jodie has two daddies. Our children are being taught to hate our country and hate our flag.”

The rhetoric is not new. The language of “spiritual warfare” and the painting of LGBTQ families as shameful and any discussion of them in public schools as corruptive and un-American is now commonplace on the political right, from some of the state’s most prominent conservative activists to the highest GOP elected officials.

A retreat from progress?

For advocates and state lawmakers who have long fought anti-LGBTQ legislation, it is less a dog whistle than a full scale storm warning. It also feels like a dangerous backslide.

“It felt like we made some progress on these issues in the last five years,” Sen. Natalie Murdock (D-Durham) told Policy Watch this week. “And this really feels like that’s being rolled back. The constant demonizing of families and children who are just trying to live their lives as part of the society is unacceptable.”

Last April, as bills targeting transgender people made their way through state legislatures across the country, North Carolina seemed to sidestep the wave.

First state Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) said a bill limiting medical treatments for transgender people under 21 had no path to becoming a law and wouldn’t get a vote in his chamber.

A week later, House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) said the House would not take up a bill that would have banned transgender women from women’s school sports, calling it a solution in search of a problem.

“A wise legislature does not go out looking for social issues to tap,” Moore told Raleigh’s News & Observer.

On the same day, LGBTQ-friendly Apple Inc. announced it had chosen North Carolina for its first East Coast campus, an investment expected to total more than $1 billion and create 3,000 jobs over the next 10 years.

It all seemed a world away from the 2016 firestorm over HB2, the controversial law that excluded lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from anti-discrimination protections and prevented communities from enacting their own. International backlash to that law cost North Carolina thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars as companies, conventions, and entertainers boycotted the state in protest.

Partial repeal of HB2 helped pave the way for last year’s Apple announcement, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said after talking with Apple CEO Tim Cook, a gay man who continues to denounce anti-LGBTQ laws. An end to a moratorium on local anti-discrimination protections in North Carolina also played a role in the company’s decision-making.

“I think HB2 chapped a lot of peoples’ behinds,” Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake) told Policy Watch this week. “There was good and bad that came from HB 2 and [that bill’s successor] HB 142. The bad was what they did. The good was that it really put a stink on our state, it showed people we aren’t going to put up with that and a lot of people aren’t willing to go back to that. I think that’s what we saw last April.”

Since then, Dahle said, more out politicians like her have been elected and kept equality and non-discrimination prominent in political conversations.

But nearly a year later, new and more far-reaching anti-LGBTQ laws are passing in states like Texas, Florida, and Idaho. They seek to regulate mentions of LGBTQ people and relationships in classrooms, ban transgender women from women’s sports, and criminalize doctors and parents who help their transgender children transition.

GOP lawmakers in North Carolina want the state in on this new wave.

High profile elected Republicans in the state are stoking their political base with anti-LGBTQ rhetoric ahead of the coming elections. The GOP hopes to increase its majority in the North Carolina General Assembly and again make it possible to overturn vetoes by Cooper, paving the way for bills considered too extreme to become state law under divided government.

“North Carolina is not out of the woods,” Murdock said. “I definitely feel confident some of those bills will make it to the governor’s desk if there’s a Republican supermajority in either chamber.”

If Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a Greensboro Republican, is successful in his bid to succeed Cooper in 2024, Murdock said there’s no doubt some of them will become law.

Robinson, the state’s highest Republican elected official, has repeatedly vilified LGBTQ people, proclaiming their relationships inferior to heterosexual relationships, characterizing them as “filth” whom children shouldn’t learn about “anywhere in America,” and comparing them to maggots and flies.

His comments have stirred controversy and earned him condemnations from Democrats from the state level to the White House.

At Tuesday’s Wake County GOP convention, he was given a standing ovation.

“A massive culture war”

As a society, we’re living through more than a state-by-state battle over specific laws, said Rebby Kern, director of educational policy with LGBTQ advocacy group Equality NC, in an interview with Policy Watch this week.

“We’re in the middle of a massive culture war that is also impacting our young folks in schools and turning into a pretty slippery slope when it comes to teaching about history and LGBTQ identity and experience,” Kern said.

“When we look at the state right now, we know we saw anti-LGBTQ bills filed in North Carolina. So did tens of other states across the country, many of which have passed into law. And 2022 is no different, in terms of what we’re seeing trending.”

North Carolina is still healing from the scars of HB 2, Kern said, both emotionally and economically. Advocates are working tirelessly to keep people aware of and educated on the issues, Kern said, whether or not individual bills come to a vote in the state. As HB 2 proved, Kern said, discriminatory bills have wide-reaching effects.

“We’re doing our very best to center the experiences of LGBTQ people on the ground but also to educate people about how this is impacting not just queer and trans people but everybody across the board,” Kern said.

That means having conversations about these issues not just when a discriminatory bill is filed or nearing passage, but well before that when it’s apparent they’re in the offing. Corporations may be spurred to action in these fights, Kern said, but the on-the-ground work of LGBTQ people organizing and educating in every state sets the stage for that and is the strongest defense.

The current vogue of “protecting children” from LGBTQ people and LGBTQ issues is just the latest refrain of a historically popular tune, said Craig White, supportive schools director for the Campaign for Southern Equality.

“This sort of legislation has two main purposes,” White said. “The first is to motivate the political base, which is why I think we’re seeing such a wave of this in a midterm election year. The second is to create a hostile environment for LGBTQ people, particularly transgender and gender non-binary people and particularly young people who are being targeted by these bills which would deny them access to things like sports and life saving medical care.”

The bills purport to “save women’s sports” or support “parental rights in education,” White said. But they’re transparently a reaction to a  society shift reflected in multiple studies showing LGBTQ identification in America at its highest levels ever. That shift is being driven by an increasingly accepting society, young people who feel more comfortable coming out and doing so at earlier ages, and parents who make it clear they support them, White said.

This month a new ABC News/Ipsos poll found six in 10 Americans oppose legislation that would prohibit classroom lessons or discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity in elementary schools.

The most prominent of those proposals is a recently enacted Florida measure derided by detractors describe as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. A similar bill in Tennessee would  ban discussion or materials that “promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender issues or lifestyles.”

Support for this sort of legislation increased with age, the ABC News/Ipsos poll found, but didn’t reach majority support in any of the age groups polled. Forty-three percent of respondents 65 and older supported the legislation, but that number fell to about a third for those under 50.

“Our young people are so resilient,” Kern said. “No matter what the headlines say, our young people are so certain and clear about who they are. As a community we need to move forward and address the inequities that exist and address these ideas, as we’ve seen in Texas, that supporting a young person’s gender identity is somehow child abuse, which is completely ridiculous.”

Framing even the discussion or acknowledgement of LGBTQ people as “sexual grooming” or fraught with the potential for abuse is a long-standing tactic embraced by social conservatives that traces back to battles over whether teachers and coaches should be fired for being LGBTQ, White said.

“We’ve seen it throughout the history of the movement for rights and equality, unfortunately,” White said.

A personal issue

For Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham) the issue isn’t just a political one – it’s deeply personal.

“I left my hometown because I knew I couldn’t come out in a small town in central Illinois,” Morey told Policy Watch this week.

At the time LGBTQ people and their lives weren’t openly discussed, Morey said. She feared embarrassment, harassment and subjecting her family to shame.

“I had to come here and find my identity and start a new life,” Morey said. “It worked out for me but there was a lot of heartache because we didn’t have conversations, there wasn’t support. I’m so glad we’re no longer where we were 40 years ago.”

Watching the wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation in other states, Morey said she hopes North Carolina learned its lesson with HB 2, but acknowledges that the enduring political appeal of demonizing LGBTQ people means that there is always the possibility of new, discriminatory laws.

“The harm this does to young children is apparent,” Morey said. “This is not an issue we need to be spending any energy on.”

Rep. Deb Butler (D-New Hanover), another out lawmaker, said she was lucky to have the support of friends and family when she came out. Not everyone is so fortunate, she said.

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen that Republicans will put forward these bills as raw meat to the base, even though we know there are people struggling and harmed by the environment they create, that LGBTQ young people are at risk of suicide,” Butler said.

“There’s no question in my mind that if they have the capacity to do it, to pass these things, they’ll do it,” Butler said. “They’re willing not just to fight adult members of the LGBTQ community but children in order to pursue their rear view mirror image of America.”

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