NATION

Conservatives push back on transgender bathroom rights in North Carolina

The City Council of Charlotte, N.C., opened the bathroom door only to see the state threaten to slam it shut.

On Monday, the council approved broad civil rights protections for gay, lesbian and transgender people. On Tuesday, conservative state politicians vowed to override at least one part of the decision.

Their biggest concern? The new law includes a provision that allows transgender people to use public bathrooms that match their gender identities.

Opponents dubbed it "the bathroom bill." The evangelist Franklin Graham, a North Carolina native, had called the law "wicked" and "filthy" and said it "would allow pedophiles, perverts and predators into women's bathrooms." North Carolina's speaker of the House on Tuesday called it "a major public safety issue."

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FOR THE RECORD

Feb. 24, 6:24 a.m.: An earlier version of this post attributed a remark to South Carolina's speaker of the House. It was North Carolina's speaker of the House.

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The governor, Pat McCrory, a Republican, released a statement saying he was "disappointed and saddened."

"As governor, I will support legislative action to address this regulation and will remain committed to protecting the privacy and safety of all men, women and children of all ages in North Carolina," it said.

As LGBT activists around the U.S. turn their attention toward expanding rights for transgender Americans, they have met growing opposition from lawmakers in conservative states who have repeatedly focused on bathrooms.

Forty-four bills that limit bathroom and locker room use or allow business owners to deny service to transgender people are currently under consideration in 16 states, according to a report released Monday by the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT advocacy group.

Last week, South Dakota's Legislature approved such a ban. Activists — including transgender celebrity Caitlyn Jenner — urged the state's governor to veto the bill.

Of the 20 largest cities in America, Charlotte was among three that didn't have "nondiscrimination protection" for LGBT people, said Cathryn Oakley, a lawyer at the Human Rights Campaign.

Another is Houston, where the City Council approved an equal rights measure that included protections on bathroom use, only to see voters override it in a referendum in November. Opponents wielded signs that said, "No men in women's bathrooms."

Charlotte's new law is the result of a political gamble.

The City Council first deliberated over a package of LGBT protections in March 2015 — which the Charlotte Observer said at the time was "the most controversial ordinance it has considered in years." But there wasn't enough support to pass an ordinance that included transgender people.

Council Member LaWana Mayfield and her colleagues who favored the broader ordinance faced a choice: Leave out transgender people or hold out for a more inclusive bill down the road.

"It would have been next to impossible to come back later and get trans protection added," Mayfield said.

So she and a like-minded colleague joined with conservative members in a 6-5 vote against an ordinance that offered protections to gays and lesbians.

"A good bit of my pushback and comments of interest — not necessarily in a positive way — came from the gay community, mostly the gay white male community," Mayfield said.

"Why not reach for something as opposed to nothing?" she said they told her.

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But in the next local election, last November, the Human Rights Campaign and other advocacy groups got involved and helped elect two new council members who supported protections for transgender people.

After hours of debate Monday, the City Council voted 7 to 4 in favor of a complete ordinance, drawing applause from supporters as opponents held up signs that said "Don't do it, Charlotte."

One woman shouted at the council, "Real discrimination happened at a lunch counter in Greensboro!" and a man begged the council to vote no, saying, "I'm not scared of transgenders, but sexual predators will see this as a chance for fresh victims," the Charlotte Observer reported.

On Tuesday, conservative state lawmakers vowed to oppose Charlotte's new ordinance, which is set to take effect in April.

"I think it's just inappropriate," Republican Sen. David Curtis, who represents a district outside Charlotte, told the Lincoln Times-News. "We have rules in our society and that's just one of the rules in our society. This liberal group is trying to redefine everything about our society. Gender and marriage — just the whole liberal agenda."

Curtis added: "We generally don't get involved in local politics. We need to do what's right. I don't think we should let national criticism stop us from doing what we should do."

Rep. Tim Moore, speaker of the North Carolina House, said in a statement Tuesday that Charlotte had "gone against all common sense" and that he and other conservatives were exploring the possibility of passing legislation to overturn it.

For Roberta Dunn, 71, a Charlotte-area transgender woman and advocate, the new protections had been needed for a long time — to prevent discrimination by businesses and employers and, yes, to allow her to use the lady's room. She said she resented the unfounded accusations that transgender people were more likely to be pedophiles.

"I don't look proper in the men's room," she said. "Young boys would look at me. Men, they'd be like, 'What are you doing in here?' ... I am a woman. I feel that I've been a woman since I was 5 or 6 years old, and that's where I belong."

matt.pearce@latimes.com

Twitter: @MattDPearce

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A version of this article appeared in print on February 24, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Transgender rights vote draws fire - Conservatives push back after Charlotte, N.C., OKs restroom protections and more." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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