Phil Berger set out to fix not one mistake but a whole row of mistakes compounded over nearly a year since the day the Charlotte City Council decided to allow gay men to use women’s restrooms; at first, it had looked like Charlotte’s ordinance would be an easy bit of wickedness to cure: After all, when most people looked at Charlotte’s politicians they shook their heads surprised and incredulous both at the same time, so all Republican legislators needed to do to kill the ordinance was pass a one-line bill.
But they didn’t do that: Instead they added two more sections – probably as a gift to business interests – to House Bill 2: One that banned discrimination lawsuits against employers and another that said gays were not a minority group and so were not protected by laws against discrimination.
Even then it all might have worked out but, when a brawl broke out with politicians hollering and finger pointing, it turned out Republicans had handed Democrats a gift – a way to oppose HB2 without ever mentioning restrooms.
Democrats roared that Republican legislators had made it clear what they really wanted to do was discriminate against gays and, fighting back, an undaunted phalanx of Republican leaders compounded one mistake by adding another: Over and over, they said, letting gays into women’s restrooms was going to mean sexual predators prowling in women’s restrooms – but the Republicans had missed a crucial fact: Even people who agreed with them had a friend or cousin or co-worker who was gay and saw putting gays in the same boat with sexual predators as a cheap shot.
The more they railed the more it sounded like Republicans wanted to do just what Democrats said: Discriminate against gays. From then on the fight over HB2 wasn’t about men using women’s restrooms – it was about Republicans’ unkindness or meanness or unfairness to Tom’s gay friend or Sally’s cousin.
Then the newly elected Democratic Governor shocked everyone by calling Republican leaders Phil Berger and Tim Moore and offering a compromise: If he could persuade Charlotte’s City Council to repeal its ordinance, Roy Cooper asked, would Republicans repeal HB2?
Charlotte hemmed and hawed but, finally, repealed its ordinance and the same day Phil Berger stood up on the Senate floor holding a bill in his hand: Berger had no intention of letting men use women’s restrooms but he also saw a way to get Republicans out of the minefield they’d marched into: He’d repeal HB2, Berger said, but no city could pass another ‘gay ordinance’ like Charlotte’s for six months.
What Berger meant was simple: He wanted to turn back the hands of the clock (and return the law) to the exact same place it had been in before either HB2 or Charlotte’s Ordinance saw the light of day – which meant gay men could not use women’s restrooms. And Berger was giving himself six months to figure out how to prevent another city from passing a Charlotte-type ordinance.
Berger was promptly shot not just by Democrats but by the phalanx of Republicans.
Two months later, Roy Cooper rolled out another compromise – it wasn’t identical to Berger’s but it was pretty close: Let’s repeal HB2, Cooper said, and let’s also agree that no city can pass a Charlotte-type ordinance without giving the General Assembly thirty days’ notice. Which would give the legislature 30-days to stop another ordinance.
Berger’s fix and Cooper’s fix were cut from the same piece of cloth and either way it didn’t look like men – gay or otherwise – would be using women’s restrooms.
But Cooper, like Berger, was promptly shot by both sides.
His friends – like the head of North Carolina’s Gay Rights movement Chris Sgro – lit into him saying, “No member of the LGBT community is a risk to public safety in a public restroom or anywhere else” – while Republicans blasted him from the opposite direction: The problem with Cooper’s fix, Lt. Governor Dan Forest declared, was it did allow gay men to use women’s restrooms.
By sundown Roy Cooper’s proposal was dead, Republicans were still mired in that minefield, and Democrats were still railing about HB2 without ever mentioning restrooms.
So what happens now? Nothing. Nothing changes. Not until ‘the blessed silence’ returns.