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Five questions with Chris Sgro of Equality N.C.

As Executive Director of Equality North Carolina, LGBTQ advocate Chris Sgro has been on the front-line of the battle against HB2 since before it was signed into law a year ago.

Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina.

But when former N.C. House member Ralph Johnson died in office last year, Sgro was chosen to finish out his term – making him, at that time, the only out LGBT member of the General Assembly. 

Sgro had the unique experience of living through the effort to repeal HB2 as a gay man, an activist and a lawmaker. This week, as we approach the anniversary of the law’s signing, we reached out to Sgro for his insider’s view on the political wrangling and partisan battles that have, so far, failed to repeal the law.

1) What insight into the ongoing battle over HB2 do you think you gained as a lawmaker?

I’ve now seen both as a member of the LGBT community and as a member of the General Assembly what HB2 looks like. And I frankly think there’s a disconnect there.

As I go to rallies, as I’m in different towns and cities, everybody is talking about HB2 – your cab driver, someone serving you a drink in a bar. And they’re almost universally opposed to it. People want it gone – because they think it’s wrong, because they think it’s doing economic damage to our state and harming our reputation. And that has not necessarily trickled down to every member of the legislature.

I think that the legislature is in a bit of a bubble in Raleigh.

There are some members who are great and who are standing firm for a full repeal. But too many members, especially in the majority, are too caught up in their own politics and the process.

2) What do you make of the most recent HB2 repeal bill, put forward by Sen. Joel Ford (D- Charlotte)? It has the “cooling off period” initially suggested by Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) back in December, that would put a 30-day moratorium on ordinances like the one Charlotte passed, extending LGBT protections.

I think it’s disappointing but not surprising to see Joel Ford ally himself with Senator Berger. Numerous times during the session people would see him check in with the Republican leadership but frankly he doesn’t check in with his progressive allies.

This isn’t the first time he’s made it clear he’s not a friend to the LGBT community. He voted for the magistrate bill, to allow them to opt out of marriages.

I think he thinks this is a play for him in his mayoral bid and it’s going to backfire on him. I’m deeply wary of any effort that has Joel Ford’s name on it, especially when it’s essentially Berger’s bill from before.

3) I’ve spoken to some LGBT people who are frustrated that the repeal of HB2 has been discussed mostly in terms of economic damage and others who say they understand that’s the best way to engage people who aren’t directly impacted by HB2. But even with the severe economic damage that has been done, we’re still at this stalemate over repeal. Did even the economic appeal fail?

I don’t think that effort has failed. I think it’s that Berger and [N.C. House Speaker Tim] Moore have failed to recognize the root of the economic backlash. We still hear them blaming Charlotte when they really don’t get or won’t admit that HB2 is what it is all about.

The NCAA is not just thinking about relocating championship games through 2020, they’re saying non-discrimination language like Charlotte had is going to be a criteria going forward.

The business community understands that a core tenet of economic sustainability is being in a place where everyone feels comfortable and valued. But they’re not getting it. They’re still not getting that discrimination is the issue that’s driving this.

4)  What do you think of the argument, which I’ve even heard advanced by some fairly high-ranking Republican legislators, that there is not just a cultural but a geographic root to this stalemate? That rural areas which tend to be more conservative don’t stand to gain much of anything from NCAA games in North Carolina or conventions, so their representatives don’t have as much of an incentive to repeal?

I think it’s a completely bunk argument. It’s been presented to me a number of times that rural North Carolina loves HB2. But I’ve seen some district by district polling. It’s wildly unpopular in urban areas but it’s also unpopular in rural areas.

What they’re really saying is, do I have the best gerrymandered district or just an all right gerrymandered district? What makes elected representatives safe is gerrymandered districts, not following the will of the people.

And the truth is, rural North Carolina is harmed by this. Facebook and Apple and those companies don’t put data farms in Wake County. They put them in Robeson County. They put them in more rural places.

5) Some weeks back we interviewed Rep. Cecil Brockman (D-Guilford), who is now one of two out LGBT members of the General Assembly. He said he was inspired to come out during the initial HB2 controversy partially because he was out at a restaurant with you and your husband and some guys came up to your table and wanted to get into it with you about HB2. Are incidents like that becoming more likely now, as this continues?

It’s definitely more likely. It definitely happens more often.

Cecil I think was quite eloquent about this in his coming out story. I think what motivated him to come out at that particular time was the hatred that the Donald Trump campaign was whipping up and that was being whipped up here by HB2. It’s empowered the people who are in the vast minority to be more vocal in their hatred.

We have studies that show that hate crimes are increasing, particularly toward transgender people. And you heard stories from friends about harassment, about people losing their jobs and we have no anti-discrimination in employment measures because of Tim Moore and Phil Berger.

What you’re talking about, when those guys came over to our table – we weren’t even talking about HB2. They didn’t know we were two members of the N.C. General Assembly. They just sensed for whatever reason that we were gay so they felt they could come up to us and do that. The restaurant handled it well, but of course that shouldn’t happen. And it’s happening more often now, yes, as people feel more emboldened.

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