The past few months have been rough for North Carolina.
Since the passage of HB2, the anti-LGBT “bathroom bill” legislation in late March, the state has been slammed as bigoted, and the indicative of a new form of Jim Crow-esque legislation against the transgender community.
Lost in the bombast and posturing, however, are the people of North Carolina, themselves—some who vehemently oppose the new law, and others who wholehearted support it, each as fueled by their own convictions as they are averse to the others’. These are the people immeshed in the realities of HB2, in the tactile, real-life manifestations of this new law, and in the passions it provokes. Their stories are often overlooked, as both the emotional intensity, and the stakes around the issue of transgender rights are raised higher and higher. But theirs are ultimate the voices which matter most.
Recently, AMERICA with Jorge Ramos reporter Dan Lieberman brought together a group of diverse North Carolinians for a one-of-a-kind dinner in the state’s capital of Raleigh. Joining him were transgender activists, whose everyday lives have been disrupted by HB2, as well as conservative proponents of the bill.
What would happen when this group, made up of people so often portrayed as pitted against one another, sat down and simply shared a meal together?
“It’s not good people versus bad people,” explained 26-year-old Calvin Dean at the dinner table. “It’s just differences in how a situation is handled.”
Dean, a transgender man, became active the fight for LGBT rights after the passage of HB2 this spring. “I would love it,” he continued, “if we could create some more clarity about what a trans person’s day-to-day life actually looks like.”
Seated alongside Dean was Candis Cox, a prominent activist in North Carolina’s transgender community, and Ben Graumann, director of development and communications at Equality NC, a statewide lobbying and advocacy organization. They were joined by Steve Noble, a conservative Christian talk radio host, and Republican consultant Matthew Hebb, both of whom support HB2.
For Nobel, support of HB2 amounted to a question of safety.
“I have four children,” he explains. “My 11 year old daughter goes into the bathroom, and five minutes later a man who looks like me wants to go into the same bathroom…”
“If I saw you walking into a women’s room, I’d go ‘wrong room, honey’,” responds Cox. “To be fair, a sex offender right now could commit a sexual crime. The crime was not going into the bathroom. The crime was the sexual act.”
“Twelve months ago we weren’t, ‘we,’ I say, myself, was not even thinking about this,” Nobel told the table at one point, after being asked whether Calvin should be allowed access to a men’s restroom without problem. “Now, if I saw you walking in to a woman’s bathroom,” he continued, indicating Cox, “I would look at your body and go, ‘Well,’ I don’t even know that I would have noticed you.”
“I wouldn’t even think about it if I saw you,” he added. “Because you obviously present from the outside looking, from somebody else as a woman.”
“Thanks,” Cox replied cooly, “I am.”
Clearly, a single dinner wasn’t going to turn this group of political adversaries into best friends.
While the evening’s conversation may not have necessarily raised new solutions to North Carolina’s seemingly intractable stalemate, its significance lies instead with the fact that it took place at all—no small feat, given the heated context in which this dinner occurred. Several invitees even pulled out at the last minute.
Regardless, those guests who did take the time to spend an evening sharing a meal with one another left the experience having found a measure of commonality, despite their deep seeded political differences.
“I think it should stand” Nobel exclaims, when asked about whether HB2 should be repealed or not. But, he continues:
“I’m not comfortable throwing that on the table like some stinking trump card like these two human beings over here don’t matter. Look at my hand—I’m not nervous because I can’t handle cameras. It’s just, it’s heartbreaking!”
“I at least know that you’re strong in your conviction, and that you don’t have malicious intent,” responds Cox. “That doesn’t erase the pain of House Bill Two, but with the human thing, it certainly puts me at ease to know that if I see you walking by I don’t have to go ‘is he one of the ones that’s gonna, like, call the cops on me?'”
“If you really boil life down to a couple of simple things,” concludes Matthew Hebb, “most people are good people, and most people want the same thing. They just want to live their lives and be safe.”
It’s a sentiment that seemed to encapsulate the evening. And while the gulf between those HB2 and its opponents remains wide and treacherous, it’s heartening to know that common ground can be found.
Where North Carolina goes from here, however, remains to be seen.