Op-Ed: North Carolina’s Transgender Fight Needs Musicians to Show Up

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On Saturday night, Simon Le Bon did what I assume he does during most of Duran Duran’s shows on their current tour. Between set-opener “Paper Gods” and throwback hit “The Wild Boys,” Le Bon turned to the amphitheater crowd of 15,000 or so and bellowed the name of the state into which he’d flown only a few hours earlier. “North Carolina!” he screamed beneath a wash of bright lights, his cry instantly echoed by an audience lost in a moment of rapture.

Just 48 hours earlier, Duran Duran wasn’t sure it could even keep this show in Charlotte and keep a clean conscience. They had debated scrapping the date, cutting their losses, and skipping the state. But here they were, in the largest city of what’s suddenly become the most controversial state in the union, launching a sort of sneak-attack benefit for the state’s LGBTQ communities and progressive organizations. Somehow, my wife Tina and I had helped convince them to do this, to make this move, and to stand with the people of North Carolina in this moment of great need. Stuck inside the roar, I had to smile.

To backtrack, briefly: For decades, North Carolina has suggested a proud paragon of Southern progress. With a network of some of the best public and private colleges in the country, a tech sector that stretches from giants such as IBM to fledgling start-ups, and a tradition of civil rights agitation and action, the Tar Heel state has put in a lot of work to be known for more than basketball, barbecue, and race cars.

During the last four years, though, we’ve become known for something quite different—spoiling decades of political advancement within one election cycle. In a rampage of regression, a Republican-led legislature and a governor named Pat McCrory, who seems mostly to be the sock puppet for much more powerful and determined players, have denigrated environmental protections, educational institutions, women’s health care, and voting rights. We’ve suffered coal-ash catastrophes and editorial indictments, threats to our collegiate system, and McCrory under investigation by the FBI.

In late March, McCrory and his cronies decided to go all in, to perform what, in basketball, you might call a “heat check” and see how far they could take their bad ideas. In an expensive special legislative session, the legislature approved the now-infamous House Bill 2, a sweeping piece of discriminatory law, which McCrory signed without hesitation. Known as “the Bathroom Bill,” HB 2 stipulates that transgender people must use the bathroom of their “biological sex,” despite how they identify. More broadly, it eliminates essential anti-discrimination protections for all kinds of people—gay, trans, or otherwise—and squashes many measures of self-sovereignty for municipalities across the state. It is both a product of fear and power, a cowardly move meant to wrest control of the state away from those whose vision of its future doesn’t necessarily align with that of an often old, pale, male, and Christian orthodoxy.

In the weeks since the bill’s passage, the fallout has been swift and furious. North Carolina has become a national embarrassment and pariah. Presidential candidates have criticized the state. Companies such as PayPal, recently very excited to open new offices and offer new jobs in North Carolina, have pulled out. Conferences have been canceled, and the NBA may scrap its 2017 all-star game in Charlotte, the city whose bold move to enact better LGBTQ protections drove the state legislature to the panic of a special session. And a week before Duran Duran’s performance, Bruce Springsteen announced he would not be playing his scheduled North Carolina show two days later because of HB 2. “I feel that this is a time for me and the band to show solidarity for those freedom fighters,” he wrote.

The morning after that announcement, Tina and I hopped online, bought and built a simple website called “North Carolina Needs You,” and wrote a short statement encouraging artists to come to North Carolina and use their platform to raise money and awareness for these issues, rather than cancel the date and simply move on. We offered to help link them with organizations deeply invested in queer advocacy and progressive politics here at home, so that those groups could protect the increasingly threatened, and build a better ground game to win critical elections come November.

Almost immediately, responses began to arrive: Four days later, we sat in a backstage room of a sold-out basketball arena in Charlotte and spoke for three hours to Mumford & Sons and their manager, all of whom had thought a bit about these issues since Springsteen’s announcement. They’d opted not to cancel but instead make an online statement—their first-ever political volley in a decade as a band—and funnel all of the night’s profits to organizations dedicated to social justice. Their commitment and thoughtfulness were astounding and compelling. They offered to open up their Rolodex and reach out to any band or celebrity on our behalf—on North Carolina’s, really—and encourage them to come help. When the question of Beyoncé—soon scheduled to play in Raleigh—arose, they said sure, they’d get in touch with her people.

Earlier that morning, Duran Duran’s manager called to say that they, too, were considering canceling but hoped to have a positive effect instead, to face North Carolina’s bigoted bullies head-on. We gave them a list of recommendations for the show, from voter registration to a large financial contribution for a statewide progressive network and a local LGBTQ center. Without equivocation, they accepted them all in an instant, knowing there was work to be done.

We have discovered, it seems, that people are desperate to lift North Carolina out of our dilemma, to give this human rights crisis a shot of ancillary strength. Thankfully, they’re willing to show up to do it. Independent of our own work, Laura Jane Grace has vowed to use Against Me!’s upcoming show in Durham to raise transgender visibility. “I think the real danger with HB 2 is that it creates a target on transgender people specifically,” she told BuzzFeed. “When you feel targeted as a trans person, the natural inclination is to go into hiding. But visibility is more important than ever; to go there and have the platform of a stage to stand on and speak your mind and represent yourself.” Cyndi Lauper, too, instantly rebuffed the suggestion that she would cancel her own North Carolina show; instead she’ll funnel funds to Equality NC, just one of many statewide networks that currently need help.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not entirely opposed to boycotts in North Carolina. Our politicians—who have elected to pass off cowardice and bigotry as an appeal to common sense and to protecting children—deserve to lose tax dollars when companies or individuals refuse to do business here. And in spite of his and his band’s liberal convictions, Bruce Springsteen remains a bipartisan hero, a pedestrian kind of rock god capable of making connections across the aisle. His cancelation was a populist blow to McCrory and the machine at his back, a real shot across the bow. It brought international attention to the mess us North Carolinians now face, forcing all to decide what stand they will take. Springsteen didn’t put our problems on the map, but he did crank the signal, so to speak, to 11—and for that, eternal gratitude.

But now that Springsteen’s forced this issue, we need help fixing these problems. We need artists to show up and turn events into opportunities to raise awareness and, when it makes sense, money. Sure, shows will continue to generate tax dollars for a corrupt regime, but I worry more about what happens in the absence of these opportunities. We need smart people with big ideas to challenge us to think more and do more amid this poisonous political climate. We need to show that North Carolina is not just a locus of bigots with backwards beliefs, because it is not. When there is a ground game that must be won or, at the very least, contested, boycotts—especially in regard to cultural events—begin to feel like passive activism, a show of support with an underlying order to fix it ourselves.

Hell, we’ve been trying: For the last four years, progressive North Carolinians have worked extensively to demand that other voices be heard. See, for instance, the thousands who have shown up on the General Assembly’s doorstep every week for a movement known as Moral Mondays, those who have chained themselves together in the street in front of McCrory’s mansion only to be arrested, those members of the North Carolina Music Love Army who have written and recorded new folk songs about our seemingly antiquated plight. Or look at those who have crisscrossed the state to drum up enough money and support, like state NAACP leader William Barber, to try to beat McCrory and his legislative posse, despite the long odds of shamefully gerrymandered districts. House Bill 2 is only a symptom of a much more destructive force within this state, and only sustained support can beat it back.

Systematic cultural boycotts overlook or undermine these attempts, ostracizing those who are pushing for a more just state rather than aligning with or getting behind them. The truth is that we cannot heal ourselves.

I have been called naïve for this position, for my fundamental belief that we can harness outside help to win elections and take this state back. Some are skeptical of the power of elections at large, or of the state left’s ability to band together with enough money and energy to overcome voting districts that have been drawn to promote and protect the GOP. Maybe they’re right, but I suppose I’m not blessed with the patience to sit around and wait for economic boycotts to change minds or for the courts to strike down HB 2. Selective boycotts combined with widespread benefits are the best way, I think, to put pressure on the right and put power behind the left, to get to the root of all this evil, not just its latest bloom.

Early in Saturday’s show, Le Bon warned the crowd that he would eventually get to the matter of HB 2, but not yet. “I can promise you some politics-free entertainment for about an hour, maybe a little longer. And then, well, there’s something we’re going to have a little chat about,” Le Bon said with a smile before slinking into the sex of “Come Undone.”

Indeed, an hour or so later, after romping through “Girls on Film” and gliding offstage for an encore break, Duran Duran returned and stood together in front of an enormous digital American flag, the familiar red-and-white bars transformed into the colors of the rainbow. Backstage before the show, Le Bon had fretted over his statement and asked the band’s assistants to make sure it was printed out and ready for him to read. “I’d lose my head if it wasn’t attached,” he pardoned.

In front his audience, though, Le Bon was comfortable—riveting, even—in taking this stand. He went off script several times, riling the crowd into great paroxysms. “There it is again—just plain, old-fashioned prejudice, fear and oppression, the same old kind that’s blighted humanity in varying degrees for all of its history,” he said. “Duran Duran is opposed to bigotry and discrimination in all of its ugly forms.” He ushered a representative from the nonprofit Equality NC onstage, read and signed a petition directed to the North Carolina General Assembly, passed it around, and asked everyone who agreed to let their cell phones light up the night sky as the band played “Save a Prayer.” Turning my back to the stage and seeing that sky of beams on the amphitheater lawn, I felt reinvigorated by hope, by solidarity, by the strength of a collective statement.

The time to have Le Bon’s little talk had come, as has the time to have much larger talks in North Carolina—about how to ensure equal protection for all people of this state, and on a larger scale, about how to push back against a wave of bad politics. Without the aegis of awareness and fundraisers and national conversation, I doubt we can dominate that debate for a very long time, if at all.

Yes, it’s tempting to walk away, middle fingers in the air, and to boycott a state whose leaders act like they don’t want anyone who doesn’t think exactly the way they do. But right here and right now, North Carolina needs you.

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Courtesy Pitchfork.com

Grayson Haver Currin is the managing editor of North Carolina alt-weekly INDY Week and has been a Pitchfork contributor since 2006. Learn more at ncneedsyou.com.