5 Years After HB2, US at a Crossroads on Transgender Rights

5 Years After HB2, US at a Crossroads on Transgender Rights (Photo: Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

Durham, NCNorth Carolina’s House Bill-2 (HB-2), one of the most infamous state attacks on transgender rights, was repealed in a compromise bill a year later, but some restrictions remained through 2020. What’s next for North Carolina and the country? 

In 2016, Kiran, who asked to only use his first name, had just come out as transgender, feeling simultaneously excited and scared about the future ahead. But when he heard about the controversial HB-2, which became North Carolina law that year and required transgender individuals to use restrooms based on the gender specified on their birth certificates, worry began to set in. Ordinary bathroom breaks began to seem like potentially life-altering decisions. 

“It's like okay, do I use a facility that's aligned with my identity ... and risk someone questioning why I'm there and potentially getting hostile or bringing up legal documents ... or [go] to a women's facility and [feel] very, very uncomfortable and equally as anxious?” 

Now a rising junior at Duke University, Kiran has a better grasp on the impact that HB-2 had on his life growing up. He noted that even more than its legal implications, HB-2 had wide ranging social impacts for transgender young adults like him, impacts that are still being felt around the state and country. 

When it passed in 2016, HB-2 attracted national attention and outrage for being one of the first state laws to explicitly restrict the rights of transgender individuals. Thousands of trans youth like Kiran were put in an uncomfortable position every day at school. However, many don’t realize that HB-2 went far deeper than that. It also prevented local ordinances from passing laws to protect transgender rights, a statute that was even carried through HB-142, the 2017 bill to repeal HB-2. Kiran described HB-142 as “a small victory but a lot of confusion.” He notes that even though HB-2 was repealed, “the very fact that it was introduced is a signal that [transgender individuals] are not welcome here and that we are not safe.” 

HB-2’s introduction brought transgender individuals to the forefront of national politics. It changed the way we see the government’s role in dictating the lives of individuals, setting a precedent for other states to follow. In 2017 alone, 16 states considered similar bathroom bills and six considered bills to limit transgender protections at the local level, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

Not only did HB-2 target an already stigmatized group, but it put clear legal implications behind that stigma. Something that may have resulted in strange looks before, such as visiting the bathroom matching one’s gender identity, now could result in a confrontation or even a lawsuit. It made an everyday action – using the restroom – into a crime. As conservative lawyer Ted Olson put it, “this law directly challenges the legitimacy of the identity of transgender persons and then compels them to deny it every time they use a public restroom.” 

And this new fear still haunts transgender individuals, especially youth, today. For Kiran, it permanently changed his mindset. “Since HB-2, I'm a lot more hyper aware of how others perceive me. I was already aware of that, but I think having a specific identity, that's under such scrutiny ... in parts of the national government … it puts you on your guard a lot more and it's like, am I safe in this space?” 

North Carolina’s moratorium on state and local action to protect transgender individuals expired this past December, after which city and local governments began to take rapid action. Cities like Asheville, Durham, and Greensboro have passed ordinances protecting transgender individuals, many of which took effect just this summer. 

For Kiran, these laws are a huge step for transgender youth to feel more accepted. “If I were 14 or 15, just realizing I was trans now, growing up in those communities and seeing that my legislators were thinking about me and were looking out for me and setting up protections for me in my future, I think I would feel a lot safer and a lot more comfortable.” 

However, while city governments pass protections, state governments are pushing for restrictions. North Carolina’s recently proposed “Save Women’s Sports Act” would prevent individuals from participating in sports divisions that don’t match their biological sex, blocking transgender youth from competing on a team that fits with their gender identity. Similarly, the “Youth Health Protection Act” and “Health Care Heroes Conscience Protection Act” could be used to deny transgender youth gender-affirming care. In total, 33 states have considered similar bills according to CNN using Human Rights Campaign data, setting a new record for anti-trans legislation. While some of these bills have been shot down, they’re likely to come up again as soon as this year, with states like Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee already signing these measures into law

Our country is again at a crossroads on transgender rights. HB-2 continues to cast a shadow over state governments, but many city governments are moving in the opposite direction. Five years after one of the most infamous state laws in history – a law that cost North Carolina an estimated 3 billion dollars, cost a governor his reelection, and cost thousands of transgender individuals access to legal protections – the next chapter is still being written. Despite being repealed, HB-2 left a permanent impact. While it may have slowly trickled out of conversation topics, newspapers and bathrooms, for transgender individuals like Kiran, its legacy remains ever present. Every act of violence, lawsuit, or day-to-day awkward interaction transgender individuals face serves as a reminder of its grip on the state and country. But even in the face of that legacy, Kiran has thoughts about where we go from here: 

“We have an opportunity now, to make those spaces wider and broader and just more frequent and accessible to everyone. So I think we should take hold of the moment, because it's a big one.”

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