Raleigh, N.C. — A year ago, Madeline Goss rushed from work to testify before a North Carolina General Assembly committee against legislation that would become known House Bill 2.
Goss, who is raising a 10-year-old daughter and works as a manager in the software engineering business, is a transgender woman and said that, no matter what the bill said, she couldn't go back to using the men's room. Known in the national press as North Carolina's "bathroom bill," House Bill 2 requires that people use the bathroom corresponding to their birth certificate when they're in a government-owned building, such as a school, and prevents local governments from imposing bathroom rules on businesses.
"It's unsafe for me there. People like me die there," Goss told the committee, referring to the men's room during the hearing.
Hours later, then-Gov. Pat McCrory signed the measure into law.
At the time, it wasn't obvious that House Bill 2 would make North Carolina a major battlefront over transgender rights or would lead to debates about where national sports leagues play their tournaments and international businesses locate their operations. Nor was it clear that lawmakers would spend the next year trying – and repeatedly failing – to come up with some sort of rollback measure. Even this week, House Republicans were talking behind closed doors about their latest proposal at some sort of compromise.
What did become clear to Goss nearly as soon as House Bill 2 passed was that North Carolina, her home state, had become somewhat more "unwelcoming," a description that critics of the bill have often fallen back on during the past year.
"I think twice every time I stop at a rest stop," she said. "It gives me pause when I'm with my daughter just moving through the world."
Goss is one of 1.4 million people in the United States who identify as transgender, according to a June 2016 study by The Williams Institute. The same study estimates 44,750 of North Carolina's roughly 10 million residents identify as transgender.
House Bill 2 reaches beyond the bathroom into multiple areas of how state and local governments treat LGBT citizens. But national reporting has focused on the bathroom provisions, and that is where some of the harshest rhetoric in the battle over the measure has focused.
Proponents who backed the original measure have since worked to fend off repeal efforts, saying the bill does not discriminate against people like Goss.
"The bill is about protecting the privacy of people in bathrooms, showers and locker rooms," said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition.
Her group ran ads during the fall gubernatorial campaign asserting that, without the state law, and with a Charlotte ordinance allowing people to use the bathroom of their choice, "registered sex offenders could follow women and young girls into the bathroom or locker room."
While Fitzgerald and advocates for the bill, including elected GOP lawmakers, have frequently raised safety questions, they are not borne out by credible reports of assaults or other problems resulting from transgender access to restrooms.
Fitzgerald points out that House Bill 2 allows governments to make accommodations for people like Goss by doing such things as providing single-toilet restrooms. She also points out that transgender people can change their birth certificates if they have sex reassignment surgery, which is not an option that all transgender people choose or can afford.
"It's a common-sense bill that somehow has been made by those who oppose it into a monster," Fitzgerald said.
Beyond the bathroom
House Bill 2 came about after the Charlotte City Council passed an ordinance requiring businesses to allow transgender individuals to use the bathroom or locker room of their choice. State lawmakers called themselves into a one-day special session to overturn that local ordinance.
Those subsequent disparate reactions illustrate the political differences between North Carolina's largest cities, where more liberal ideas about inclusion tend to win the day, versus the suburban and rural legislative districts that send the bulk of Republican lawmakers to Raleigh. While bathroom access may not be a key issue outside the big city, neither do those voters object to the measure or necessarily see the impact of large corporations and sporting events pulling out of big city commitments.
While the bathroom provisions initially got the lion's share of media attention – and put people like Goss in an unfamiliar spotlight – the measure went further. The law created a statewide nondiscrimination ordinance that excluded LGBT individuals, altered workplace discrimination protections, prescribed bathroom policies for schools and other public buildings and prevented cities and counties from extending nondiscrimination protections that went beyond state law.
Two parallel debates over civil rights and economic impact ensued.
While Goss and LGBT advocates argue that the law should be repealed purely on ethical grounds, much of the debate has revolved around economic loss due to blowback against the state, some of it well documented: the NCAA moved sports tournaments, including basketball games that are part of March Madness; other organizations canceled conferences; and some companies declared the measure would keep them from expanding in the state. Other reports suggest that there are businesses waiting in the wings to come to North Carolina but for the controversial measure.
Those who have attempted to tally up the economic impact from those publicly acknowledged losses put House Bill 2's cost at $500 million – give or take $200 million. That number would represent only a fraction of 1 percent of the state's annual economic output, but economists say it is far from comprehensive of the law's impact.
Backers of House Bill 2 point to positive economic reports showing job growth, high rankings on business friendliness measures and dipping unemployment to make the case that the economic arguments against the measure don't hold water.
"Much of what the media focuses on is the negative," said John Rustin, executive director of the North Carolina Family Policy Council. "We continue to be ranked as one of the best places to do business, to live and to raise a family."
But economists and job recruiters say the law is a drag on job growth.
"What would growth be if you got rid of the daggum thing? How many more jobs would there be?" said Mac Holladay, an economic development consultant with Market Street Services in Atlanta.
The view from outside
North Carolina was not the first state to face a backlash over a piece of social legislation. In 2015, for example, Indiana passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act bill that many saw as allowing businesses to discriminate against LGBT individuals. There was an immediate, fierce response led by business leaders, said John Ketzenberger, president of the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonpartisan organization that focuses on budget and tax issues.
The measure was quickly amended despite the fact that then-Gov. Mike Pence, now U.S. vice president, backed it. That's in part because major employers, including Salesforce, used their leverage to push against the bill.
"When the fix was announced, it was announced by those business people, not the governor," Ketzenberger recalled.
While Indiana travel and tourism officials report bookings are down from the previous year, the state has not seen big losses on the corporate recruiting front, Ketzenberger said. He chalks that up to the quick effort to alter the bill before it was even a week old.
After House Bill 2 in North Carolina, investors and technology firms brought pressure to bear, and local officials responsible for tourism development were strident in their opposition. But at one point in the year, McCrory said North Carolina Chamber officials had helped draft the law – an assertion the Chamber denies.
During the summer of 2016, Holladay called House Bill 2 "a total disaster for North Carolina," an assertion he stands by as the state marks one year with the measure on the books.
"It has cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars – way beyond the NBA All-Star game," he said.
Site consultants who help large companies locate offices and manufacturing plants have said the law has created a bad national buzz around the state as national media outlets print and broadcast bad news about the law, according to Holladay.
"It is having an impact. There's not a question it's having an impact," said Mark Vitner, an economist with Wells Fargo in Charlotte. "There's no question there are businesses that would be coming to North Carolina but for it."
Backers of House Bill 2 dismiss that notion, again pointing to healthy economic indicators.
"That's all speculation," Fitzgerald said. "They don't have any facts to how HB2 has caused any economic damage."
In fact, neither side of the debate can claim with any certainty what the economic impact of the measure has been. Counting lost revenue from canceled concerts and sporting events gets you only so far.
"You can't see the jobs that weren't created," said Craig Depken of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
By the same token, Depken said, there may be positive impacts from those who favor the law. He and his colleagues are just beginning to look at data that they think may give them a way to quantify House Bill 2's impact on the economy, a process that will take months and likely not yield results until at least the end of the year.
Prospects for change fading
While some of those affected by House Bill 2 filed suit in federal court, trials in those cases are months away. In the meantime, federal protections extended by former President Barack Obama have been rolled back by President Donald Trump, which means those suing have lost an ally in court and cases that might have provided a blueprint for some resolution have been stalled. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court sent a Virginia case involving a transgender public school student back to the lower courts to consider the impact of that change in guidance.
As court cases simmered throughout the 2016 legislative session, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers worked toward what they hoped would be some sort of compromise on the matter. While there were flashes and rumors of potential repeal deals, a solid effort didn't materialize before lawmakers adjourned for the year.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, won a narrow victory in November's election. After unseating McCrory but before being sworn in, Cooper set about putting together a repeal deal. Days before Christmas, Charlotte voted to repeal its ordinance. That was supposed to clear the way for lawmakers to roll back House Bill 2.
That didn't happen. Charlotte had left a smidgeon of its ordinance, unrelated to bathrooms, on the books, breeding mistrust among lawmakers. Even after the City Council quickly wiped away the last vestige of their local law, Republicans could no longer round up the votes for a straight repeal. Senate Democrats and some of their Republican colleagues voted down a last-ditch repeal effort in a day that ended with recriminations and finger-pointing.
While any number of bills, including one filed this week by Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg, would alter House Bill 2 in some way, none appears to have the backing it would need to be successful. The most promising measure, House Bill 186 by Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, encountered criticism from the left and the right almost as soon as it was filed. While McGrady and others have continued to work toward repeal, without the backing of top leaders, its unlikely anything will move.
"While changes in my bill have been negotiated with the governor, ultimately, legislative leaders – both Republican and Democrat – need to get the votes. Any bill, presumably a (proposed committee substitute) for H186, will only move if there are the votes to pass it," McGrady said.
Ames Simmons moved from Georgia this year to work for Equality North Carolina, one of the organizations pushing against the state law. A lawyer, Simmons is a transgender man who said the damage done by House Bill 2 goes beyond the economy.
"It has emboldened a public dialog about the legitimacy and validity of trans people's lives that feels very scary some days," Simmons said.
Many of the lawmakers he meets would like to repeal the law, he said, but they are mired in political realities that won't let them step out on the issue. Asked whether House Bill 2 would be repealed at some point this year, Simmons stopped and thought.
"The best answer I could give you probably would be about the same quality as an answer from the Magic Eight ball," he said. "I see through a glass darkly."
Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, the House minority leader, was optimistic that House Bill 2 would be repealed in the months following its passage. But in the year since, after watching efforts both behind the scenes and in public fall apart, his optimism has waned.
"Every time we try and fail, it gets harder," Jackson said.
That's because the deals that fall apart deepen the resentment and distrust on either side of the issue.
Over the past six months, Jackson's voice has been one of the loudest to call for repeal, and even though he represents a district that backed North Carolina's 2012 constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage – the ban has since been invalidated by federal courts – Jackson said he's gotten no criticism from residents on his House Bill 2 stand.
"People don't care about bathrooms, and the fact their state is known for that is sad," he said.
This week, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger spoke to reporters about repeal efforts, reiterating that any repeal would require a compromise with the bill's opponents and that any bill would likely have to clear the House before the Senate is willing to consider it. He and House Speaker Tim Moore met Wednesday amid speculation that another repeal effort might be underway.
Asked about the meeting, Berger said, "We meet on a lot of things." When a follow up question asked if House Bill 2 was one of those thing, Berger added, "It's always one of them."
He likened the effort to repeal the law to an old car that has trouble starting.
"You think it's going to start, and then it doesn't, and then you think it's going to start, and then sometimes it does start and then it stops," Berger said. "There's always developments. I'm just saying there's not something that I'm prepared to say that gets us that majority we would need."
Despite whatever push for repeal is left at the General Assembly, many observers believe the window for accomplishing something that will win back NCAA tournament games and smooth the way for job recruitment efforts is closing – which is not to say opponents will give up.
"It will never blow over for trans people," Simmons said. "As a society, we cannot accept this as the new normal. We have to fight back against making pariahs out of transgender people."