When news broke earlier this week that North Carolina’s Rowan–Salisbury Board of Education had voted to allow students to carry pepper spray on campus—seemingly under the logic, as one board member intimated, that they might need it to protect themselves from trans people in bathrooms—it looked like the vigilante gender police state was arriving faster than I had feared. (Well, an invigorated one anyway—plenty of trans and gender–nonconforming people have lived under a version of it forever.) Appropriately, progressive-leaning media and activists threw a spotlight on the story, covering it as yet another sad step of the formerly enlightened Southern state down the slope of bigoted ignominy.
Fortunately, the outcry seems to have worked: As Buzzfeed News reported late Wednesday, the board is now “rethinking” the policy change and will take it up again at the body’s next session on May 23. Pepper spray is expected to move back to the list of prohibited items.
While the about-face itself is good news, it’s particularly important to note that Chuck Hughes, the board member who had offered the offending justification, is leading the reversal. Hughes’ original quote—“Depending on how the courts rule on the bathroom issues, it may be a pretty valuable tool to have on the female students if they go to the bathroom, not knowing who may come in.”—understandably sounded transphobic in light of the furor surrounding HB2. But Hughes later elaborated on his views to Buzzfeed, saying, “I was not thinking about the LGBT issue. Perverts and pedophiles taking advantage of this law in bathrooms was my major concern.”
He went on:
“The LGBT issue has never been a problem to my knowledge,” Hughes said. “People have a different sexual identity, they go about their business. You don’t even know that a transgender is in your bathroom. They’re not there to create havoc. But perverts are.”
Hughes said he was not homophobic and that the LGBT community had rights to be protected. “They’re not the ones to look out for,” he said. “My statement was misinterpreted and when I hear other people talking about it, I can see how it was misinterpreted.”
While it’s impossible to know whether this clarification is genuine or a bit of crisis management, I’m willing to take Hughes at his word—not least because he has promised his own vote to revoke the pepper spray allowance. What concerns me more is that, even for this a guy who seems to basically get that LGBTQ folks are not de facto “perverts,” the fearmongering around bathrooms perpetrated by North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and similar potty warriors has been effective. So much so that, in this case, a school board official temporarily thought it was a good idea to approve an easily abused weapon for the use of teenagers.
My heart sinks to think of how many folks like Hughes—well-meaning, generally difference-tolerant, even potential allies—have been riled up against transgender and other queer people in a similar fashion. Because when HB2 is repealed or struck down and the words erased, that emotion will linger—and unlike ink, the stain of fear isn’t so easily removed.