In my late 20s, I followed a Sapphic North Star to Seattle, one of the nation’s most progressive cities. There, I met my wife at a coffee shop in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, where we would later share our first home together. We were represented by a gay mayor and two gay state legislators, while benefiting from robust statewide nondiscrimination protections—a lucky situation we only occasionally thought about.
Safeguards like these are far too rare for far too many. Only 44 percent of all LGBTQ people nationwide have these same guarantees today, and none of them live in the South—where we now live, in North Carolina. Here, we and all LGBTQ people are keenly aware of the potential vulnerabilities we face in the eyes of employers, landlords, and others. With the differing experiences of Washington and North Carolina in mind, it’s clear what is and is not useful in advancing equality nationwide—and ill-considered corporate relocation boycotts are definitely in the latter category.
Forward-looking companies like Amazon, founded in Seattle, are a critical piece of the overall success progressives and the LGBTQ community have achieved in Washington state and nationally. In 2016, Amazon, Alaska Airlines, Google, and others teamed up to oppose the “Just Want Privacy” campaign for restrictions on bathroom and locker room access for trans people. According to Danni Askini, founder of the Gender Justice League, Amazon was one of the largest financial backers of the “Washington Won’t Discriminate” campaigns against bathroom initiatives 552 (2017) and 1515 (2016). “We wouldn’t have been able to defeat the opposition without Amazon’s support,” said Askini, “including hosting our campaign kickoff event at their headquarters.” Apple, led by Tim Cook, the first openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company, played a significant role in defeating a proposed anti-trans bathroom bill in Texas recently.
Both Amazon and Apple are on the hunt for new homes for their respective expansion efforts, which should eventually bring thousands of new jobs to the lucky chosen communities. North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, which includes Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, is under active consideration and for good reason: It is home to leading research universities Duke and the University of North Carolina and has the third-highest concentration of tech workers in the country.
In 2016, North Carolina rose to shameful prominence when the GOP-led state Legislature passed HB2, a bathroom bill that attacked trans people, harmed workers, and pre-emptively stripped localities of the ability to pass nondiscrimination protections, nullifying those currently in effect. For many LGBTQ activists, hearing that Amazon and Apple are considering North Carolina for their new offices is deeply disappointing and feels like a betrayal. The Human Rights Campaign, the Greater Seattle Business Chamber, and a national “No Gay, No Way” campaign (to name a few) are urging the companies to boycott North Carolina until statewide protections for its LGBTQ citizens are in place.
But seen another way, this strategy would block resources that made a huge difference in one state from another state clearly in need, undermining equality across the region.
My wife and I moved to Raleigh about 90 days before HB2 passed. We’ve lived through one year of economic boycotts with more than $3.6 billion estimated in total damages. The losses wrought here make legislators elsewhere think twice about proposing bigoted bills. And yet LGBTQ people here still live without nondiscrimination protections today. The leadership responsible for this mess is still in power and 100 percent unbothered by those boycotts and other admonitions. To wit: This May, 20,000 North Carolinian teachers protested in Raleigh demanding higher pay. Days later, the Senate and House leadership responded by, for the first time in modern history, passing a $23.9 billion state budget in 72 hours without allowing a single legislator to offer an amendment—and with teacher demands still woefully and willfully ignored. These are hubristic forces safely protected from consequences and operating with a take-no-prisoners approach to governance.
To be clear, boycotts, in principle, are not the problem. Homophobic, power-greedy elected officials are. Boycotts are being offered as a solution in direct response to the breakdown of the basic functions and promises of democracy. Fair-minded people in North Carolina and across the South understand the ire directed at our state governments. We, too, are frustrated and fighting back. Citizens in North Carolina have been protesting at historic levels for more than eight years, and we successfully ousted the GOP governor who signed HB2. Progressive cities in every single Southern state have passed local ordinances to protect LGBTQ people. A historic number of LGBTQ Texans are running for office, including Latina lesbian Lupe Valdez, the Democratic nominee for governor. More than 1,200 LGBTQ entrepreneurs are pioneering new businesses across the Southeast, and 700 LGBTQ grassroots organizations are facing down ICE, getting moms out of jail, and serving up liberation at Southern Fried Queer Pride.
The truth is there is no special formula for progress that blue states like Washington have and red states like North Carolina don’t. The only significant difference is big blue money. If you look at the current map of 21 states with the best overall policies for LGBTQ people and the 2016 Electoral College map, they are the same (with the exception of Virginia, which Hillary won but is considered a low-equality state). There is a reason for this: We’ve simply not invested in electoral or LGBTQ-specific organizing in North Carolina or the South on a scale similar to that in the Northeast, the Pacific Northwest, and California.
From 2011 to 2013, when North Carolina’s GOP was fighting against marriage equality and laying the legislative groundwork for HB2, less than one nickel out of every dollar spent domestically on LGBTQ issues made its way into the hands of queer Southerners. Through 2015, less than 6 percent of more than $200 million invested in domestic organizations pursuing LGBTQ equality went to organizations in the South. As of 2016, the Northeast and the West Coast continued to outpace all regions in funding received.
Meanwhile, conservatives have been investing millions in wins at the local and state level here for more than 40 years. In North Carolina, more than $35 million was spent in 2010 to flip the Legislature from Democratic to Republican hands. It is not inconsequential or coincidental that year-in, year-out investments in civic engagement infrastructure make a huge difference in what is possible politically in one region versus another. This should give us hope. Strategic, sustained investments will result in progress here, like elsewhere.
But no movement has unlimited resources. Prior to 2015, progressives were all-in trying to win marriage equality. Massive investments led to victories in Washington state, Minnesota, Maine, and Maryland, moving us all forward. Still, a legacy of neglect in the South is an unintended reality that must be reckoned with thoughtfully and fairly. Singling out states in this region to boycott wholesale does not do that.
Consider this: The South is home to more LGBTQ people than any other region in the country. There are more LGBTQ people living in North Carolina than in Washington state, more in Georgia than in Oregon, more in Texas than in New York state. LGBTQ people here are more likely to be people of color, raising families and living in poverty or low-income conditions. Trans people of color have unemployment rates four times higher than the national average. In some parts of the South, many trans people drive up to 125 miles just to see a primary care doctor.
In Washington, it is clear that Amazon made a huge difference in advancing LGBTQ equality. Amazon creating new jobs in a state like North Carolina does nothing to lessen the protections already gained in the company’s home state or elsewhere. Job opportunities bringing equal benefits for straight and gay families alike and companywide nondiscrimination policies are, however, tangible social and economic protections for at least some LGBTQ people living in more hostile environments. Amazon and Apple’s gender-transition and gender-reassignment benefits could be a real aid to many of North Carolina’s 22,000 trans residents. For trans people—90 percent of whom face harassment in the workplace—being treated fairly in the hiring process and throughout employment is critical to their success.
“We fully expect companies to be active and vocal here in the same way they have been in other places,” says the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director for the Campaign for Southern Equality. “We see having more allies as a good and a positive thing.”
Demanding that Amazon, Apple, and other major queer-friendly companies cease consideration of North Carolina is pure folly and only reinforces existing disparities. If we are serious about advancing LGBTQ rights across the South, where this past year more than 71 percent of anti-gay legislation was proposed, then let’s urge these companies to expand here right now precisely because it is here where their presence will make the most difference. Bringing more assets to the fight for queer people in the South is not a betrayal. Standing in our way is. Accelerating opportunities for political, economic, and cultural power in the South is the smart move for everyone.