While North Carolina’s HB2, the so called ‘bathroom bill,’ has already had a major negative economic effect on the state’s economy, it’s doubtful it will have much impact on the two major open source conferences held in the state.
At this point, how much effect the continuing economic backlash caused by the North Carolina General Assembly’s passage HB2, otherwise known as the “Bathroom Bill,” will have on the state’s two major open source conferences is anybody’s guess. Certainly, the past three weeks have not been good for operators of event venues in North Carolina, nor have they been good for the state’s bean counters, whose job is to make what the General Assembly spends balance with incoming tax revenue, which is certainly taking a hit in at least some counties.
Three weeks ago, on March 23, in a hastily called special session of the state’s General Assembly, HB2 was passed as a knee jerk response to a local ordinance enacted in Charlotte which, among other things, gave transgendered people the legal right to use the public restroom of their chosen gender, regardless of their gender at birth. HB2 takes away that right, but doesn’t stop there. It ends up limiting the rights of all North Carolinians except straight, white and Christian males.
The “bathroom” part of the bill seems to be a red herring, with proponents of the bill attempting to turn transgendered people into bogeymen lurking in bathrooms to sexually prey on the state’s innocent daughters and wives. Never mind that transgendered people have been using the “wrong” bathrooms for decades without incident, or that legislation similar to Charlotte’s has been in effect in three South Carolina cities for years with no repercussions. Charlotte went too far, said Pat McCrory, the state’s Republican governor and once-upon-a-time mayor of Charlotte. The time had come to bring Christian family values back to the state’s public toilets.
This part of the law mandates that public restrooms at government facilities be used only by people of the designated “biological gender,” or more precisely, the gender that is on a person’s birth certificate. The law applies to all state, city and county run properties, as the new legislation also forbids local governments from enacting “gay rights” laws which give legal protection to LGBT people. It also wipes out local laws already on the books. Before the passage of HB2, sixteen counties, towns and cities in the state had gay rights ordinances, some of which had been on the books for more than 30 years.
The law also specifically fails to offer equal protection to gay people, and removes the right of people of other minorities, like women and African Americans, to address cases of discrimination or harassment through the state court system, leaving the federal courts as the only available option.
On Tuesday, under economic and public pressure, Governor McCrory urged the General Assembly to change portions of the law, to return the state court system as an option for discrimination cases and to include protection based on sexual orientation and gender identity for state employees, but leaves other key portions, including the bathroom issue, intact. So far the Republican majority in the state legislature doesn’t seem to be inclined to make even those modest changes.
Backlash to the new law was almost immediate. The day after the governor signed the bill into law, the NBA issued a statement saying the law could affect the 2017 All Star Game which is scheduled to be held in Charlotte, and the Greensboro Coliseum’s scheduled participation in next year’s first and second round NCAA men’s basketball tournament has been questioned. Even the Atlantic Coast Conference, which has deep historical roots in the Carolinas, has indicated that the future of basketball playoffs being held in the state might be in jeopardy.
In addition, Bruce Springsteen cancelled a planned performance last Sunday in Greensboro, citing HB2 as the cause, and on Wednesday Ringo Starr cancelled a planned performance by the All Starr Band that was scheduled for June 18 at the Koka Booth Amphitheatre near Raleigh. “I’m sorry to disappoint my fans in the area,” Starr said, “but we need to take a stand against this hatred. Spread peace and love.” There has also been an online petition drive underway since at least last weekend to get Dead & Company, a band composed of former Grateful Dead members, to cancel a planned concert in Charlotte.
The fallout hasn’t been confined to sports and entertainment. On April 5, PayPal cancelled a planned World Operations Center which would have brought 400 jobs to the state, a project which Governor McCrory had worked hand-in-hand with Charlotte’s Democrat mayor Jennifer Roberts to bring to the state. Ironically, just five days after McCrory stood beside John McCabe, PayPal’s senior vice president of global operations, to announce the deal, McCrory signed HB2 into law, which very quickly led to PayPal ending the agreement and begin looking for a location in another state.
On Thursday another financial institution, Deutsche Bank, cancelled expansion plans at a software center in Cary, just outside of Raleigh, which would have added 250 new employees to the 900 already employed there.
Also hit by the backlash is the biannual High Point Market, set to open on Saturday for its spring run. As the largest home furnishing market in the world, it brings 600,000 visitors and contributes $5 billion annually to the state’s economy. Market Authority chairman Doug Bassett said a few weeks back that “dozens” of customers” had already cancelled plans to attend the April market, and that he expected “hundreds if not thousands” of regular buyers to cancel over concerns about the law.
Since the bill was passed, the CEOs of more than 100 corporations, including Bank of America, the nation’s second largest bank with headquarters in Charlotte; Google and Facebook, both with large data centers in the state; Cisco, with offices at Research Triangle Park near Raleigh; and Red Hat, which is headquartered in Raleigh and the anchor for dozens of smaller open source software development firms in the Raleigh-Durham area, have signed a letter expressing opposition to the bill.
Opposition to HB2 is also having an impact on the state’s sizable convention business. On Monday, Ryan Smith with the Raleigh Convention Center where the All Things Open conference is held, said that so far the facility has seen the cancellation of five planned events, with an economic impact of more than $730,000.
That’s just one convention center in a state where at least nine cities have multiple convention facilities.
With HB2 fallout increasing with each passing day, it would be understandable if the people behind the state’s two large open source conventions were getting a little nervous right about now. So far, however, both are hopefully optimistic.
Charlotte’s SouthEast LinuxFest, or SELF, is only a few months down the road, making it the most likely to first feel ramifications. It’s also the most likely to move if necessary. The convention got its start in neighboring South Carolina and has always kept the door open for a temporary move to another southern city — although it’s much too late for a move this year.
Jeremy Sands, SELF’s head honcho, told me in an email exchange last week that so far the fallout has been minimal.
“I can say several people have asked SELF for a position on this and I have largely deliberately not answered these questions to avoid making SELF political,” he said. “Several people have contacted SELF, largely through social media, saying they refuse to come because of HB2.
“Officially, the SouthEast LInuxFest is mostly apolitical,” he added. “The exception is we openly and broadly support the Free Software Foundation and Electronic Frontier Foundation. While their missions and goals aren’t overtly political, they frequently become so due to the nature of what they’re fighting for. Beyond that, SELF takes no official political positions.”
That doesn’t mean that Sands doesn’t have his own political beliefs on the subject.
“Taking my official SELF hat off and speaking for myself personally, as a staunch libertarian I do not agree with HB2,” he said. “To me it is just another bill in a very very long list of bills — local, state, and federal — where the government is overreaching beyond its intended scope and trying to jam a one size fits all ‘solution’ down everybody’s throats.
“But I also don’t agree with the reflexive cheering every time somebody like PayPal says they’ll kill expansion plans in North Carolina or whatever the latest story along those lines is today. To me, that’s a lot of collateral damage.”
The fact that SELF doesn’t take any sort of official stand on HB2 probably works well for them. It’s a regional conference, with most attendees coming from southern states where there is probably more support for the bill than in other parts of the country. In all likelihood, the biggest difficulty SELF might face is scheduled speakers dropping out, which should not pose much of a problems as there are plenty of qualified Linux and open source speakers available locally, both in Charlotte and Raleigh.
The attendees at the larger All Things Open aren’t so regional, however. Last year, over 1,750 attended the event, coming from as far away as India and Australia. The option to move All Things Open out of state probably isn’t really feasible either, as much of the event’s appeal comes from being held in the Raleigh-area, which is something of open source’s version of Silicon Valley.
Working in All Things Open’s favor is the fact that the organization behind the conference — IT-oLogy, headquartered in Columbia, South Carolina — has always been highly vocal in its support of diversity. Indeed, the one transgender woman I know who attends the conference each year says that, other than receiving the occasional mean spirited look, she has always been treated graciously both by the organizers and by other attendees.
The organizers are also on top of the situation. The day after HB2 passed, the conference posted a notice of its disagreement with the law on its website: “We don’t agree with any law that results in an unsafe environment for any person at our events or in the public at large, including this one.”
I managed to exchange a few emails with All Things Open’s chairperson, Todd Lewis, who seems hopeful that HB2 flack won’t negatively affect this year’s conference, which is scheduled for October.
“We certainly hope it doesn’t have an impact on the conference,” he said. “We’ve been contacted by people concerned about safety at the event and expressing overall disappointment regarding the legislation. We’ve assured them we’re working with the Convention Center, the City of Raleigh, and everyone else to ensure a safe and welcoming environment. We’re also hoping people and companies understand we’re not responsible for the legislation and that we’re working extremely hard to host an inclusive event they can be proud to be a part of.
“So far it appears they do and we truly hope that continues.”
Lewis also had a comment for those who might decide to drop out of the event in response to HB2. “Regardless of what people and/or companies decide to do, we completely respect their decisions and greatly appreciate any consideration regarding participation.”
Although it’s doubtful that HB2 will be repealed by the time SELF opens in June, as the bill’s supporters in the General Assembly seem intent on standing by their guns, as evidenced by their reactions to the governor’s recent attempt to soften the legislation. SELF is fortunate, however, since it’s held at a private venue, the Sheraton Charlotte Airport, and won’t be subject to restroom gender issues mandated by the bill.
All Things Open is still six months away, meaning there’s still time for the assembly to come to its senses and repeal the bill, which is likely if there continues to be economic repercussions. This is an election year, after all, and all 50 Senate seats as well as all 120 House seats are up for grabs in November’s election.
Like voters everywhere, North Carolinians tend to vote with their pocketbooks. If jobs continue to disappear to other states, voters are likely to lay their fears about the bogeyman in the ladies’ room aside and vote for the promise of prosperity.