The Myth of Redemptive Discrimination

In hindsight, my road to becoming an ally for my LGBT friends started with frustration. My church friends during college were angry with how prominently the campus LGBT group was featured at campus events. My friends thought that our Christian groups clearly deserved as much attention. And that’s fine, I suppose, but I took issue with how their frustration manifested as their saying things that were just plain mean and hateful. Definitely undeserved. I decided that something wasn’t right. The faith that was growing in me didn’t have room for treating others this way. No matter what my friends believed about the nature of sexual orientation, I felt like treating others with respect should still have won out. This started a long road of questioning everything for me.

Fifteen years or so later, I’m a gay-affirming person of faith, who finds himself on the edge of the inside of what it culturally means to be a Christian and attempting to navigate the continued and pervasive discrimination that has frustrated me for a long time and recognize.

And then there was HB2.

This week the North Carolina legislature and governor teamed up for some Frank Underwood level shit. Citing a “misguided and irresponsible” attempt by Charlotte city council to prevent discrimination within city limits towards individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, NC lawmakers went nuclear. Behind closed doors, NC Republicans wrote a bill that stripped from local municipalities their freedom to create laws that protect groups of people. They introduced it, giving the lawmakers about five minutes to read, provided a thirty minute public comment session, and rammed it through all the necessary votes in the house and the senate within a few hours, and Governor McCrory signed it into law before midnight. The law was effective immediately.

“We make the terror.” If you’re hearing this line in your head, you’re right.

Why all the fuss? Charlotte’s law, among many other protections for groups of people, included a stipulation regarding public restrooms. You see, individuals who have a gender identity other than their biological sex can sometimes face a huge dilemma when they need to go to the bathroom. Which room to you choose? Do you choose to face intimidation? Do you choose to put up with stares and name calling? Forget all of that, why should anyone feel uncomfortable just because they have to answer nature’s call? Critics say that this opens the doors to pedophiles and sexual predators to choose whichever bathroom they want. It opens the door to children being victimized. All this despite considerable evidence to the contrary in cities where similar laws have been enacted. All this in the face of other human people that constantly face intimidation and discomfort because of the status quo. This, friends, is privilege at work. Why should the majority give up their comfort and their perceived sense of safety for the minority, even if it’s clearly the right thing to do?

The astute observer might also be noticing the discrepancy with the right wing’s assertion that increased gun laws won’t prevent gun violence in schools. True. I noticed it too. I’ll just leave that here and keep going for now.

So, the state government decided it best to use every loophole and technicality at their disposal to show their power. Now, if you’re a business in NC, it’s perfectly legal for you to choose to not serve people based on their sexual orientation. If someone gets fired because they’re a woman or pregnant or a Muslim (or, God, not all three?!?!?), they now have no way to bring this issue to a state court. They made it illegal – ILLEGAL– for any city to enforce protection of individuals of any group outside of these categories: race, religion, color, national origin, or biological sex (as defined on a person’s birth certificate). Orange County had a provision that protected veteran’s from discrimination. That’s invalid now too. Because who wants to let that veteran protection get out of hand?

Of course, I’m fully aware that not everyone agrees with me. I’m definitely progressive. There are people who, probably because of a lack of accurate information, have major issues with the bathroom ordinance. I get it. The therapist part of me gets that our perspectives are influenced by hundreds of different factors. It doesn’t excuse ignorance but I come to this discussion with at least a modicum of compassion. This is why the government’s response was so crazy and misguided. If the government wanted to protect against sexual predators, why wasn’t the law targeted towards sexual predators? Why was the bill shrouded as an attempt to improve “intrastate commerce”? Clearly, there were ulterior motives at work. Motives that directly targeted people other than sexual predators. The protection of children was an byproduct of the law, not its main focus.

All of this made me pretty mad. I was mad in a helpless, I can’t do anything about this kind of way. And, I’m a straight white dude. I’m among the most privileged people in this country. Then I had this idea. Since it’s perfectly legal to deny someone service based on their sexual orientation I thought about how awesomely awesome it would be to form a coailton of businesses that would take a day and refuse to serve straight people. It would do so much to call attention bring awareness to the ridiculousness of this law. It would get lots of attention and maybe even influence public opinion. I hadn’t thought about many of the details, but I started reaching out to local businesses on Twitter to pitch the idea.

Amelie’s is a fantastic local bakery that has a following, plenty of flair, and amazing salted caramel brownies. It was just the sort of place that I thought a stunt like this could work. So I made sure to pitch my idea to them.

It was late at this point. Governor McCrory was probably already in his PJs when his signed HB2. I stayed up an hour later than him to actually read then thing and then went to bed without hearing any kind of response.

The next morning I was still fired up. I wanted so badly to stick it to the straight man. And then I got the response from Amelie’s on my way to work.

“We hear you! We think of ourselves as open to everyone, always!”

Wow. What a reminder. What a lesson. I wasn’t deflated as much as I was inspired and grateful. I tweeted them back right away.

“And that’s why we love you. Thanks for the reminder to resist fighting discrimination with more discrimination!”

I had fallen victim to the myth of redemptive violence – that violence can make a situation better in any way. If you drop a bomb, we’ll drop a bigger bomb. It doesn’t work. In this case, though, it was the myth of redemptive discrimination. In my rage, I thought about how great vengeance would be. Let’s fight discrimination with even more discrimination!!

But it wouldn’t be great; it would be more of the same. Many thanks to the person behind the Amelie’s Twitter account for reminding me of this truth.

Now, I still think my idea has merit. So I went back to reflecting about the possibilities. Somewhere in this, there’s still a demonstration that will work – that can call attention to how wrong this law is. But, it does need to be non-discriminatory in nature.

It can probably be much more benign than I originally imagined too. Imagine a day where businesses across the state of NC simply asked people about their sexual orientation before they would serve them. What would people think? What would they say? I imagine some of them would say “What business is that of yours? What does that matter?”

EXACTLY. THAT’S the point. That’s the whole message that I’d want to get across with this thing. On one hand it’s no business of anyone so why does this discrimination need to be permissible at all? It’s an experiential tactic that simply calls attention to the issue. Everyone still gets served in exactly the same way. No one gets denied. But, customers leave with just a little bit more knowledge – and direct experience – about the potential for discrimination. It’s about awareness. And advocacy. And attention.

The businesses themselves can choose to add whatever they want to this discussion. Maybe have a set of answers prewritten for the inevitable questions that will come.

“What does my orientation matter to you?” “To me, nothing. But, because of HB2 it’s legal for me to choose whether to serve you, to treat you differently than other customers, to ask you to leave. But I won’t. Because we are open to all.”

Businesses could also move beyond the LGBT issue to include other groups of people and have prepackaged responses for people based on other physical characteristics that are open for discrimination based on this law.

I would love to see this happen. I have nothing more to offer at this point than an idea. I’m not a business guy. I have never organized anything like this. But it can work. We can overcome hate with love and fear with acceptance while still standing up for what is right.

As ridiculous as this entire situation is, I honestly believe that we can’t sit idly by. We can’t disengage from the process because it’s mind-numbingly frustrating. Dealing with this stunt requires a stunt of our own. But one that is free of hate. One that promotes acceptance while calling attention to the unjustifiable actions of our state government. One that we can all get behind.

One that challenges the redemptive discrimination.

We are not this. We are more than this.