In recent weeks, companies as diverse as Deutsche Bank, Lionsgate, Paypal and porn website XHamster have united in one enterprise: punish the State of North Carolina by moving their offices elsewhere. Meanwhile, artists ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Ringo Starr to Michael Moore have canceled events in North Carolina. What has caused the recent calls to boycott North Carolina?
On March 23, North Carolina passed a bill preventing local governments from enacting individual discrimination measures. When the Charlotte City Council passed a bill that allowed individuals to use bathrooms according to their gender identity rather than their biological sex, Republicans at the state level feared that male sexual predators would take advantage of the measure. The bill they passed on March 23 requires that individuals use the bathrooms of the sex indicated on their birth certificate. It does not, however, prohibit single-occupancy restrooms and does not affect transgender people who change their birth certificates.
Summarizing much of the opposition to the bill, the pro-LGBT rights group Human Rights Campaign states that “transgender people often face the burden of being confronted or questioned about which gender's restroom they should use. Not having reasonable access to restrooms is a tremendous distraction that no employer should impose on its employees.”
Let me be perfectly clear: discrimination is always wrong and should always be condemned. Restricting an individual’s bathroom use is immoral and indefensible, especially for a political party nominally concerned with individual liberty. No individual should feel that they have to compromise their identity.
But have opponents of discrimination picked the right target? While the new bathroom law undoubtedly harms transgender employees, bathroom dysphoria pales in comparison to other forms of discrimination against the LGBT community in America. Furthermore, other minority groups suffer from more serious and widespread discrimination, like racial injustice in the criminal justice system and class-based educational inequality, on a daily basis.
Discussing the UN’s misguided attempt to solve all problems at once, academic Bjorn Lomborg wrote, “Having 1,400 targets is like having none at all, and so governments need to make some hard choices, deciding which targets will offer the greatest returns on investment.” To cast the net too broadly in an attempt to eradicate all discrimination at once is unproductive, inefficient and ultimately will have no effect. Opponents of discrimination should therefore prioritize the most serious forms of discrimination that do the most harm, not the ones that get the most media attention or generate the greatest emotional response. To do otherwise would risk focusing attention on relatively minor forms of discrimination while allowing the most serious forms to persist.
In any such prioritization, North Carolina’s bathroom law would rank extremely low on the list amidst horrible atrocities and policies that prevail throughout the United States and around the world. Many corporate boycotters of North Carolina ignore worse discrimination in other parts of the world, undermining attempts to combat discrimination against transgender people. Paypal’s sanctimonious declaration that “becoming an employer in North Carolina, where members of our teams will not have equal rights under the law, is simply untenable” rings hollow coming from a company with its international headquarters in Singapore, a country that lacks any anti-discriminatory statutes and bans gay sex while restricting on freedom of assembly and imposing the death penalty for drug-related crimes.
Lionsgate claims that it “will be hard pressed to continue our relationship with North Carolina if this regressive law remains on the books.” One wonders how a company that willingly filmed a recent movie in Morocco could possibly believe a limitation on which bathrooms transgender employees can use is more prohibitively “regressive” that Morocco’s willingness to prosecute any signs of homosexual affection.
To give yet another example, Deutsche Bank’s “commitment to building inclusive work environments seriously” is unquestionably admirable. However, one wonders why this commitment has led them to refuse to employ North Carolinians while maintaining offices in Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, four out of the ten countries worldwide that punish homosexuality with death. In countries with such stringent laws against homosexuality, one can only imagine how a transgender person would be treated. Certainly far worse than not being able to use their preferred bathroom.
Companies so willing to do business in regions of the world that discriminate far more than North Carolina against the LGBT community are not sincerely acting with LGBT interests in mind. Evidently, the fact that Americans are more aware of American laws than those of foreign countries provides these companies with a public relations opportunity that would outweigh any lost profits from North Carolina. Would-be Deutsche Bank, Paypal and Lionsgate consumers, however, should ask themselves whether or not they want to support companies that use transgender discrimination to gain public relations points but ignore transgender rights when they are most under attack throughout the world.
Given the many substantive and tragic human rights abuses committed worldwide, high-profile companies that focus their condemnation (and the media’s) on a relatively insignificant discriminatory law actually do the LGBT community a disservice. They enable the most serious discriminators and violators of human rights around the world by turning public outrage away from the most outrageous. As company after company has condemned North Carolina, the media continues to be laser-focused on transgender bathrooms. But at the same time, almost no one in America has demanded that foreign countries, which happen to depend on American firms for much of their economic success, repeal their discriminatory laws. Deutsche Bank, Paypal and Lionsgate, among others, thus guarantee that the most heinous human rights violators will go unpunished and the most heinous violations of human rights will persist.
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Adam Chan is a fourth-year Fundamentals and Economics double major. This summer, he interned at CNN, focusing on the Russia investigation. Previously he was an intern at the R Street Institute, a think-tank in DC and an extern at the Department of the Interior. At the Gate, Adam was a Senior Writer in his first year and the Opinion Editor last year. On campus, Adam is also President of the UChicago Political Union, is Vice President of Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, and has been a Team Leader at the institute of Politics. He loves studying political philosophy and history, enjoys playing card and board games with friends, traveling, and eating exotic food.