Musicians trade in boycotts for activism to fight North Carolina's 'bathroom bill'

Date: 

May 11 2016

Location: 

North Carolina

Animal Collective, Mumford and Sons and Duran Duran among performers who have turned concerts in state into fundraisers as part of NC Needs You movement

Even as North Carolina’s governor, Pat McCrory, refused to comply with federal officials over his state’s so-called “bathroom bill”, experimental pop group Animal Collective went forward with its scheduled show in the state over the weekend.

It’s not because the band supports the anti-LGBT law that limits bathroom access by birth gender. They are part of a growing movement by performers to take a different tack.

Rather than boycott the state, as many businesses and performers have, they invited Progress NC Action staff members to the show, where communications director Logan Smith collected hundreds of signatures on a petition against House Bill 2. They have since offered downloads of recent concerts on a “pay what you wish” basis to raise funds for LGBT organizations.

The new movement, NC Needs You, has lured major artists such as Beyoncé, Mumford and Sons and Duran Duran to come to North Carolina as planned, and turn their concerts into fundraisers and activism in opposition to the law.

Just after HB2 became law overnight in North Carolina, Bruce Springsteen announced his intentions to cancel a concert there. Ringo Starr, Pearl Jam and Demi Lovato followed. They made major public statements by cancelling their appearances.

Similar boycotts from major businesses followed, modeling other states that have grappled with anti-LGBT laws, including Indiana, where a “religious freedom” law prompted a swift national boycott.

But in those early weeks of April, Grayson Haver Currin and Tina Haver Currin, who work in media and advertising in the state, were concerned by Springsteen’s decision and the boycotts that they were sure would follow. They wanted to protect service industry workers and others from being hurt by the boycotts and to strengthen the opposition movement, which is mobilizing not just to gather signatures on petitions, but also answering calls to crisis hotlines from young transgender people who feel threatened by the state’s social climate in the wake of the controversial law.

“The community feels embattled and targeted,” said Matt Hirschy, director of advancement for Equality NC, the state’s largest and oldest LGBT advocacy group. “When performers go on stage, make a statement and stand in solidarity, they’re saying to the community: ‘They see me. They value me.’”

Mumford and Sons were the first band to respond to the Currins. After building a website with the logo “NC Needs You – Don’t Cancel Your Show” and a list of 14 nonprofit organizations in need of support, the couple found themselves backstage at a sold-out Mumford concert in Charlotte’s basketball arena, where they spoke to the band for three hours about the fledgling effort. Several weeks later, the band announced on Facebook that it was donating funds to three nonprofit organizations and setting up a fund to support other causes.

Several days later, Duran Duran also decided not to cancel a scheduled concert and the band’s frontman, Simon Le Bon, spoke to another Charlotte crowd about his support for the LGBT community, standing in front of a huge American flag with rainbow stripes.

“I can promise you some politics-free entertainment for about an hour, maybe a little longer. And then, well, there’s something we’re going to have a little chat about,” Le Bon told the crowd.

In early May, Beyoncé rolled into town. Although she said nothing about HB2 or the NC Needs You effort from the stage in Raleigh that night, the next day she posted a statement on her website, complete with a photo of an Equality NC T-shirt bearing the slogan “Y’all Means All”.

Hirschy said her statement generated a significant boost in visibility for the Equality Now movement. “We gained a thousand followers on Twitter the next day,” he said.

James Miller, executive director of the LGBT Center of Raleigh – also mentioned on the NC Needs You site – said that increased visibility is important for organizations such as his, which provides direct services such as youth programs and confidential HIV testing. Since HB2 passed, he said, his center has seen an eightfold increase in calls compared to the same month a year ago.

Still, he added, LGBT people in need of services may still be unaware of the center. Recently, heavy metal group Styx approached Miller about mentioning the center during a concert scheduled for 18 May. “This helps spread awareness,” he said. “Say a father goes to Styx, and he has a queer son. Now he knows we exist.”

Grayson, who is the managing editor for the local alt-weekly newspaper, says he is skeptical about state lawmakers repealing HB2, no matter how much pressure is exerted by activists. “A lot depends on the DoJ lawsuit,” he said. At the same time, he hopes that the combined efforts of the groups benefitting from increased support and visibility will lead to votes for more progressive candidates in this year’s statewide elections – including for governor. “HB2 is a symptom of a larger issue,” he said.

Larry Chavis, a professor at the University of North Carolina, said that many races for state office this year will feature candidates running unopposed, so legislators may have little incentive to consider reversing their position on the law.

“In an election year, (this issue) has a certain intensity,” Chavis said. “Some folks here can’t even get their heads around what transgender is. I hope that changes with time.”

And given the likely duration of the fight in North Carolina and elsewhere, Grayson hopes other places will adopt similar efforts.

“We don’t think boycotts are a bad strategy. Springsteen made a shot across the bow and it was important to draw attention to the issue. But in terms of long-term interest, momentum and financial support … maybe we have set up a model for people to adapt to their own situations.”

Written by Timothy Pratt via The Gaurdian

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