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Bars became a safe place during a decade of change for the N.C. LGBTQ+ community

Essi Novelli, a 20-year-old singer from Raleigh, watches a performance at the Pinhook on Dec. 2, 2019.

Statewide policy battles have the tendency to cause a public stir. 

House Bill 2, colloquially known as the “Bathroom Bill,” garnered national attention in 2016 by limiting access for transgender people to public restrooms and preventing municipalities from creating their own nondiscrimination laws. The NBA, Google, Apple, IBM and Dow Chemical, among other organizations, condemned the policy, and public response was rapid and divisive

A community’s own conversations about policies that impact them typically occur alongside the initial public response, and for the LGBTQ+ community, bars have traditionally been a key spot for people to discuss and organize

“I think one point of bar spaces, or at least our bar space, and historically queer and gay bar spaces like Stonewall, have been in order to let off steam because of politics,” said Kym Register, owner of the Pinhook, a bar and concert venue in Durham. “We still need a space to talk about the ways that we're feeling about the world.”

As a result, Register said, statewide policy decisions have a dramatic impact on the atmosphere of the bar, shifting conversations and attitudes.

“We don't separate politics and our existence, we can't,” Register said. “That's a very queer identity politic: the personal is the political. When things happen politically, they definitely affect us personally. Since we identify as a queer-owned and operated space, then we feel everything.”

At the beginning of the decade, the state legislature passed the Defense of Marriage Act, creating a ballot initiative to change the state constitution to define marriage as exclusively heterosexual, even though gay marriage was already illegal — still, in 2012, Amendment One, as it became known, was approved by voters

Register said they noticed a divide in opinion over the change. While some patrons were upset by the constitutional amendment, others were more concerned with more radical policy issues.

Still, the bar harnessed the energy of the community, throwing an “Amendment One, Fuck You” party with performances by prominent queer punk bands. 

With Amendment One overturned in 2014 by a federal judge and nationwide marriage equality soon to follow the next year, LGBTQ+ people in the state faced a new challenge in 2016: HB2’s limitations on the transgender community.

While some believed marriage equality would be the rising tide that lifts all ships, facilitating an end to statewide discrimination laws, Equality NC Policy Director Ames Simmons said the fight for marriage equality and nondiscrimination were split somewhere along the way.

Simmons said more kitchen-table discussions of transgender people made many hopeful, especially as celebrities like actress Laverne Cox publicly discussed their experience, but this shift in the conversation also led to regressive statewide policies, like HB2.

“The cisgender portion of the LGBTQ community had a lot longer of a trajectory that they were fighting for recognition than trans people,” he said. “I think a lot of movement and policy took place very quickly for trans people, and I think there was a backlash. That is what the kind of last half of the decade has looked like.”

Like their response to Amendment One, Register said the Pinhook threw a party in unity against the state legislation. This time, they said, reactions were more unified. Register said they personally know people who have experienced violence in restrooms, and they said the policy impacted many employees and patrons. 

Providing a space for the community to gather and party is important when faced with discriminatory policies, Register said. 

“I think there are spaces to organize, and there are spaces to let off steam, and there are spaces to mourn and grieve,” Register said. “We want to do both of those things. We want to organize, and we want to also appreciate gathering and having fun, and I think those can be similar.”

HB2 was partially repealed with the passage of House Bill 142 in 2017, removing the bathroom provisions while maintaining the ban on municipal nondiscrimination ordinances until 2020, unless the ban is removed.

Simmons said the effects of HB2 are still present in LGBTQ+ communities to this day. A 2019 report by the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence found that LGBTQ+ people reported higher levels of anxiety, anger and sadness as a result of the policy, and Simmons said many still feel unsafe. 

But the news is not all negative — since HB2, legislators have proposed various policies to restrict LGBTQ+ rights, including a bill filed early this year to reverse marriage equality, but there have also been advances. 

In 2017, Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order ending discrimination against transgender people by state contractors, and this year, he signed an executive order to end public funding of conversion therapy

Meanwhile, the Pinhook continues to be a hub for activism and conversation — currently, Register said, the community’s focus is on immigration reform.

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“Everybody doing whatever politic that is pro-lifting everybody up is important.” Register said. “The Pinhook is a political bar. Super true. And bars are historically political places. Everything we have is because of gay clubs.”


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