Since the N.C. General Assembly passed and Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 2 on March 23, there have been multiple interpretations about how exactly the bill would change lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (as well as non-LGBT) rights, in the state at large and in local municipalities. One effect of HB2’s passing, however, has been clear and immediate: the state’s non-discrimination policies have come under sharper review. Indeed, the question of protecting LGBT-identifying individuals from discrimination in obtaining employment and receiving services is one that many Southern states, such as Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia have been grappling with, particularly in the past few weeks. North Carolina explicitly protects its residents against discrimination of any kind based on “race, religion, color, national origin, age, handicap or biological sex as designated on a person’s birth certificate.” The wording of HB2 suggests that local governments in the state must adhere to this same nondiscrimination policy—protecting no more and no fewer identities in the public sphere, and no fewer identities in the private sphere. This would mean, for example, that while we at MDC can (and do) protect against discrimination based on gender expression, the city of Durham now cannot. (Last week, Governor McCrory issued an executive order for the North Carolina state government to include sexual orientation and gender identity in its nondiscrimination policy for state employees, in addition to race, religion, color, national origin, age, and handicap.)

In the Jim Crow South, for the state to require that municipalities protect all residents—in public and private spaces—from race discrimination was regarded by many as an infringement upon the white population’s freedom, but the work of the Civil Rights movement achieved on-the-books protections for race identity. This de-jure protection acknowledges that groups of people experience unique realities given race identity, and that these experiences, while based on constructed categories, result in real non-white disadvantage. Protections based on identity categories are intended to ensure that all people are treated with justice and dignity within our society. Although systemic racism still exists—in our educational , judicial and healthcare systems—we know that explicitly stated policies of nondiscrimination on the basis of race are integral to creating systems and institutions in which people are treated equitably. So if your employer is on record listing your race, national origin, or other protected identity as reason for firing you, that’s unlawful by North Carolina and federal standards. We are not, however, at the point of conferring this same de-jure recognition and protection to the LGBT community. Much of this stems from differing arguments about whether LGBT identities are morally acceptable. Because many legislators and voters do not see these identities as valid, explicit protections for the LGBT community are not prioritized.

Inherent in the absence of LGBT individuals as a protected class in both N.C. and many other states’ laws is an underlying argument that LGBT individuals do not experience a disadvantageous distance from opportunity based on these identities—that these individuals’ experiences of being non-cisgender and/or non-heterosexual do not create real disadvantage.

Here are a few snapshots of data that shine light on the current challenges that LGBT individuals face in attaining the types of mobility we talk about here on the State of the South blog. According to a recent Williams Institute at the University of California study, 35 percent of LGBT adults live in the South—more than any other region in the U.S.

We’re always trying to refine our perspective to take in the full picture of what’s going on in the Southern landscape of equitable opportunity for upward social and economic mobility. We describe equitable mobility using three measures of well-being: thriving, belonging, and contributing. Upward mobility will be more likely when residents can, for example, find belonging in safe, affordable housing, thrive in equitable educational settings, and contribute to society in good health. If we only measure the well-being of people that our laws consider members of protected classes, we resign ourselves to the current state and operation of our systems and policies, making it easy to miss those on the margins—those for whom opportunity is particularly far off. Housing, education, and health, along with equal opportunity for employment and economic security, are necessary for an infrastructure of opportunity in which all young people and adults have an equitable opportunity to achieve upward social and economic mobility. But when a specific demographic of people in the U.S., many of whom reside in the South, are regularly and systemically barred from these building blocks to opportunity, the overall integrity and wellbeing of our society and economy suffers, and we betray our proud American belief in equal opportunity for all. These systemic barriers are not inevitable, but rather are created; therefore our systems’ outcomes are also not inevitable, but rather can be improved by building an infrastructure of opportunity complete with affirming and supportive pathways and policies.