Back in 2013, Asheville’s Firestorm Cafe & Books decided to have custom bathroom signs made with the text “this restroom may be used by any person regardless of gender identity or expression.” Instead of a female or male depiction on the sign, Firestorm used the transgender symbol, created by local Asheville activist Holly Boswell in the early 1990s.
Flash forward three years, and in the wake of North Carolina’s passing of the discriminatory bill HB2, the bathroom sign discussion has been elevated to new heights. Public bathroom signs have become a call to action for businesses looking to take a vocal stance against HB2, and no group of businesses is more indicative of public space than cafes.
“It’s pretty basic: we don’t support HB2,” says Jenny Bonchak, Founder and CEO of Slingshot Coffee Company. In response to HB2, Slingshot created their “Coffee makes you go, no matter who you are” sign, a tongue-in-cheek way of tackling a serious issue. “This is a small way that we could say, ‘listen, we don’t support this bill, we love and support anyone no matter who they are',” says Bonchak.
Slingshot is not alone. Cafes and other members of the coffee community across North Carolina have found ways to come out publicly against HB2. Durham-based Counter Culture Coffee changed bathroom signs to gender neutral at all of the company’s regional training centers. At The Root Cellar Cafe you’ll find a “no birth certificate required to enter” sign above the bathrooms, and at Joe Van Gogh you’ll find “Bathrooms for Human Beings” post-its added to the bathroom doors.
“We are an LGBT-owned business, and we are proud that our restaurant has a history of being a welcoming space for all,” says Susan White, co-owner of The Root Cellar Café & Catering. “We wanted to convey to our customers, many of whom are transgender, that however they identify is OK with us. All we want is for them to enjoy our food and atmosphere.”
Robbie Roberts, owner of Joe Van Gogh, which has locations in Hillsborough, Durham, and Chapel Hill, has a similar attitude, pointing out that the post-it notes are just a way to remind customers of an open and welcoming policy that has always been in place (their Durham location has long featured a gender neutral bathroom sign). “We have always had a diverse staff and our customers are our neighbors, who are also as diverse as the world at large,” says Roberts. “No one is singled out or expected to be anyone but themselves.”
These efforts are all part of a larger movement of North Carolina businesses and individuals publicly coming out against HB2, be it with bathroom signs or otherwise. A group of North Carolina breweries partnered up to sell a Don’t Be Mean Beer and Twitter is full of the hashtag #wearenottthis, signifying not only disgust at the discriminatory bill, but banding together as a community.
While the media is currently hyper-focused on the question of bathrooms, discrimination is far from a new problem, nor is the act of cataloguing safe bathrooms a new approach to tackling discrimination. “While HB2 has ratcheted up and politicized the hostility towards those of us who are transgender and/or gender nonconforming, bathrooms have always been a site of insecurity and violence (threatened or actualized) against our community,” says Libertie Valance, a co-owner of Firestorm, which operates as a cooperative. “For that reason, creating and cataloging refuge bathrooms has been an important project of trans activists for many years.”
While businesses can vocalize their opposition and identify their own bathrooms as safe, regardless of someone’s identity or gender, for small businesses in North Carolina, the government-supported discriminatory policy also comes at a serious economic cost.
“From a business standpoint, it’s a horrific move for the state of North Carolina,” says Bonchak. “We have dozens of businesses standing up against it… but we have also seen dozens of businesses say that they are going to move here and then have pulled out because of the bill.”
It is estimated that the bill could cost North Carolina upwards of $5 billion. Much of that is in the form of federal funding, but the bill is also having a serious impact on commerce. For larger businesses that may only make a dent, but for smaller businesses it can be devastating. “Like many Asheville businesses, our co-op had a dramatic drop in revenue last month when the boycott started,” says Valance. “Asheville is hard hit because it is a progressive town that caters to LGBTQ tourists.” With fewer visitors, revenue dropped, and most of the Firestorm team took short-term pay cuts to ensure that the cooperative could pay its May 2016 rent.
Short-term difficulties could also mean long-term difficulties for these businesses. White and her wife Sera Cuni, who co-own The Root Cellar Café and Catering, “are worried about the long-term negative effect this harmful law is going to have on the bottom line of businesses, especially independently-owned businesses such as ours, and our overall state's economy,” says White. “Even if HB2 was repealed today, North Carolina's reputation has taken quite a hit, and it will take a long time to repair our image and brand.”
Badi E. Bradley of Caravela Coffee, a green coffee company with a base in Chapel Hill, agrees. “It is unfortunate that small businesses in North Carolina, that were not involved in passing of the bill, are being impacted by boycotts of the state due to HB2.” After the passing of HB2, Caravela Coffee posted a public statement in opposition to the bill on its website. Bradley sees these types of public statements as essential to overturning the law. “We think that businesses can have an impact, but will have no impact to overturn the law unless they make their voice heard,” says Bradley.
While the bill has garnered North Carolina the title of “the most anti-LGBT state,” let us not forget that this is not a regional issue, with states around the country considering similar bills. “This isn’t the first and only time I think that this is going to happen,” says Bonchak. “So let’s get people around the country to rally and show their support.”
In taking a public stand, businesses like these are not only helping to express the concerns of their teams and their customers, but they are taking part in the overall movement to help combat discrimination, one that we can all be empowered to take part in, no matter where we live or who we are.
“I have always felt business can be a vehicle for positive change,” says Brett Smith, President and Co-Founder of Counter Culture Coffee. “Even though Counter Culture is a small company, I felt our stand against HB2 could have a positive influence on how we view each other. If it is important enough, then it is time to voice your opinion. I felt like this was important enough.”
Anna Brones (@annabrones) is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in the American Pacific Northwest, the founder of Foodie Underground, and the co-author of Fika: The Art Of The Swedish Coffee Break. Read more Anna Brones on Sprudge.