North Carolina recently passed the controversial HB2 in a special session with little time for debate or discussion. Amongst other things, the bill imposes a statewide “non-discrimination” policy that does not protect citizens from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. At Trinket, our mission is to bring Code to Every Classroom, and we think this bill runs directly counter to our mission.
While there are plenty of other ways of examining this bill’s negative effects, and others are doing that good work
, as CEO of Trinket I want to call attention to the harmful impact it will have on our ability to accomplish our mission and on diversity in the field of programming within our state. The bill is an embarrassment for us as citizens and harmful to us as a mission-driven business. We call for and will work toward its immediate repeal.
A Brief History of Discrimination in Programming
Our field had an inauspicious beginning with respect to discrimination against a gay computer scientist. Mathematician and computing pioneer Alan Turing was prosecuted by the UK for his homosexuality and ultimately driven to suicide in 1952, in part because of the inhumane hormone therapy he was punished with. All this despite Turing’s heroic efforts to decrypt Nazi military communications in World War II and his foundational role in developing the modern digital computer.
Turing was posthumously pardoned by Queen Elizabeth in 2013 but his example served as a cautionary tale to homosexuals in the nascent field of computer science: no amount of computing expertise or heroism would be enough to ensure their safety.
Demographic inequality in various forms persists today, driven by factors far more enduring than the memory of Turing’s punishment. To look at inequality in the tech industry, let’s start with women. Are women proportionally represented in the field? This is well-documented and described elsewhere, but one particular study is perhaps most strikingly represented visually:
The lucrative and powerful skill of programming is disproportionately available to males, particularly white and Asian males. There are many contributing factors to this, but what’s clear is that we’re still recovering from a long hangover of demographic monoculture in our field. Women face serious challenges in the field, even with full federal and state protections against discrimination.
How much harder will it be for the North Carolina LGBT community to thrive in our technology industry now that state-level protections have been removed or weakened? How can I look the LGBT students at UNC (where I teach programming) in the face and tell them “stay in North Carolina and work in our tech industry”?
Thanks to HB2, more and more of our young talent will be headed elsewhere.
This Conversation is About Humans
Statistics make it easy to forget that there are real humans behind each of these numbers. I want to mention a particular member of the Python community who is trans (with her permission, of course). This will both bring a human face into the conversation and show how this bill directly impedes Trinket as we seek to engage with our field’s leaders.
Python software foundation board member Naomi Ceder has done her part in raising awareness for the trans community with courageous talks like this one, given at Pycon 2014. I encourage you to listen to her account of her journey. While not necessarily representative of others, Naomi’s first-hand experience gives an all-to-often lacking human dimension to this fundamentally human conversation.
In addition to her PSF board membership, Naomi is a software developer, Python book author, and an important advocate of programming education worldwide. She’s also a perfect example of how HB2 directly impacts our business. Naomi lives in Chicago and travels worldwide giving talks about Python and Python education. Could I in good conscience ask her to come give a talk in our state with this discriminatory and intimidating legislation on the books?
As a company, our mission is about expanding access to coding skills for students of every demographic. How can we represent ourselves this way to a global audience when we’re being undermined by our own legislature? This wouldn’t be an issue for us if we weren’t based in North Carolina, and it certainly isn’t an issue for our competition in New York, London and San Francisco.
A Brief History of Discrimination in North Carolina
I’m a little bit of a constitutional law nerd. Beyond the human arguments above, HB2 is clearly unconstitutional, unjustly denying equal protection to our state’s LGBT citizens. Unfortunately, our state has an established history of passing unconstitutional laws that are later overturned in court.
In Federalist #10, Madison defines a faction as “a number of citizens...united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Though these words were written in the 1780s, there could be no clearer description of what’s afoot in 2016. Despite their high-sounding rhetoric about privacy, the legislators who voted for this bill are exactly the sort of people Madison intended the United States constitution to protect us from.
Unfortunately, this kind of unconstitutional legislative action against the rights of minority groups is not unprecedented in our state. In the late 1800s the state’s constitution was amended to prevent interracial marriages (upgrading a law that had been on the books since the 1700s). This provision was ruled unconstitutional by a federal court in 1967. North Carolina’s state constitutional amendment preventing homosexual marriages was passed in 2012. This was overturned by a Federal court in 2014.
HB2 passed in 2016; how soon before the courts overturn this law? More importantly, why has our legislature consistently been on the wrong side of history? All citizens deserve equal protection, and our state’s legislature has been consistent in trying to deny this protection to specific groups.
The heartening pattern is that these unconstitutional laws and amendments all ultimately have been overturned by Federal courts, which is exactly the protection for minority groups that Madison and the other framers of the Constitution envisioned. We hope and expect that HB2 will be successfully challenged in Federal court via the several pending lawsuits against it.
Furthermore, we hope and expect that the citizens of North Carolina will not allow any state legislator who has violated his or her oath of office by enacting unconstitutional legislation to remain in office. Though brash legislation may actually result in more explicit protection for our citizens through a future court decision, the legislature itself should be the source of these protections, not Federal courts.
We Are Not This
Especially given this history of discrimination in our state, it’s time to move forward and do what’s right. It’s been heartening to hear the North Carolina business community’s full-throated opposition to this bill. HB2 unfairly targets our state’s transgender community, and disingenuously limits protections from discrimination to a small set of classes that do not include sexuality and gender identity. This isn’t just wrong, it’s bad for business.
Thanks to a nationwide backlash, the governor has somewhat backtracked on the law with an executive order reversing parts of it, but this order will likely have little impact. The law, even as amended by the order, leaves many citizens without state-level recourse if they are fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity. CEOs around the state and around the country have said unambiguously that these policies are not compatible with modern business.
As a business and as human beings, Trinket does not limit our goodwill or our mission to helping people based on their gender identity or sexual orientation any more than we do their race. Leaving some members of our state without the equal protections guaranteed to them by the US Constitution is antithetical to the free society we strive to protect and improve.
Become an Ally
One thing I’d like to highlight from these resources is that it’s not always obvious that someone is trans. That means that it’s very likely that someone you’ve met is trans and you had no idea. This has the effect of reducing the effective visibility of the community, which underscores the need to listen and understand.
These studies help quantify that these challenges are real and help us zoom in on how we can help.
In addition to educating yourself, there are numerous ways to get involved more tangibly. Within the Python community, PyLadies has been part of the positive change we’ve seen in recent years. The trans community has been underrepresented as well, though new programs like the excellent Trans*h4ck in the US and Trans*Code in the UK have been founded to combat this. Work remains but more and more people in our communities are doing it. Join us!
Help Repeal HB2
I can say as a startup founder, a programming teacher at UNC and a constitutional law nerd that this law is just plain wrong. There’s no way to say it more clearly: it must be repealed (or overturned in court).
Do you care about this issue too? Even if you’re not in North Carolina, here’s a way to help. There are many of us in North Carolina who do not support this bill, and we can use help and visibility. A majority of our lawmakers and our governor acted irresponsibly, and we condemn them along with you.
Remember as we work together to repeal this law that not everyone and not every company inside our state is complicit. While I support the travel boycotts and bans that many have announced, I’d encourage anyone to also seek more constructive ways of helping the cause (like Cyndi Lauper did!). Please stay tuned in the coming weeks and we’ll share details of ways you can get involved. Finally, if you’re a startup founder in North Carolina, consider joining us in Startups Against HB2.
Regardless of where you are, remember to check out the Ally resources above. Politics is the means by which we’ll resolve this injustice, but let’s never forget that this conversation is about humans.
Thanks to Brian Marks, Naomi Ceder, Denise Anthony and Laura Baverman for reading drafts of this post.