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I Used to Keep Politics Out of My Restaurants. HB2 Changed That.

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Why an influential North Carolina chef won't keep silent on the “bathroom bill”

Raleigh is my home, and the location of my seven restaurants, which employ 265 amazing people. Politically, it’s an interesting place — in many ways, the town feels very liberal, very "blue." But it’s also the capital city of North Carolina; the governor’s mansion is just six blocks away from our restaurants. It’s the site of many rallies and protests both supporting and opposing the state government’s decisions, and this election cycle, we’ve had multiple visits from both presidential candidates and their surrogates. Here, we see political fights play out in real time.

North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2 was signed into state law by Governor Pat McCrory on March 23, 2016. Often called the "bathroom bill," it bars people from using restrooms in schools and other government buildings that don't correspond to the gender they were assigned at birth — thus directly attacking the rights and safety of the trans community. In addition to the much-publicized bathroom rules, HB2 also restricts and overturns local laws regarding discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Practically speaking, HB2 undoes any laws protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination and makes it illegal to pass new ones in North Carolina.

Since the passing of the bill, the state could lose an estimated $5 billion from companies like Paypal and Deutsche Bank and artists like Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam deciding not to bring their business here in protest of HB2. The most recent organization to pull its plans for visiting the state is of particular impact to my industry: The James Beard Foundation recently announced that it was relocating its highly secretive Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee meeting from Raleigh in order to take a stand against HB2.

The Foundation is right about HB2: It must be overturned. The bill puts at risk the safety and well-being of my friends, my family, my employees, my neighbors, and me. My first instinct after the bill was signed was to be protective of our employees, their personal security, their comfort level at work. But even then, I didn’t fully understand the way it would change how people treat each other. Its divisive and dangerous effects became clear on a personal level very quickly when I began to talk with my team about it. Our general manager at Poole’s, Lesley Anderson — a total bad-ass and someone I see as the future of our restaurant group — gave me permission to share her experiences here.

Lesley, a person who has dedicated her career to hospitality, service, and welcoming people, also happens to have a short haircut, which she notes is perceived by some as "slightly masculine." She told me that since HB2 passed, she is confronted in public women’s restrooms as frequently as once a week, with comments usually something along the lines of "You shouldn’t be in here," or "You’re not allowed in here." On one occasion, she says, she was even physically pulled out of the women’s restroom by someone who felt empowered to do some citizen policing.

Lesley shares all of these stories with a peaceful tone, and a patient hopefulness that so many North Carolinians are holding high: that this is not who we are. I am furious that this is her repeated experience. It’s unacceptable, hurtful, and scary. And she’s just one of so many who are experiencing discrimination because of this bill.

As a company, we work to not be in "reaction" mode, to not make decisions rashly and defensively. Instead, we strive to respond and adapt thoughtfully to the challenges we face. If we’re going to make a change, we want to do it in a way that’s long lasting, so that we can communicate our intentions to both our community and our teams with clarity. Shortly after the bill passed, we made a change to our restaurants' single-occupancy bathrooms. We removed the gendered signs and made them all "P(eople) Rooms." It was a subtle change; we didn't announce it or make a big hoopla about it.

Many guests celebrated the renaming of the bathrooms, but we also had a small number of folks walk out of the restaurants in protest, and some individuals took to the internet, writing hateful letters. One woman sent me a message on Facebook, threatening to never eat at our burger joint again (and to tell all of her friends to do the same) if we didn’t change the bathrooms back to "the way they used to be." I chose to respond to her publicly (though I protected her identity), thanking her for the opportunity to use her letter as an example of why her demonstration of entitlement and unfounded fear would not steer our restaurants away from our commitment to welcome all people to our table — and to our bathrooms.

I recognize boycotting as a hugely important tool in political activism. By pulling their business out of North Carolina, companies and organizations like the James Beard Foundation are sending a clear message to the supporters of HB2 that it is unacceptable. That is a powerful thing.

But there’s another side to this sword, and it cuts sharpest (and most immediately) against the hospitality industry. The punitive effects of these boycotts don’t directly affect the legislators or elected officials that put HB2 into practice. Often, they’re hurting the same people that HB2 seeks to discriminate against, like kitchen salt in a knife wound. Every time an artist cancels a concert — and sometimes this happens just days beforehand — the hotels and restaurants that were fully booked on those nights watch their reservations cancel in droves, losing tons of money. This trickles down to our hospitality employees, and directly affects their individual bottom lines.

I was particularly torn regarding the James Beard Foundation restaurant committee’s decision to cancel of their visit to Raleigh. The meeting locations of the 17-person restaurant committee are usually kept under wraps, so news of the cancellation was the first time I had heard that they would be visiting the area at all. But the group broke with their usual secrecy in order to take a stand against HB2, citing the bill as the reason for their relocation.

I have a history and connection to the James Beard Foundation. I’ve participated in the JBF Chef Boot Camp for Policy and Change, a series of retreats which are all about equipping chefs with the tools to advocate for community causes and policy change. It’s an incredible program, and it’s part of what helped me to understand my personal role and responsibility as a chef in the fight against discrimination in general — including HB2 and its effects. The organization does tremendous work in documenting and highlighting the chefs and culture of cooking in this country, and I’m proud to be a part of its community. I’m also grateful for the attention that winning the 2014 award for Best Chef: Southeast has brought to our community, and I want that same recognition to be paid to the many incredible culinary talents in our area.

There’s a great deal of appreciation for the James Beard Foundation in the Triangle, both by our hospitality professionals, and by our guests and neighbors. I’m disappointed that there was the opportunity (unbeknownst to us at the time) for their restaurant committee — a tremendously influential group — to share in and experience all of the awesome restaurants and bars that have me so proud and fired up about the place I call home.

Our community has seen flourishing restaurant growth, and has truly become a place where we all work to make each other better. The energy and focus on generosity and positivity at our local restaurants are as captivating as the food and drink itself. We’re working to lift each other up through challenges of all kinds, HB2 included. We’re inviting everyone to the table, and we will ultimately defeat this bill, not by opting out of serving its enthusiasts, but by breaking bread together and pushing forward an agenda of inclusion, positivity, and equality for all. This is who we are.

The reactive part of me asked myself how the Foundation couldn’t see what I saw, about how HB2-inspired boycotts hurt the people who most need support. I wondered why they couldn’t understand that the greatest impact could be made from the inside — Beyoncé couldn’t be pressured to cancel her North Carolina show, but she used her platform to encourage her fans to donate to Equality NC, an organization fighting HB2.

But then I realized that the James Beard Foundation has to think bigger. They are setting a much larger table than what we can host here in North Carolina, and making an example of what our standards and commitments need to be in the conversation and evolution of tables throughout America. Their public opposition to the legalized discrimination of HB2 will ultimately be among the many acts of protest that break the back of this terrible bill.

In the past, I was careful not to hang my personal political beliefs on the front doors of my restaurants. I still believe our role as restaurant owners and workers is to make space for everyone in our community at the table. My approach has always been to make positive change from within, to create a dialogue though food, and, hopefully, to inspire positivity by leading with a sense of respect for all.

HB2 has forced my hand. This is not just a political issue; it’s an equality issue. As such, I am choosing to be more outspoken in our approach. We must, as a community, fight until this bill is overturned. When the burden of this discriminating bill is lifted from our state, I truly believe our hospitality community will be stronger than ever. And when that happens, I can’t wait to welcome the James Beard Foundation’s restaurant committee back to our state, so they can see for themselves the power of North Carolina’s commitment to hospitality and our vision for a more unified and stronger future — even if they have to keep their visit a secret.

Ashley Christensen is a chef and author in Raleigh, NC. Vance Lump is a freelance illustrator based in the Pacific Northwest.
Editor: Hillary Dixler