ON INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES AND STRATEGIC BOYCOTTING
Last week, I was one of over 260 children's book writers and illustrators to sign this letter of support for LGBT+ readers in North Carolina, in the wake of the Republican-controlled legislature ramming through the so-called "bathroom bill," HB2, which discriminates horribly against trans people and others in the LGBT+ community. I live in North Carolina, and was horrified at the legislature's actions. I'm a cis straight woman, but many of my friends and loved ones are part of the LGBT+ community. My friends and family will tell you that I'm generally a pretty quiet, shy person, but the thought of anyone trying to endanger and humiliate the people I love makes me want to invest in hockey sticks and start kneecapping people.
That's not productive, though. What is productive is pressure on the North Carolina legislature from companies and regular citizens, both in and outside of North Carolina. This can come in the form of open letters, like the one above, donations to nonprofits that are fighting HB2 and similar measures in other states, like the Campaign for Southern Equality, and boycotting.
I want to talk about boycotting, about when and how it works, and the North Carolina context, because I see a lot of people online saying, "Those Southern bigots are getting exactly what they deserve for voting in Gov. McCrory and his bunch in the first place." The truth of our situation in North Carolina is more complex, and in order to understand how to boycott in a way that makes the most impact, you need to understand that situation.
As a North Carolinian and a librarian who watches people struggle to find work every day, it hurts to call for people to boycott our state. It's bittersweet to see large corporations standing up to our leaders by withdrawing economic development deals. Many people in my city string together two to three part-time, low-paying jobs to make ends meet, while wealthy people buy up property for investment and rent it back to us at exorbitant rates. We need jobs, and not just jobs, but industry. We need tourists, especially in hospitality industry-fueled cities like Asheville, where I live. But I still support the boycott, because boycotting can be effective. When it's done right, it accomplishes two things:
1) It sends a message to government leaders that they are out of step with modern values. It puts economic pressure on them. In short, it hits them where it hurts.
2) It sends a message to the people who will suffer under bills like HB2 that we are in solidarity with them, that we will make sacrifices to push for them to regain their liberties.
Boycotting is a noble, non-violent tradition, and as much as it hurts, I applaud the people and companies choosing to take their business elsewhere. What sometimes gets lost in the boycotting conversation, though, is the fact that there are many LGBT+ people, allies, and organizations in North Carolina actively fighting against HB2, and those people need your support.
Earlier this week, Sherman Alexie cancelled an appearance at Malaprop's Bookstore and several local schools in Asheville, NC, causing the general manager of the independent bookstore to pen this letter, published on Shelf Awareness, "Malaprops to Authors: Please Don't Boycott Us." It reads, in part,
For 34 years, we have promoted free speech, human rights and tolerance. We often suffer because of our stance: we've been the target of protests in front of our store, we've had our book choices challenged, and we've received threatening letters and phone calls from people who want us to cancel events because the views of the author are controversial. Not only do we hold these events, we protect the visiting author's right to free speech with our words and sometimes our bodies.
. . . We have hosted meetings in our store about HB2, and posted signs on our bathrooms to let everyone know they are safe to use whichever bathroom they wish. Our city council and mayor are currently considering an official statement and policy to act against state law, despite the consequences. We and our city will do what we can to repeal HB2. . .
. . . If more authors boycott NC because of HB2, we will be financially stricken. We sympathize with their stance, but we hope that authors will choose another way to protest. By protesting in this manner, targeting bookstores, they are directly hurting their fiercest allies. Please don't abandon us; we need your support now more than ever.
Malaprop's has been a part of my reading life since I moved to Asheville, NC for college in 2001, and they have supported me enthusiastically in my career as an author. For as long as I can remember, they've had an excellent LGBT+ section in their store and supported the vibrant LGBT+ community in the surrounding area. They stocked my YA novel featuring a lesbian space romance when Barnes & Noble quietly passed it over. They are an ally, a rallying point, one of the good guys.
So, if authors choose to boycott places like Malaprop's, we have to look back at those two criteria that boycotts are intended to accomplish. Is the outcome that it hits legislators where it hurts? And is it sending a message of support to the LGBT+ community?
The answer to the first question is complicated. What many people don't understand about North Carolina is that it is not the stereotypical monolithic South, and it is become less so every year. You might remember that in 2008, North Carolina went blue for Obama. This was shocking for the Republican establishment, and they set about gerrymandering and engaging in massive voter suppression efforts like the new voter I.D law to make sure they could maintain their gradually slipping control over the state. Take a look at this spectacularly gerrymandered congressional district map Republicans drew up in 2010, which allowed them to take over the NC legislature in 2012.
Look in particular at that crazypants bullshit that is District 12. If you aren't familiar with North Carolina, you might not realize that District 12 is drawn the way it is so as to clump together several large and mid-size cities, which have a higher African-American population and are far more likely to vote Democrat, thereby decreasing their representation and ensuring Republican lawmakers a majority in the legislature. The same thing is happening on a less obvious scale in other districts. For example, District 10 has developed a suspicious growth which scoops Asheville, another liberal stronghold, out of Disctrict 11.
The upshot is that the current NC legislature does not truly represent the desires of the people of the state of North Carolina. Our congressional maps are in the process of being redrawn, following a federal ruling that their current configuration was unconstitutional. Groups such as the NAACP are currently fighting North Carolina's voter ID laws in federal court and in the arena of public opinion through their "Moral Mondays" protests against the legislature's discriminatory agenda. I, for one, am looking forward to helping vote Governor McCrory and his cronies out in November.
Despite (or maybe because of) the fact that the legislature has swung so hard to the right, individual cities and counties within North Carolina have been passing non-discrimination ordinances, and prior to the federal marriage equality ruling, putting domestic partner benefits protections on the books. Which cities? Which counties? The same ones that contain large to mid-size cities and are the targets of gerrymandering: Asheville (along with Buncombe County), Bessemer City, Boone, Carrboro and Chapel Hill (along with Orange County), Charlotte (along with Mecklenburg County), Durham (along with its county of the same name), Greensboro and High Point (along with Guilford County), Raleigh, and Winston-Salem. Here is a handy graphic courtesy of Wikipedia's page on LGBT rights in North Carolina:
Many of these same places have long been a haven for the LGBT+ community in North Carolina. Asheville, for example, has enjoyed a long reputation as a welcoming place to live. In 2011, we were branded a "cesspool of sin" for our support of the LGBT+ community. (We made t-shirts!) Legislators have long since stopped caring what Asheville does, but Charlotte's passage of a non-discrimination ordinance was the catalyst for the hurried passage of HB2, which was introduced and passed all in the same day, over the protest of NC Senate Democrats.
Unfortunately, North Carolina Republicans aren't going to feel any economic impact or receive criticism from their constituents if an author boycotts an LGBT-allied independent bookstore located in a county and city renowned for their support of the LGBT+ community, which those same Republicans have long since written off for that support. There is no larger corporation or entity backing the bookstore that has pull with the NC legislature. It will not change votes come November, because the people in that community so consistently vote for progressive, LGBT-friendly candidates that the legislature has tried to gerrymander them into another district to minimize the impact of their votes.
That leaves the second question. In my view, it might still be worth going through with a boycott that could potentially hurt LGBT-friendly small businesses or municipalities if doing so sent a larger message of support to the LGBT+ community. I haven't seen an official statement from Alexie on his reasons for boycotting Malaprop's, but I suspect this was part of the rationale. On a national level, his action absolutely sends that signal. But here on the ground in North Carolina, the signal is murkier. As Linda-Marie Barret, the Malaprop's general manager points out,
. . . we have lost an opportunity to connect this charismatic, inspiring author with those young readers who were going to see him on school visits. We also lost the opportunity to host him at a large venue, which would have connected him with fans in a city that stands with him and could have used his support. Our event could have served as a platform to address an audience that would be empowered by his outrage.
Of course, different individuals in North Carolina's LGBT+ community will have different feelings about what is more inspiring and supportive - Alexie coming to speak or staying away. But several things Barret says resonate with me. Fighting a pack of intractable, unscrupulous politicians is an exhausting game of constantly-moving goalposts, years-long court battles, and legislative whack-a-mole. The people engaged in that fight need support and encouragement. There are kids in our schools - straight, gay, trans, cis - who are not served by being cut off from the cultural ideas Alexie could have brought to them. Fighting discrimination of every kind calls for a broadening of the mind through exposure to a variety of viewpoints. Cultural isolation kills the opportunity for that mindset to take root and flourish.
I don't mean to pick on Alexie, here, only to use this particular situation as an example of how the boycotting issue is not black and white. No one should come to North Carolina if they feel unsafe or unwelcome. Full stop. No questions asked. Boycotting is a powerful and useful tool, but when we implement it, we should try to understand the context in which it is taking place and analyze where the chips are most likely to fall. We need to ask ourselves whether the people who need to feel the impact of the boycott will actually feel it, and balance support of the nationwide LGBT-community with potential collateral damage to the North Carolina LGBT+ community and its allies.
If you do the math and decide boycotting is the right option, you have this North Carolinian's blessing. But don't forget to support the people fighting on the right side of history here in North Carolina. In addition to boycotting, consider throwing your support behind Equality NC, the Campaign for Southern Equality, and the North Carolina NAACP, all of whom are fighting on different fronts of this battle.
I have been wracking my brain for ways to contribute to the fight against HB2. I can and have voted and protested, but I can't participate in the boycott, since I still have to buy groceries and pay my heating bill here in North Carolina. I recently participated in a panel discussion on diversity in YA literature at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and was offered a $200 honorarium. I have decided that when I receive that money or any other payment for events in North Carolina this year, those funds will go to Equality NC. I hope other authors who live in or visit North Carolina during this difficult time will consider doing the same.