RALEIGH — Thousands of demonstrators descended on the state capitol Monday for the first day of the North Carolina General Assembly’s short session. The flashpoint: House Bill 2.

Throughout the day, opponents of the law held mass rallies and sit-ins, delivered petitions to lawmakers and were arrested in acts of civil disobedience. They called for full repeal of the law, passed last month, which excludes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from statewide anti-discrimination protections and requires transgender people to use restrooms matching the sex on their birth certificate.

Supporters of the law also showed up in force, urging the Republican majority in Raleigh to stand strong against calls to change or repeal the law.

A group of Democratic lawmakers filed a bill to fully repeal HB 2.

“It is never too late to do the right thing,” N.C. Rep. Darren Jackson (D-Wake) explained.

The leaders of the General Assembly’s Republican majority have said they have no intention of repealing the law, which has generated international headlines since its passage. It has also drawn condemnation from more than 180 CEOs, including leaders of some of North Carolina’s largest employers and groups like the NBA and NASCAR.

The repeal bill’s announcement followed a press conference by leaders of LGBT and black advocacy groups Monday morning.

Protesters said they delivered more than 185,000 petition signatures calling for the legislature to repeal the law.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s office issued a press release later in the day claiming that number was inflated and that most of the signatures came from people living outside the state.

Chris Sgro, the executive director of LGBT advocacy group Equality NC, was sworn in as a state representative on Sunday, finishing the term of the late Rep. Ralph Johnson. He spoke at the press conference Monday, vowing to not only push for repeal of HB 2 but to file legislation that would extend existing anti-discrimination protections to LGBT people statewide.

Sgro said when he took his oath as a state representative it was to represent all North Carolinians.

“Over the last month, business leaders, entertainers, advocates and everyday North Carolinians have mobilized and called for the repeal of HB 2,” Sgro said. “The only way to restore North Carolina’s reputation is to repeal all of HB 2 and pass comprehensive nondiscrimination protections that protect all North Carolinians.”

The Rev. William Barber, state president of the NAACP, also spoke at the press conference, which drew a large and enthusiastic crowd.

Barber said HB 2 has been oversimplified as a “bathroom bill,” which only serves to obscure its provisions preventing cities from setting their own anti-discrimination policies and not allowing discrimination lawsuits in state court even for protected classes like race, sex and age.

“This is not a bathroom bill,” Barber said. “But there is a lot of stuff in there that ought to be thrown in the outhouse.”

Micky Bradford, a transgender activist, said people across North Carolina and the South “have to organize to live free from fear.”

Protesters kept up the pressure well into Monday evening, massing outside the offices of Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore. Fifty-four demonstrators were arrested when they refused to leave, according to capitol police.

Among them was the Rev. Julie Peeples of Greensboro’s Congregational United Church of Christ.

Like many others, Peeples was escorted from the building with her hands bound with zip ties. Most were charged with trespassing. One man, who went limp and had to be carried out by police, was charged with resisting arrest.

“Today, has been great because it brought together such a huge diversity of people who oppose this bill,” Peeples said. “It’s brought together people who might otherwise not have a lot in common.”

Payton McGarry agreed. The 20-year-old transgender UNC-Greensboro student is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit over HB 2.

“It isn’t just a movement for (transgender) rights, it’s a movement for human rights,” McGarry said.

Opponents of the law weren’t the only ones making themselves heard Monday.

Nearly 2,000 people rallied at noon on the Halifax Mall, just north of the legislative building downtown.

HB 2 supporters said the rally was a strong signal of their support for McCrory and the Republican majority.

“What we’re talking about is a law that reaffirms what most honest, everyday people already know,” said Gail Bunton, 38, of Surry County. “Men should go to the men’s room and women should go to the women’s room. If anybody is confused about whether they are a man or a woman, that is not my business. But I should not have to go to the bathroom next to someone who is biologically male because of their feelings. Neither should my children.”

Charmen Ledford, 46, came from Sanford for the rally. She said the issue isn’t transgender people — it’s people who might abuse the law.

“I, in no way, think that transgender people are pedophiles or bad people,” Ledford said. “But I think bad people will be able to say they’re transgender and use the law to their advantage.”

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(c)2016 the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.)

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