NORTH CAROLINA - The Land of the Free - or not?

The presidential elections in the United States through Flemish eyes! Today part 4: Wout Salenbien in North Carolina. "As a researcher, I was keeping track of what a certain candidate would imply for scientific funding and education."

Wout Salenbien is a PhD student in Earth and Ocean Sciences focusing on the geology and fossils of the Amazonian rain forest, at Duke University, located in Durham in the state of North Carolina: "Living in North Carolina, officially part of the Bible Belt, does not come without challenges but yet I have come to love this place!"

Climate and energy policies

Prior to starting my PhD in the US, politics was at the very bottom of my interest list. From the few topics I would actually pay attention to - climate & energy policy mostly - I came to regard politics as a bunch of poorly-educated attention seekers, making much ado over nothing at all. This was probably largely due to my own ignorance on the topics, but still.

Concealed guns

The moment I started taking an interest in politics is when I found myself in the situation where new laws were directly affecting my current and future career opportunities. As a researcher, you are largely dependent on research grants to work on projects, and this is mostly tax payer money.

Suddenly I was keeping track of what a certain candidate would imply for scientific funding and education, and it is only a short leap to other issues from there on. How will immigration reform look like? What’s the deal with healthcare? Is the guy next to carrying a concealed gun when I am sipping on a beer at a bar? Who do I encounter in my bath room?

The Bathroom Bill

This last example brings me to the topic I’d like to delve into a bit more, since it is a hot topic after the enactment of the HB2 (House Bill 2) act in North Carolina, a bill which has caused quite a stir around the whole nation, being enacted during the primary elections season.

For those who are not familiar with HB2 – or the bathroom bill – this is what the bill pretends to be: a bill to improve the safety in bathrooms and changing facilities by regulating that you can only use the facilities designated by your sex as stated on your birth certificate.


In practice, this forbids transgender people to use the bathroom of the sex they identify with, effectively discriminating against them. Furthermore, the language in the bill allows for discriminating and even firing employees over their sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity and religion.

It also prohibits setting local minimum wages, or even regulating child labor practices. On top of all that, HB2 forbids and overrules local governments to enact any legislation that would provide anti-discrimination protection.

Travel warning from the U.K.

The backlash against North Carolina has – understandably - been enormous: lawsuits from the US Department of Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union, and many others, to the NC Attorney General not supporting the bill, to various private protests and petitions.

A lot of companies have pulled out of North Carolina after the bill passed, including the NBA and PayPal. The UK even issued a travel warning for North Carolina and Mississippi for LGBTQ people.

Trump and Clinton on the matter

In cities that used to have anti-discrimination laws, such as Durham (my temporary hometown), many restrooms proudly bear signs that declare them unisex, or just define them by type of toilet (stalls & urinoirs, or stalls only).

The schism between supporting and repelling HB2 is a strong bipartisan one, with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders openly condemning the bill, whereas Donald Trump and Ted Cruz as Republican counterparts see the bill as perfectly reasonable.

Coming to the US with a European worldview and set of values, it is incredible to see this type of discussion take place around you, and at times just impossible to wrap your head around the amount of legislative control on personal choices, especially for a country that claims to be free of all that. In the meantime, I just smile and say hi to whomever I see in the bathroom.

Up next: Tennessee!

Tomorrow part 5: Emma writing us from Tennessee and her experience there at college.

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